When The Superego Rules

After I graduated from college, I was accepted for a full-time internship at an environmental education camp. In exchange for assistant-teaching busloads of school children, I received a one hundred dollar stipend each month and a room in a dilapidated house that had served as a safe haven on the Underground Railroad. In retrospect, being accepted for this internship was probably not much of a coup. A hundred dollars a month, and we had to buy our own food. Who goes after a position with such limited prospects and so little money?

But we were young, idealistic and self-righteous. Insufferable, maybe. We agreed on our first day to buy only food whose waste was compostable or recyclable. No plastic packaging. We agreed to conserve water by never flushing the toilet if it only contained urine. We agreed that we respected all living creatures, so we would kill nothing. Wasps crawled along the insides of rotting window frames, spiders hung in corners, and centipedes scurried across the kitchen floor. I loved it. I honestly wondered why other people chose to be so morally bankrupt by treading more heavily on the earth.

One weekend my father came to visit me. I was so proud to show him how I lived! But then he put his head in his hands and began to weep. He, a man born into dire poverty, told me through tears that he had worked his entire life so that I would never have to live like this.

I think about that time in my life and try to make sense of what changed—especially on days like the one last week when I pointed to the swarming yellow jackets outside my bedroom window and begged the exterminator to do whatever it took to destroy their nest inside my wall. Kill the queen and send me a bill; no questions asked! My father would have been proud. My former self silently reproaches me with a withering stare, and I return the stare with a plea for compassion.

What happened? Maturation, I suppose. The compromises that attend increased responsibility; the compromises necessary to sustain a marriage; the compromises that arise from competing priorities and diminished clarity about both the means and the ends; the compromises rooted in fatigue. The old me fermented my own yogurt and spoke to block clubs about the evils of single-serve packaging. Now my children grab their flavored yogurt cups, their baby carrots with the nutrients pre-peeled into (what I hope is) an industrial compost bin, and their individually wrapped granola bars. All I want now in order to feel ethically validated is for them to remember to throw the packaging into a garbage can instead of onto a counter.

I try to remember how dominant my own superego was when Sam starts in on one of her causes. Because she’s autistic, we attribute her behavior to rigidity, to being stuck, to her inability to contextualize her imperatives. We never attribute it to adolescence or, more dangerously, to facing a reality most of us choose to ignore. She insists that we let professional painters repaint Kelly’s room, because otherwise the professional painters will starve and eat garbage from dumpsters. We can’t dress in ancient Egyptian garb for Halloween because cultural appropriation is always wrong.  We are supposed to avoid down coats and comforters in order to protect the geese. Most importantly, we should never spay or neuter our pets. Sam says that we as a civilization will not have truly renounced eugenics until we stop deciding which creatures are allowed to reproduce. After all, who is to stop someone from saying she cannot be allowed to reproduce?

We try to assuage her concerns with information about the problems of an exploding feral cat population and statistics about the killing of songbirds. We talk about the nasty, brutish and short lives of many stray cats. We remind her that she is a human being, not a pet cat.

And yet . . . I remember when one of the teachers at Sam’s elementary school asked if I planned to have Sam’s tubes tied. Her own niece had suffered brain damage during birth due to oxygen deprivation, and her sister had the foresight to have the child’s ovaries removed during an appendectomy. Though Sam’s friends and family reject the idea, Sam seems to understand that her status in society is more precarious than that of most people she knows. No wonder she identifies so closely with more vulnerable creatures.

All of Sam’s rigid ethical precepts have some basis in historical fact. The rigidity may be due in part to her autism, but it also derives from the moral certainty granted only to young adults. She expresses her concerns differently than many of her peers; however, the fact of her concerns arises from her refusal/inability to construct the same distinctions most of us create in order to make our lives more comfortable. Even though it exhausts me as a parent, I find her thinking to be refreshing. The old me must still lurk within my soul somewhere.