The Baby in the Playpen


Yesterday, after a day of considerable emotional turmoil, I went to pick up my son from his friend’s house. He needed to pack up his computer, so I hung out in the living room for a while, where there was a cute little baby, 13 months old. For privacy’s sake I’ll call him Loren.Loren was all by himself in that room while his grandmother – his main caregiver – was feeding dinner to his brothers. Loren was in a playpen, with the television on. He was standing up, holding himself steady on the fence, looking over it at me with a curious expression.

I fell in love right away. I started talking to him in cooing tones, “Are you just the cutest little baby around? Yes you are!” I can’t remember what else I said, but I kept talking and he smiled at me, a wide pure smile.

His grandmother came in and explained how he loves Sesame Street, and how she just can’t manage if he is crawling all over the place. I think she was feeling apologetic about having Loren in a playpen all the time. “His mother takes him out when she’s around,” she said, “but then he gets used to being out, and he’ll wail when I have to put him back in. Now he’s used to it.”

I asked if I could hold him. She picked him up and said, “It’s OK with me, but he usually doesn’t like...” She didn’t finish her sentence because by then he was reaching his little arms out to me. I took him and feeling a bit emotional I talked and cooed to him some more. He smiled at me again. After a minute he’d had enough of this strange man, and I handed him back to his grandmother. Back into the playpen he went.

I left feeling full, grateful, and sad. Sad because this poor baby is penned up for hours a day, exposed to television (not good for the developing brain), bereft of the rich social environment that would be normal in the times of tribe and village. Sad because of the frayed social fabric that has cast grandmothers and mothers into a world of isolated, lonely, often thankless caregiving. Full because of the powerful sense of connection I had with that baby; grateful because it came so easily and simply, unbidden on a hard day. It was like a shaft of light that pierces dark clouds and reminds one that the sun is always there behind them.

The sun is always there behind them. I’d been wrestling all day with feelings of doubt about the online course that began the day before with some technical difficulties and that triggered some intense criticism from a few of the participants. Despite 90% of the feedback being positive, those few criticisms fed my own inner critic and led me to question, painfully, the value of my work as a whole, as well as my authenticity as a teacher. Maybe you too have had those moments where it seems that everything you have ever done was just an elaborate pursuit of one egoic goal after another.

Now dear reader, please don’t hasten to assure me that my work is valuable – surely, part of its value is that I sometimes seriously question its value. I am not fishing for compliments. I mention my moment of doubt (well, hours of doubt) here because in its context, I received a special gift from Loren. It took the form of the following realization:

If I accomplished nothing else today, I gladdened a baby for a few minutes. I wonder when I am on my deathbed whether I will realize that those moments were actually why I was here on this earth, and not my "work" or anything like that. Maybe everything that seems important is just the vehicle for my real purpose, which lies in the individual interactions. Each moment is equally important. Maybe on my deathbed I will revisit the story that I inhabited for much of today, Charles the fraud, and it will seem true, yet redeemed by those moments I took time to love a baby.

That experience of pure love, impossible to stuff into the narrative of “everything I do comes from ego,” was that ray of light shining through the clouds, reminding me of the existence of the sun. The sun, love, always present, always in me, responsible, ultimately, even for the shadows.

Perhaps even our most self-aggrandizing, manipulative actions are just densely contorted expressions of love trying to shine forth. The grandmother, doing her best to manage according to her knowledge and capabilities. The mother who wasn’t present, out there trying to make sense of her life. Charles, sallying forth with the confidence of a neophyte, beautifully ignorant of the trials ahead. And the baby, stuck in his playpen, trying to make sense of his condition. Who knows what adaptations he will make to a world that falls so short of meeting his simple human needs? Who knows how it will contort his innocence? Who knows what terrible and beautiful things he will do, and do his best, as he strives to express his love? I left feeling sad, because that baby is all of us; full, full of compassion for our condition; grateful, grateful for that glimpse of the sun that irradiates all.


  1. Thank you for your beautiful words. I listened to you on Super Soul this weekend and was deeply touched by the conversation.

    I too have doubts sometimes about my work. I often find my real work happens in the simple interactions I have with others. This story made me smile and reminds me I am not alone in finding joy in those little moments.

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