In 2017, I was 31 and living in Kensington, working as an editor at London Bridge, partying in Paris on my weekends, and it felt as if the whole modern, liberal order was tailor made for me. As a teenager, I had made my way from Iran to the United States, to a trailer park in a small university town. From there, I had been catapulted to the world of opinion journalism in New York and was soon transferred to London.
And yet I felt racked by an overwhelming anxiety: the anxiety of fatherhood. An immigrant isn’t supposed to complain about the society that gave him refuge. That is what I am: an immigrant, a radically assimilated one at that – who nonetheless harbours fundamental doubts about the society that gave him refuge.
At first, I revelled in the chance Western society gave me to remake myself anew each day. I could be a black-clad high-school misfit, a college socialist, a law-school neocon. I could dabble in drugs and build an identity around my dabbling. I could get a girlfriend, cheat on her, dump her willy-nilly and build a pseudo-identity around that, too. All along, it outraged me to recall there were people still trapped in societies that didn’t permit such experiments in self-definition.
But that year, when my wife and I learned we were expecting our first child, Maximilian, my mind began to take an unexpected turn. I had already converted to Catholicism in 2016. But fatherhood brought with it new convictions, stronger than any of the ideologies I’d flirted with in my 20s.
I came to believe that the very modes of life and thinking that strike most people in the West as “limiting” can liberate us, while the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits is, in fact, a prison; that the quest to define ourselves on our own is a kind of El Dorado, driving to madness the many who seek after it; that for our best, highest selves to soar, other parts of us must be tied down, enclosed, limited, bound.
These are the paradoxical arguments at the heart of my new book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. To explain why I believe in them so dearly, I first have to tell you about a different Maximilian, the one my son is named after. Born to a pious family in central Poland in 1894, Maximilian Kolbe joined the Franciscans at age 16. Following doctoral studies in Rome and ordination as a priest, Kolbe returned to his homeland, where he started a newspaper, a radio station and a monastic community outside Warsaw. He campaigned against Communism and secularism and went on far-flung missions to the Far East.
Then came the German invasion of Poland and, with it, Kolbe’s finest hour. In 1941, the Nazis arrested and sent him to Auschwitz; Father Maximilian Mary Kolbe became prisoner number 16670.
One night in July, an inmate escaped from Kolbe’s block. The camp’s deputy commandant, Karl Fritzsch, carried out his protocol for when inmates escaped: randomly selecting ten men to die of starvation as collective punishment for the one escapee. Kolbe wasn’t among those chosen to die. But when he heard one of the condemned cry out, “My wife! My children!”, the priest stepped forward.
“What does this Polish pig want?” Fritzsch asked. Kolbe replied, “I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” And so he did, laying down his life for a complete stranger at Auschwitz.
Once I learned this story, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It wasn’t the kind of account one could read and then calmly set aside.
I could, if I tried, put myself in the shoes of the condemned men, standing in terror while their fates seesawed on the whims of a monster like Fritzsch. I could imagine taking a deep sigh of relief when Fritzsch passed me over on the line and allowed me to live. As a father-to-be, I could also imagine how it would have felt to be the prisoner Kolbe saved. But to be the man who volunteers to step into the shoes of one condemned – now, that was something else.
What gripped me the most was how Kolbe’s sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. Indeed, Kolbe climbed the very summit of human freedom. And he did this precisely by denying himself, by binding himself to the moral absolutes of the Catholic Church and the love of the Cross. His apparent surrender became his triumph. Into that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe radiated what it means to be fully human.
Yet Kolbe’s brand of freedom is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails in the West today. Plenty of people carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. But the animating logic of the West, if taken to its logical conclusion, renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible.
Our version of freedom sprang from the European Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that “sought to liberate man from the dead hand of tradition”, as one historian of ideas has written. For the Enlightenment thinkers, what people did with their freedom mattered less than their being generally unrestrained: to marry or to divorce; to worship or blaspheme; to serve others or to hoard wealth.
Three centuries later, most of us take it for granted that liberty means being able to select how we live from the widest possible range of options. Our goals are self-gratification and “wellbeing”, and we are free to pursue the life we think will
gratify us best.
But if that is the ideal, then why should anyone voluntarily accept a life of poverty, vow absolute obedience to a religious superior, and embark on arduous foreign missions to preach his faith, as Kolbe did? Why should he lay down his life for a complete stranger? Our conception of freedom can’t make good sense of a vast range of ties that bound traditional peoples: folkways and folk wisdom, family loyalty, unchosen religious obligations such as baptism and circumcision, rule-bound forms of worship, and, above all, submission to moral and spiritual authorities.
We have abandoned Kolbe’s brand of freedom – rooted in self-surrender, sustained by the authority of tradition and religion – in favour of one that glories in the individual will.
Which brings me to the second Maximilian. When I began writing The Unbroken Thread, this other Max was a little more than two years old. He was born in the West to immigrants from Iran (me) and China (my wife). Born into ancient civilisations, we, his parents, were untethered from their founding traditions. In my wife’s case, this owed more to Mao’s Cultural Revolution than her conscious choices, whereas I had deliberately rejected my traditional inheritance while I was still enmeshed in it.
I associated tradition with backwardness and mullahs’ oppressive regime. I yearned for the colourful, sexualised culture of the 1990s, which I glimpsed in Tehran thanks to an illegal satellite dish we had installed on our roof. Then, in 1998, I got the chance to immigrate to the United States and became an American by choice a decade later. Since then, America has fulfilled its promise to me, and then some.
I’m a member of the global creative class, and I enjoy greater moral choice than any of my ancestors could have imagined. And yet, as I said, bringing my child into this world and raising him in it filled me with anxiety.
A radically assimilated immigrant isn’t supposed to complain about his Western freedom. Yet as I grow into my faith and my role as a father, I tremble over the prospect of my son’s growing up in an order that doesn’t erect any barriers against individual appetites and, if anything, goes out of its way to demolish existing barriers. I wonder: What kind of a man will contemporary Western culture chisel out of my son? Which
ideals should I pass on to him, against the cynicism of our age?
My bad dream is that my Max will inherit his parents’ elite status but without any sense of moral purpose, without being anchored in any permanent ideals of the kind that animated his patron saint in the Church. Naming my son after Maximilian Kolbe was an act of faith in tradition and continuity, an attempt to lasso and tie my son to ideals that stretch backward from Kolbe’s sacrifice, through the whole Western tradition, all the way to the Gospels and the Hebrew Bible.
The name was to my mind a sort of thread, tying my progeny to tradition. At age 47, Maximilian Kolbe laid down his life for a stranger at Auschwitz. What if my Max at age 47 is touring Europe with his girlfriend in a luxury electric RV, the two of them having cohabited on and off for nearly a decade now, with no intention to marry, much less have children?
And this is the relatively optimistic scenario. It assumes that Max hasn’t succumbed to opioids or high-end synthetic drugs. It assumes he hasn’t become one of those young men who spend months and years shut in their bedrooms, playing videogames and browsing the web. The Japanese call them hikikomori, though the phenomenon sadly spans the whole developed world.
“Dad, I’m happy!” he insists, if and when he permits us to talk about his life. And the worst part of it is, he might be telling the truth. He may not even know what he has missed: the thrill of meditating on the Psalms and wondering if they were written just for him; the peace of mind that comes with regularly going to Confession and leaving the accumulated baggage of his guilt behind; the joy of binding himself to one other soul, and only that one, in marriage; that awesome instant when the nurses hand him a newborn baby, his own. Having kept his “options open” his whole life, in this imaginary scenario, he hasn’t bound himself to anything greater than himself and, therefore, hasn’t exercised human freedom as his namesake understood it.
These are the anxieties that prompted me to write a book urging a recovery of the West’s great traditions: the capital “T” Tradition. The Roman church, yes, but also the wisdom
contained in the Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Confucian, Greco-Roman and even feminist traditions.
And I suspect mine is a shared dilemma, for the symptoms of cultural disorder affect us all: from precipitous demographic decline to astronomical divorce rates; from the opioid epidemic to explosive racial, sexual and class animus; from the unprecedented rate of people spending their twilight years without any loved ones to hold their hands to our increasingly dysfunctional politics. If any of these phenomena have even marginally touched your own life, then chances are, you share my anxieties. You, too, fret about the fate of that thread.
This essay was adapted from The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, which is published by Hodder & Stoughton
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