Childfree and Flourishing

Happy International Childfree Day!

On this occasion, when we are celebrating the lives of those who are intentionally without children, I thought it might be useful to think through what it means to flourish as a human being. Human flourishing is not just a question of personal happiness, and does not consist solely in positive emotion, or in individual autonomy. In his fascinating book Our Grandchildren Redesigned, Michael Bess posits ten elements of human flourishing:

Individual dimension

  • Security

  • Dignity

  • Autonomy

  • Personal fulfillment

  • Authenticity

  • Pursuit of practical wisdom

Societal dimension

  • Fairness

  • Interpersonal connectedness

  • Civic engagement

  • Transcendence

The individual dimension focuses on our individual person, though none of these elements can exist outside of the social world. Security refers to food, shelter, and a basic level of safety. Dignity includes respect for one’s person and life. To me, it also requires that we make an effort to see the world from the perspective of others and to respect that they may have a different point of view. Autonomy refers to the ability to exercise separate control over one’s thoughts and action, to navigate the world effectively and exert some measure of control over one’s life circumstances. Personal fulfillment, for Bess, comes from Aristotle’s notion that we should be able to freely develop and use our talents, our curiosity, our imagination, our virtue, our appreciation of beauty. Nobody can tell us what this personal fulfillment must be; it is something we cultivate for ourselves—but it is also shaped by the people we know and the histories we find ourselves in. Yet, while we recognize that we are shaped by others, we also strive for authenticity, the characteristic of being true to oneself. We thrive when we know ourselves and own who we are to ourselves, and become the person we are for ourselves. “Authenticity requires that we be critically aware of this slippery, dual nature of our personhood,” Bess writes, “and that we aspire to be more than just a chameleon like creature, constantly adapting our identity to conform to external norms or models.” Cultivating the true self, the real me, is a challenge for all humans. The final individual dimension, the pursuit of practical wisdom, entails learning from one’s experiences, growing from adversity, coping with change and loss. Perhaps the most important piece of practical wisdom a person can acquire is the acceptance of limits and mortality.

The societal dimension of human thriving concerns more directly our interactions with others. The element of fairness demands some kind of equity and reciprocity in human affairs. Interpersonal connectedness is the requirement that we have some kind of social standing and meaningful close relationships, while civic engagement encompasses the ways in which we contribute to and interact with those outside our immediate circles. We flourish as well, Bess tells us, when we experience the transcendent. This connection to something greater than ourselves may take the form of a spiritual orientation, a religious or faith tradition, or a commitment to ideals, causes or movements beyond one’s own concerns.

Bess isn't writing about childfree people in particular. But his thoughtful framework for human flourishing suggests how all of us--the childfree included--can not only celebrate our different choices but also thrive.

Michael Bess, Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future (New York: Beacon Press, 2015), 78-82.


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© 2016 by Rachel Chrastil