The President's Council on Bioethics click here to skip navigation


Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics

Chapter 6: Among the Generations

We began this section by considering our embodiment. Then, in the last chapter, we read about the progress of our embodied lives, beginning with childhood, and moving through youth, maturity, and old age to death. In the final image of that chapter, at the conclusion of Liam O’Flaherty’s “Life,” a very old man lay lifeless on the ground.

In this chapter we address the question that naturally follows such an image: What, then, is left to us? Is human life nothing more than the relentless movement toward death?

That the human race has not been crippled by despair over this question is thanks largely to our faith—not universal but widespread—that we are not only bodies. Death is the end of the corporeal individual, but throughout history and around the world, human beings have held fast to the belief that our non-embodied selves, or souls, are eternal.

However, our embodiment, too, offers its own promise of eternity, one that is at odds neither with religious faith nor with the lack of it. This promise is of renewal, and it, too, is eloquently expressed at the end of “Life,” as his infant grandson hops beside the dead old man, “shouting merrily.” Like most of us, before he died the old man had generated. He did not live and perish alone; rather, he made himself a link in the branching chain of generations, a link distinct from his ancestors and descendants but connected to them.

Readings in this chapter are about the experience and the meaning of human renewal, and our obligations to those who came before us and those who will come after.

Renewal, of course, produces a new individual and is not the same as replacement. We bring our children into the world, but we do not determine who they will be. In our first reading, from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, we see that even well-prepared parents can be caught off guard by this reality. Our second reading, from George Eliot’s Silas Marner, reminds us that it is not necessary to give birth to a child to participate in the great work of transmitting the wisdom of one generation to the next. The renewal of life and the assurance of its continuance is not a labor of a few hours, but a task for many years, and is shared by adoptive parents as well. Our third reading, however, returns to the act of procreation and the creation of a family. What do the parents in Galway Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” really hear?

In our last three readings, adults look backward to their progenitors, as well as forward to their children. In an excerpt from his memoir, The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff struggles with the memory of a father he could not trust, while trying to be a different sort of father to his own two sons. A pregnant new wife in an excerpt from Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter begins to perceive a connection between her husband’s failure to preserve his inherited estate for his children and his ignorance of his family’s past. Finally, two excerpts from The Iliad of Homer illustrate the importance of knowing and honoring one’s ancestors for finding one’s own place in the world, and for forging a place for one’s children, as well.


Sample Reading

After Making Love We Hear Footsteps

by Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell’s poem invites us to ponder the procreative meaning of love-making by focusing on the mysterious bonds between a child and his parents and between the parents themselves in relation to their child. The poet describes how his son Fergus, ever a sound sleeper, imperturbable even by his father’s raucous noises, is uncannily roused from sleep by the sounds of his parents’ love-making and comes running to “flop down” between them in the marital bed. The poem concludes by recounting the reaction of the parents/lovers to Fergus’s “return” into their embrace.

We are moved to ask many questions, about both child and parents. What sort of a boy is Fergus? Why do only these sounds “sing [him] awake”? Why does he come running? What is the “habit of memory” that propels him “to the ground of his making”? Why is it that, lying beneath his parents’ arms and snuggled back to sleep, his face is “gleam[ing] with satisfaction at being this very child”?

Fergus’s face may beam satisfaction, but his parents smile. They can sense how important their presence is to him; but he cannot know what he means to them. What does the poet mean by calling the sounds of love-making “mortal sounds,” and in what senses are they capable of “singing awake” the sleeping child? Is it only their son’s footsteps that the love-makers hear, or do they also hear footsteps of the “grim reaper,” as it were, “behind” them? Would immortal beings hear footsteps? Would their sexual activity be “making love”? What enables the parents to see Fergus as a blessing, as “this blessing,” and as a “gift of love”—and do they see rightly? In the last line, what is the meaning of “again”? When did their embrace first accept the gift of Fergus?

Does this understanding of the meaning of love-making require hearing (or being prepared to hear) the footsteps of one’s own child?


For I can snore like a bullhorn
Or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one day may make him wonder
about the mental capacity of baseball players—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.
In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across his little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.~


"After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" from MORTAL ACTS, MORTAL WOUNDS by Galway Kinnell. Copyright © 1980 by Galway Kinnell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.



  - The President's Council on Bioethics -  
Home Site Map Disclaimers Privacy Notice Accessibility NBAC HHS