Friday, December 17, 2010

Easier Said Than Done...But Good To Know and Practice


This year, Jack is eight and it's an amazing, dare I say, "perfect" age. He is still an innocent, so full of love and sweetness and hope, and yet, his mind is shockingly astute. He possesses the ability to appreciate subtle humor and sarcasm—as well as the overt slapstick and gross-out jokes that all kids enjoy. We have real conversations now about life and death and everything in between. Not that these musings last more than a few minutes, but when they do happen, it's astounding. It's so easy to look at Jack and think That's my kid! He's got my nose, and my ability for math, and my stubborn streak. 
   But in truth, as Kahlil Gibran writes in his beautiful verse On Children, Jack is not mine anymore than the air is mine. Yes, we share DNA. I carried him into this world. I have nurtured and loved and cared for his every need since before he was born, but he does not belong to me. It's easy for parents to feel that their children are their possessions, but that is folly. It's easy for parents to heap all sorts of attachment on their children, too, and that is equally foolish. You can hope and pray that your child becomes a happy, successful person, and you can give them all the advantages in your power to help them turn out that way, but at the end of the day, they will become individuals beyond your reckoning. And although, yes, they need you now to provide them with food and shelter and love, all too soon will come a day when they do not need you at all. And that is the real gift that children provide us: The opportunity to love unconditionally. In case you've forgotten, here's an excerpt from Gibran's poem. It's beautiful, and says it all.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

   When Jack was born, it was—hands down—the happiest day of my life. I was filled with this undiluted joy when I first held him in my arms and saw his little face. And I did think That's my nose. That's my mouth, but I was also filled with awe, thinking, There is a new life on this earth and it's that the most remarkable thing ever, and how did I become so fortunate to have this experience?
   And after the awe waned, as the parent of a newborn, I was overcome by an almost paralyzing anxiety that washed over me when we were driving Jack home from the hospital that first time. It was not fear that I could not change the diaper on this tiny, squirming, yet seemingly fragile new life, rather, it was the overwhelming sense of dread that this beautiful baby could be taken from me in an instant. Having a child made me vulnerable in a way I had never been before: For the first time in my life, I really had something of value to lose. What if we were in a car wreck? What if Jack just stopped breathing? What if he suffocated under a pillow in our bed? What if he were taken from me?
   The instinct to protect our young is inherent in all mammals, but humans can get obsessed about it, just as we obsess about everything else. Of course, you cannot go through life paralyzed by fear of loss. Sure, you can take precautions to safeguard your children, but there comes a point where you just can't protect them from life. Slowly, I saw that Jack was resilient and hearty and he came with lots of autonomic reflexes built in—just as G.I. Joe came with Kung-Fu grip. At a point, I had to stop reading all the horror stories about SIDS and other horrific things that can happen, and just enjoy my baby. I can't tell you exactly how I let go of those fears, but I suspect it had something to do with self-preservation of my sanity, and the fact that babies are demanding. It's hard to be paralyzed with fear—or be or do anything else—when an infant is squalling at the top of their little lungs for food or a diaper change.
   Although we may not look at it this way, out of the gate, children seek their independence, just as baby sea turtles instinctively make their way from their warm sandy nest to the tenuous ocean's edge. There is no stopping them. Babies can't wait to get mobile, to rollover, to sit, to crawl, to stand, to walk, to run. And it all happens with amazing speed, really. Perhaps that's why parents sometimes try to slow the process down and end up heaping attachment or expectations on their children and weigh them down with the one thing that will stymie their growth: anxiety.
   Yes, anxiety. Anxiety is the fear of not being able to live up to what you perceive are expectations of you. In extreme circumstances, anxiety becomes a neurological disorder, which can manifest itself in many different ways, but this definition is a good, general one that sums it up nicely. The Venerable Thubten Chodron (whom I quote frequently) writes of anxiety in relation to Buddhist practice: Anxiety is very intricately related to self-centeredness. And this makes sense too, because anxiety stems from your perception of how the world effects you. And how easy it is for parents (me included) to make our children feel like they are the center of the universe because they are the center of our universe. Ah-ha! It's all coming together now, right?
   At some point, we must let our children go—hopefully sometime after they are fully potty trained, because if any sooner, that would just be disgusting—and become the individuals they are. Fortunately, this process happens slowly. And letting go of your child, as difficult as that might seem, makes life more pleasant for you as an individual, too.
   We feel so much for our children, but it's not fair to attribute our own hopes, fears and emotions to them. A friend recently told me that his two-year-old son was profoundly upset over the family's upcoming move because he would miss the old house. I thought for a moment, before gently reminding him that a two-year old—no matter how genius—could not possibly possess such a sophisticated sense of nostalgia, or even a sense of loss, over simply seeing belongings being relegated to boxes. I suspected my friend was anxious about the move himself, how it might effect his dear son, if it this the right move, etc., all the normal worries we have when we make a major change in our lives—or sign a 30-year mortgage. Doubtful that the son was plagued with anxiety over more than Where the hell is my favorite toy? Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps this child is uberkind incarnate, but I think it's a good example of how we, as parents, tend to project ourselves, our fears and concerns, onto our children, for good and for ill. So best to check those inclinations at the door, settle back and allow our children to feel and think whatever it is they will. For they will, you know, sooner or later.
   I'm not saying let them run wild, or stop brushing their teeth, or reading books, or doing their chores, or even allow them to pick their darling little noses. By letting go, we are simply taking the owness of expectation and attachment off of them. It's probably the greatest gift a parent can give a child: To love unconditionally, without need of anything in return. And the more remarkable part is this basic sense of unconditional love takes very little effort for most parents to accomplish with their children, it is just there. So, when thinking of Buddhist practice and how we strive to forego attachment and extend loving kindness and compassion to everyone, without expectation, this lovely parent-child relationship can become an example. And this is just a theory, but once you know how unconditional love feels it may be easier to extend that love out to others.
   You say, This sounds like an interesting theory, but can you really do it? Well, I think I'm on my way.

   When Jack entered first grade, I started a little experiment. Each day I walked him to school, all the way up to the door, holding his little hand. At the entrance of the school, I would kiss him on each cheek tell  him I loved him, and wish him a good day. The experiment was this: How long will it take for Jack to disallow me this pleasure of walking him all the way up to the school entrance, hand in hand?
   We got through first grade, no problem. Never a hesitation on Jack's part. In fact, there seemed to be insistence that we maintain our morning drop-off ritual.
   We got through second grade, almost. Although during the final week of school, one fine, warm morning, as we were walking up to the door, Jack spotted a friend and started chatting, and he dropped my hand. After a few steps, he turned to me and asked, Can I walk with Brady? Sure, I replied, and I felt a little tug on my heart.
  Then, during the first week of third grade, Jack turned to me and said After we cross the street, can I walk the rest of the way by myself? It's a block. A small city block—not a Manhattan block—with a sidewalk lined with tidy, old houses and well-kempt yards. I can see the crossing guard at the next corner, right in front of the school, and hordes of children and their parents are also in route. It's a safe block, as safe as any in this world. Sure, I replied, and I stood and watched him take off, running away from me and into his future.
  Yes, he is my son in temperament and spirit. He has my nose and my dipple in his cheek and the same silly sense of humor, but he is his own person, too. And thank God, we have at least another 10 years for us to let each other go.

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