To My Son,
You’re doing it. You’re living through a pandemic. You aren’t even tall enough to reach the place where we put the TV remote, but you’re doing something now that whole generations of people have never had to do. I marvel at you and your brother’s strength and resilience. If you wanted to know, I am feeling tired and discouraged of the way things have been for the last year of our lives. I’m tired of the constant threat. I’m tired of trying to construct an alternate universe– called our “home”– to shield you from despair. I think you are tired of it as well. And yet, here we are, with the greatest task of our lives at this time being carrying on in hope.
One of the things I love about you is your inquisitive nature. And because you are naturally inquisitive, you’ve been asking good questions and exercising your doubt muscle. I think it’s important to think of doubt as a muscle because the strengthening of our convictions about the order of reality leads us to live more honestly with ourselves and with others. If we just accept the version of reality that is dumped on our plates like mystery meat at a cafeteria (something you’ve yet to experience), we can sometimes find ourselves living a lie. It may be a happy lie, but I value you and your brother too much to let you live that way.
We send you to a Christian school, and it fills me with joy that you are not content with the “easy” answers that most teachers are comfortable in giving you. I’ve never once felt relief that your school is supposedly teaching you the principles of the Christian faith because I want more for you and your brother than the pat answers that get you gold stars (along with Skyflake crackers and grape juice) in Sunday School. I know you also like the chapels because the staff at the school are genuinely caring and creative, but I also see that they don’t engage you in the way I think you are seeking. It’s not that they’re not capable or that there isn’t space for this kind of inquiry in your classroom, but I don’t think it’s at the forefront of a teacher’s concerns when there’s all sorts of other things going on. And, I might say, not every kid is going to be able to go to the depths you can. I don’t quite know how you became this way, but one of your gifts is the ability to think deeply and thoroughly about everything. I hope I can be a good steward of your questions, because I think they are the basis for a more thoughtful approach to life, one that will, in time, empower you to live humbly, lightly, and with great love. At least, I pray this will be so.
You’ve started asking me more about the Christian faith, not just because you’re discontented with easy answers, but because you, like the rest of us, want to know what happens in and around death.
“Did Jesus really rise from the dead?”
“What will Heaven be like?”
“Can I still get sick in Heaven?”
“Do we actually have to die beforehand?”
“In Heaven, will my toys be there?”
Despite my pretensions, I don’t really remember what it’s like to be your age, and so even though I’ve tried to answer these as plainly as I can, I often feel as though I haven’t quite gotten to where you want to go. I wish I could reach into your heart and somehow soothe it with the realities and truths that I take comfort in, but I think that would also be somehow robbing you of the struggle that is yours.
All of us need to reckon with death; of our loved ones and of ourselves. I would even go so far as to say that the fact of death is something that can paralyze us with dread, or we can learn by meditating on it about the preciousness of our lives and to savour the good things we have in the moments we are alive. The very fact that you are afraid at all of death is for me, a good thing, because despite it causing you the negative experience of fear, it also means that your life is happy enough at this moment that you don’t want to leave it.
But I want to share with you a secret for life. Well, it’s not much of a secret, as it’s been something that people have been saying for thousands of years. Yet here it is: life is full of tensions between seemingly opposite things. Life and death, joy and sadness, love and fear. The moment you were born and you blinked your eyes up at the light over the hospital bed and flexed your strangely large hands, I thought to myself in a despairingly ironic way that the life you’d just begun and the breath you’d just taken would someday end, and your breath would leave your body. As all of us have been born and all of us someday will die, the time between is rife with tension between our beginnings and our ends.
Perhaps the fact that life is full of paradoxes and tensions is not so much a secret, but what follows will be a revelation for many: tension, if we let it, can be a source of tremendous energy and vitality. Not in the way you’ve told me you want to harness cold fusion to save humanity (the other day we spoke about using it to desalinate seawater for people who don’t have access to fresh water– have I ever told you I love the way you think?). But allowing ourselves to dwell in ambiguity means that even if we are tempted to believe the worst things will happen, the fact that we don’t actually know can be a source for hope that the best can still come to pass. And out of that weird mind-flip comes the strength to work for love of our neighbours because we don’t know how our seemingly small actions have effects that, over time, and multiplied by repetition, open the door for more of God’s Kingdom to permeate and recreate our world.
(I know that last sentence is hard to swallow. So let’s talk more, at another time, about why I think it makes sense.)
As far as I can understand it, the tension you’re dwelling in (and all of us with you) is this: you will die, perhaps painfully. And it’s a guarantee that even before you die, you will suffer. I have not yet sustained any life-altering injuries or illnesses, but even if we are given the grace to reach an old age with relatively good health, heartbreak and grief over lost dreams are inevitable. Because you are a thoughtful and introspective person, my fear is that it is those wounds that will linger, as mine have for me. But in the meantime, you and I are alive, and can experience so much good and make so much good. And our task is to grow in our capacity to carry the reality of life and death.
I so very much do not want anything evil to happen to you, and as you are young, I do my best to make sure that any kind of harm doesn’t come your way. I still hold your hand even when we are walking on the sidewalk. I glare at cars that have already stopped for us at crosswalks. I endlessly warn you not to touch anything in the grocery store and to avoid touching your face. It’s possible that I am a bit of a helicopter parent, but this happens with the insight that to prepare you well for life, I have to let you struggle a little bit.
I see this every time I drop your brother off for preschool and it’s time to hang up his backpack (which contains all of 1 water bottle and an unopened snack box that has had the same Teddy Grahams cookies in it for the last week) on the fencepost outside the preschool playground. He’s not quite tall enough to reach the post, but he can manage to hang it most of the time. The temptation is always for me to remove that hurdle from him and just hang it up to avoid the frustration of hearing him grunt and watching him stretch upwards. But I’ve only ever done it once for him, and most of the time I fight with myself to just help him for that final inch of reach. And the reason why I don’t do it for him is because he– and you– need sufficient amounts of frustration in order to not just grow, but grow strong. It is from our struggles that we gain insight and wisdom. And these, I am told (and I trust) are worth more than many other things.
My responsibility to you as your father isn’t to make it easy for you. My responsibility is to prepare you for a long life, mostly as an adult, where you will have the internal resources (along with some external ones like the money I’m saving for you) to meet challenges with some sense of agency and self-efficacy. You won’t succeed at surmounting all of them, but at least you’ll try. And the reason I hope you’ll keep trying to live to the fullest of your considerable capabilities is that you do not know what will happen next, and that after all, good may still come.
I will kiss your head tonight and tell you as I do to “fear not.” I can see your eyes shine even in the dimness of your room at bedtime when I say this. I marvel that something so simple could mean so much for you because my job feels more complex than just doling out well-worn platitudes. But to you, at the beginning of life, it’s not yet a platitude. For now, it is the proclamation of your father, made in tenderness to you. And I think you believe it because you trust me, and maybe you think that I have somehow conquered fear, and that I can say this to you because I’ve gone ahead on the way and know what’s next.
But I don’t know what’s next. Yet instead of being filled with fear, what I have learned is to press forward in love. For you, for your mother, and for the world in which we live, knowing that the only thing we know is that we do not know, and that hope has a way of calling us again to the waking dream that the best–even in the face of death–is yet to come.