I didn't mean to sound too self-congratulatory with my recent post on the joys of fatherhood. I definitely have my shortcomings as a father, chief among them my impatience with my boys. Over my life I've developed a strong conviction that irrational and thoughtless actions are a major source of the world's ills, and this has led to a self-righteous anger whenever I see things that just don't make sense, that are done carelessly. When it comes to a world leader or even just everyday people acting in an unthinking fashion that hurts others, I think I'm justified in this. However, when a kid spills his juice because he wasn't being careful, or instinctively pokes his brother just to get a rise out of him, it obviously doesn't make sense for me to explode at them with a whole tirade about the injustices of the world, or to yell at them for acting thoughtlessly. This has been a real challenge for me.
Especially with my middle son,
who has a beautiful way of seeing the world through social relationships
and emotions as opposed to cold, abstract concepts and absolute
physical phenomena, I am trying to learn not only to tolerate this way
of being that is so different from mine, but indeed to embrace it and
celebrate it. Sometimes I catch myself admonishing him to "act normal",
to never do anything without thinking, and then I dread that I'm slowly
stamping out the creative impulses that make him who he is, and that
will surely contribute wonderful things to the world around him
throughout his life.
One positive aspect of my realizing what an insufferable dick I can be with my kids is that I'm sympathizing more now with the archetypal angry white voter. Ever since I was a teenager I often asked myself about how people could be so angry, and so dysfunctional, in a place like the US where life is pretty good for most folks. In the US we had decent access to health care, pretty abundant food, nice parks and museums and stuff. Why were people so angry? And I'm not talking about the poorest of the poor, those beleaguered people suffering at the bottom of the heap with crappy healthcare, living from check to check, fighting just to keep the heat on. I've known plenty of people like that in Chicago, but they're not the ones talking about the carnage of America, how immoral and corrupt everything is, and trying to tear it all down by advocating for fascism and intolerance.
No, the angry people I tended to see were white, and better off than the poor of Chicago. Why did so many people want to destroy themselves and others, abuse their kids, or drink themselves to ruin, if they
weren't in the desperate circumstances of a Calcutta slum or something? I could understand that they had some inferiority complexes going on, maybe felt spurned not because they were materially lacking but because they felt others were getting more than their fair share. When you go to a theme park or even the streets of tourist sites in Europe or elsewhere, you'll run into American families that are just bickering all the time, about nothing and everything. There's some inchoate anger there with everyone and everything, even with those people that you should love the most.
It turns out I was doing a lot of this myself, and now that I've turned away from it, it's almost impossible for me to understand even my own thought process when I was so impatient and angry. Why would I be so angry, so judgmental and frustrated with my boys, if they are really good kids? Everyone who meets them remarks on how well behaved they are. Granted, some of this may be that I'm so furious and terrifying that they stay in line, but I think I can still be demanding and even stern when needed, without being aggressive or insulting to them.
Why would the little things that your loved ones do get on your nerves? Why would you get annoyed when your kid or your mom or whoever does that thing that they always do? Shouldn't the things they always do, even the things that might otherwise be annoying, be precisely the things that you value, because they typify your loved ones, typify who they are as people?
I guess my impatience was born of the noble desire for rectitude and gratitude. I want people to do right, and when I see so many cases where people aren't doing right in the world, I get furious. This is understandable and okay. But if I am constantly surveilling my kids, watching them like a hawk and waiting for them to screw up, that's a perverse twisting of this impulse toward rectitude. If I am so obsessed and insecure with the idea that nobody is sufficiently grateful, that I pounce on any absentmindedness of my kids and interpret it as a perceived slight, then I've gone off the deep end.
I've given all that up now, but having gone through this impatience and frustration myself does now help me when I see people in other spheres, especially of public life, advocating for what seem to be totally untenable positions of malice and intolerance. I think a lot of people are so focused on how things should be (according to them) and the fact that the world doesn't meet their high standards, that they assume that everyone is doing ill or is out to get them. What I'd advocate for isn't necessarily a softening of one's position on what's right and wrong, but rather for people to get over themselves enough to realize that actually, lots of people are doing the right thing a lot of the time. If you've got a foregone conclusion about a flawed, Fallen world, then you don't see what's actually happening. I've certainly experienced this as I've chilled out a bit with my boys. To be honest, in the past few weeks I haven't really been able to identify any instance of malice or gross ingratitude on their parts, whereas before I was detecting such ill will throughout every day. They still sometimes do things that annoy me or that I have to correct, but it's not a big deal; I can ask them calmly to stop, and they do.
Thus far my efforts to become more
accepting of my sons' differences from me, as well as to be more gentle
and tolerant when they do mess up, have consisted in my unplugging a
bit, in not insisting that everything be totally coherent or exactly as I
would do things myself. At the same time, I'm increasingly aware that I
can't unplug to the point of indifference, of not educating the kids in
both moral values and the more precise academic stuff like counting,
reading, and geography. I'm still working on how best to teach the boys
their life lessons without ripping their heads off in the process.
This is my biggest challenge, my biggest shortcoming, and my biggest
shame. Especially for someone like me who fancies himself the grand
pedagogue, I am slowly accepting that I can't always make things click
for my sons the way I sometimes can when I'm tutoring someone else. For
now I've given up most hopes of being an exemplary teacher--in fact,
I'm thankful that I didn't get into this field professionally, since I'd
probably end up on the news after flinging some hapless 8-year-old
across the room!
As often happens in fatherhood, I am
becoming more humble, giving up any grand illusions or pretensions. It
may lessen my grandiose image of myself, but hopefully it makes me a
better father and a better person. Certainly a better student, as I
learn from these little people entirely new ways of thinking and
interpreting the world. Maybe eventually it will make me a better