God bless the children we love! They serve up the questions that cannot be answered -- honest-to-goodness koans that make me wonder why Zen Buddhists trouble themselves by concocting the 1,700 koans that can form a part of Zen training. I guess formal koans have their place, but who's got time for that when they have or pay attention to the children and events around them?
The question my younger son asked me the other day was this: "Papa, would you be happy if I went into the Air Force?"
The events leading up to this question went something like this: My son, at 17, is wondering what the future may hold for him. What sort of life lay ahead? Is there life after high school? Seventeen is, as I recall it, a time of confusion mixed with fear and hope. It is a time when you can sense that there is a place where the rubber hits the road, but the road itself and the rubber that hits it are not at all clear.
Up until this time, my son has lived at home -- been fed, clothed, supported in his enthusiasms and loved in easy ways. Life has come to him without much effort. He has been safe. And perhaps he has been spoiled in the sense that all kids are spoiled ... defended without being asked to do much more than school or sports or bowling dates. He has lived under a bell jar whose limitations were whispering more insistently as graduation beckoned a year or so out. His bell jar was safe, controlled, understood, and not too hard. (Not much different from the bell jar adults can live under; just somewhat smaller).
One of the dreams he had expressed in the past was a possible military career. He knew I had been in the army. He watched TV shows filled with military macho and can-do. As a possibility, it had the ring of something that might be "right" or worthy or OK ... and possibly heroic.
So it was a dream. And as part of his dreaming, I took him to an Air Force recruiting office to listen to the spiel a young sergeant was there to dispense. I took him because I wanted him to get a sense of something that was real. Not "right" or "wrong," just real. I wanted him to be able to make a choice not based on dreaming alone. Maybe it would turn out to be wonderfully attractive. Maybe it would turn out to be something utterly repulsive. More likely, it would turn out to be some mixture -- raising as many questions as it answered, but at least its reality quotient might rise and his decision would be less the decision of an airhead who can salute the flag but has no idea what that flag stands for.
The recruiter did his thing. My son asked some questions. And then we got into the car and headed back home. And it was in the car that he asked the question: "Papa, would you be happy if I went into the Air Force?" The question came from the only bell jar he knew -- his own life that depended in part on the reactions of those who inhabited the bell jar he lived under.
And I was stymied. The closest answer I could come up with was that I would be happy if he was happy and that such happiness depended on his making his own decisions, right, wrong or indifferent... and then owning those decisions. He wanted me to say "right" or "wrong" so he could rest on it. The trip to the recruiter, in my mind, was a way of researching the fine print of the dreams anyone might have. Investigate, probe, snoop ... and then move forward based on whatever best guess you could make.
I didn't want my son to fall victim to what a critic once described as President George Bush's problem: "He was born on third base and imagines that he hit a triple."
On the one hand, I don't like the military much. Its function is a fatal use of force that I don't find very convincing. On the other hand, a man or woman who does not face up to the capacity for the use of fatal force is a fool and self-deception is a poor companion. My experience of the military was, among other things, a way to learn that there is a wider world, one filled with wonderful and horrific and boring stuff ... people who don't think as I think, do as I do, rely on what I rely on. And from my point of view, wider is better; wider is closer to reality and the closer to reality anyone can come, the happier they'll be.
But the same lessons can be learned elsewhere as well. You don't have to put on a military uniform to find out the same facts. So ... investigate the particulars of the possibilities that exist. The object of the investigation is not to be "right" or "wrong," but to be happy. No amount of investigation can provide The Answer, but a lack of investigation just provides endless stupidity and repeated error. Standing on your own feet is no mean task, but it's worth the effort since there is no other choice.
But how could anyone tell anyone else these things? I did my best to reassure my son. Put one foot in front of the other. Investigate as best you can. Don't worry too much about being "right" -- we all go "wrong" and then try to correct our mistakes. I love you and will be happy if you are happy.
I probably talked too much and said too little. I guess every parent would like to have the perfect Band-Aid to apply to the wounds and confusions that life lays at their children's doorstep. And therein lies the koan, I guess -- I would give just about anything to have The Answer to give my son ... and it simply isn't possible... just like any other koan.