Wednesday, November 2, 2011

questions that pin you to the wall

The other day, my younger son asked me a question that left me feeling every inch of the 'inadequate parent.'

"Papa," he said, "would you be proud of me if I went into the army?"

I knew what he meant, or thought I did. He wanted to know that I would not scorn his choice, that he was right to be drawn towards the red-white-and-blue praises he saw sung on TV and elsewhere ... the strong, competent, band of brothers who did the hard things that others imagined needed to be done. He wanted my concurrence. He wanted to be right ... and which one of us has not done the same in times of uncertainty?

Would I be proud of him? The question shot through me like a hot knife through butter. Generally, I try to give my children what they want, from love to approval to material possessions. I may not do it well, but I try to do it.

But "proud?" The idea left me gasping for air. It pinned me to the wall. Perhaps because I cannot remember a time in my own life when someone was credibly "proud" of me, I was on unfamiliar turf. "Proud" means a willingness and ability to believe with certainty that something is fershur preferable and laudable and downside-be-damned.

"Ives," I replied, "I love you. That's what I do. I will be proud of you if you do whatever you choose to do. I will be happy and proud if you are the best possible Ives there is."

I could hear my reply in what I imagined were his ears ... not at all the satisfaction and relief he had been looking for. Yet it was the best truth I could muster. Not near enough, somehow, but just the best I could do.

"'The best possible Ives,'" he ruminated. "Now if I can just figure out what that is."

Which allowed me to say, "That is the same question everyone -- and I mean everyone -- tries to work out. No exceptions -- everyone."

And as our little to-and-fro receded into a wispy past, still the longing to have done better, to have given him peace of mind, to have been willing to hoorah one course of action over another, to be gloriously biased and assured ... I would have given quite a lot to do that and believe it and bring my son a little peace, however fleeting. Proud to be an American. Proud to be a Buddhist. Proud to have a lot of money. Proud to own a nice car. Proud to have taken first place a time or two. Proud ... how come others could do that with such apparent ease and I simply could not? I would have given quite a lot, during that small conversation, to have been a dyed-in-the-wool bigot of one kind or another ... what a blessing! Fuck the truth! -- what a blessing!

I don't much like the idea of my son going into the army. Killing is the baseline of military adventures and killing is suicidal. But like any other adventure (even adventures which like to pretend they have no responsibility or part in killing), there are things to learn in the military -- strengthening and nourishing things, things that encourage and perhaps even allow people to answer the question, "Who am I?"

Funny about questions like that -- the little questions that are so simple to speak and so hard to answer. The other day I had occasion to watch again a nice little documentary that asked people in the street ten questions. Simple questions. Questions easy to ask but -- when taken seriously -- not so easy to answer. "What do you love?" "What do you hate?" "Why is the sky blue?" It is wonderful to watch the faces of those trying to answer the questions. Trying pretty hard. Having a hard time. Having a hard time that mirrors my own hard time as an inadequate parent ... "Thought Moments":



  1. Brilliantly phrased question. A chip off the old block.

  2. You sound like a more than adequate parent, trying so hard to do the right thing by your son. The beginning of wisdom is to say "I don't know" and if that's the truth, then that's just another lesson to learn (and pass on). The lesson being, that not every question can be answered. You so clearly love your son, the truth can only set you free, of everything, including the feeling that you're not good enough, or inadequate. If the truth is, "I don't know but I love you no matter what" then that's the truth. I don't think any of us would mind hearing that from our fathers (though we love them all the same even if it doesn't occur to them to say so), your son might be the lucky one.. Glad you like the film - MST

  3. I don't "like" the film ... I love it!