He always liked to make people smile,
It was the way his daddy looked,
When he wasn’t smiling he was stressed,
Worried and wasn’t all there
And when he’d make his daddy laugh,
It all went away,
And so he tried to be funny all his days,
It became a craft and an art,
Something to fail at from time to time.
He always knew real beauty,
He liked to be around it,
Like wanting to be close to the fire,
On a chilly winter’s dark
The occasional dive,
As the smoke curls around the room,
But the romance was in his mind,
And love was in his eyes,
But never figured out how to make it work,
Not being mechanically inclined
He always had a gift for language,
He liked the way it moved and folded,
Slipping off the tongue,
Only to wonder if he should have held back,
And that was a way to move people,
But he never quite had the passion,
It wasn’t easy to express excitement,
When you’re too busy being amazed
If you can get him to be quiet,
He’d love to hear your voice
Scuttling along the sand,
He looks a bit odd
But I assure you he’s quite harmless,
It’s just an occasional tickle
I was listening to an interesting podcast about grit, based on the research by Angela Duckworth. If you prefer to read a shorter article about her work you can do that here, or listen to a short TED talk she gave about it you can do that here. I’ve talked before about the value of perseverance and why it is beneficial in my series about what I think makes a good human. In that series I tried to also perhaps point out where these strengths could have negative results. How we can perhaps go too far, or how their might be darker side to it. The podcast brought this idea into the forefront of my thoughts again because they talked about how grit might actually be drawback if we continue to try at something that we are not likely to achieve we waste our energy. We can become obsessive, and not know when to give up. This is more commonly known as stubbornness. What was really interesting to me was what they said in the final few seconds of the podcast which was that grit and stubbornness are really just the same thing, given different names based on the outcome achieved. If one is successful they had grit, if one was not, they were stubborn.
This then gave rise to a couple of additional thoughts. One was to wonder what other qualities fall under a similar category, where they are one in the same just depending on the outcome? The second thought I had was a bit of sadness about how easily our strengths can become our weaknesses. But then I thought, perhaps this idea we have about strengths vs. weaknesses is really an incorrect way to look at ourselves. Because we can certainly say that a world in which no person had any grit would be a much different one and one that I believe would be much sadder and without flavor. So we absolutely need these qualities and the consequence of such virtues is simply that we will not always succeed. And so we find ourselves, once again, on the topic of risk.
When we see that star athlete, or master carpenter at work, or a genius who has invented some technological marvel, it can be easy to be an awe, and focus on a talent that must lie within giving them an almost divine like quality in their ability. We see the end result and we don’t think about the years of practice. We often see the person who made it to the Olympics or the professional league, but not all the ones who failed to make it. We don’t see the less than impressive or faulty works the carpenter built before he mastered his techniques. We don’t see all the failed ideas and failed attempts associated with the process of creation and invention. History remembers the genius of Newton’s discovery in regards to gravitation, calculus, and his laws of motion. Few except those who really study his life know how obsessed he was in the field of alchemy, which was of course a big waste of time. Few know how much time he wasted searching for hidden patterns in scripture. Also, as the podcast points out that many people don’t enjoy the periods of grim determination and practice it takes to perfect their craft, whatever it may be, at least not in the typical definition of fun. It’s clear that idea that we may master something or have success can drive us forward through the less than savory hours and hours of effort it takes to achieve one’s goals, but in the end we don’t know whether our goals will be achieved. So grit also means that we are taking a risk, because we could spend all that time and energy, and still fail in the end.
Of course the easy answer is to say, focus on the journey, nobody is perfect. I’d like to believe I am that type of person as I often tout the value of perseverance when I think about the effort it took to get a PhD which seemed less about my intelligence and more about grit. At the same time, had I failed in the end, how much would I still be touting all that grit and determination? It seems harder to celebrate the process that got you there without getting positive results. I do feel that is what we must always try to do, because if did always focus on the end result we’re likely to be in a constant state of depression! And perhaps the only real weakness is an inability to learn from our mistakes. In the end that’s all we can really do, because there is value in the process, and most things that we think are our weaknesses might actually be our strengths with the wrong shade of intensity and it is only in reflecting on our behaviors and the outcomes can we gain the knowledge about how to use those strengths more wisely in the future. Even then we will still be taking risks, but perhaps with a higher probability of success. The final problem being that we are also terrible at assessing probabilities. Of course if we always did things based on the odds, we also might never try anything, and yet it can be easily argued that much of our progress as a species is the story of overcoming low probabilities of success through grit and determination.
In the end, it seems to be a truth (perhaps even one with a capital T) that we are always bound to make mistakes and have failures. The good news is that if making mistakes happens to everyone then there really is nothing wrong with us as long as we continue to strive to be more than we are, and strive to make this a world where everybody has that same opportunity.
The last in this series, comes late for several reasons. For one, I am Poland, and have been enjoying my vacation. But largely it is because this last quality has needed many if not all of the things I am going to talk about under this heading. The time change has left me less than well rested and it has taken about a week to really feel like myself again. It has taken also some time for me to find enough time to myself, in which I haven’t needed to take care of my son, and haven’t been surrounded by family. My in-laws live in a small apartment and it has felt uncomfortable for me to spend a lot of time writing around others. Finally it has taken a lot of thought, deep thinking, introspection and perhaps a little creativity to nail down what I wanted for this last quality. It also took some humility as I had to bounce this creation off my wife because I was rather unsure if I had a cogent post here or whether I might need to make a 9th quality. What I thought was going to be my 8th quality changed as I realized there were other things that I wanted to write about that I felt were linked together but unsure how. And there may be some debate as to whether or not I was successful here putting all of these under the same umbrella. In the end I’ve decided the number of qualities isn’t as important as saying what I wanted to say. My wife also told me that I was quite clever in my solution to the final quality being solitude. She almost never tells me I’m clever even when I think I’m being clever so that has me feeling really positive about this post. 🙂 With that said, let’s delve into solitude.
I am going to break this down in a more organized way, but let’s talk about some general things first. You might first think that, “Hey aren’t we humans social animals? You’ve been going on a lot in this series about how we can all better get along and have empathy, so why should solitude be so important?” If you’ve raised a child you of course have seen the changes from a baby still thinking it’s in the womb and not knowing it is separate from the mother, to a slow buildup of a sense of self. From then on as parents we try to help the child along to develop a sense of independence. To sleep alone, to be able to do simple physical tasks and to enjoy playing on their own as they gain more and more self-sufficiently. And as a child I remember not only being proud as I could do more things on my own, but actually growing to appreciate and like having time to myself, free from responsibilities to anyone. It seems to me that everybody, no matter how social they might be, to be healthy, need some alone time. Healthy relationships often aren’t ones where both people spend every single moment together, but where each have some hobbies and things that they like to do on their own. Everybody needs their space. What we do in this solitude varies and I am going to talk about 3 different facets of solitude that I think are all important, and I do think have a common thread. So let’s begin:
It takes a little more humility to mention that I owe this important aspect of solitude to my wife. I am not an overly creative person, but when she mentioned the importance of solitude to the creative process I realized she was right. While artists and musicians certainly collaborate, the initiation of that creative process is usually done alone and then ideas are bounced back and forth with those that are collaborating. Walk into any museum and count how many pieces in that museum have more than one artist listed there. You won’t find many. How many of your favorite novels have multiple authors on the front cover? How many of your favorite poems are written by more than one person? We may be inspired by others when we create, but ultimately what we create is done I solitude. I also don’t want to arbitrarily separate the arts and sciences, it is just generally more easily seen in the arts. Collaboration and feedback is a very important part of the scientific process, but often the vision and inspiration that starts a new idea is formed through thinking in solitude. Scientific history is littered with important scientists whose vision and inspiration excited the scientific community and progressed their respective fields forward. My blog posts are often inspired by conversations, articles or books. However it often takes some solitude to think about what I want to say and write. Even if during that process I talk it over with others as I have done with this blog post, in the end solitude has played an important part in the creative process.
Regardless of the seemingly infinite things we can think of to do, we are sadly quite finite creatures. Our time and energy have limits and many of us are constantly trying to get the most amount out of our day and not getting enough down time. I’ve already discussed the importance of play, and certainly this is important in reducing stress and giving us more strength face to the challenges of life, but there is also the simple act of rest. Resting your muscles and resting your mind. One of the ways we do this of course is simply through sleep. I know few people who don’t love a good night’s rest, and more and more I hear many people wishing they could have more (including myself). According to the National Sleep Foundation, we aren’t getting enough, and this leads to all sorts of problems such as increased weight gain, loss of focus, anxiety, and overall being less efficient as we could be. Whether you are sleeping with someone or not, sleeping is an activity that is done in solitude. It is your time to be unconscious and recharging your “energy cells” and freshening the mind. Getting better sleep may give you less waking hours in the day, but chances are you will be more focused and efficient during those hours such that time will not be lost and may actually be gained.
Sleep, however, is not the only way in which we can rest and recharge. One of the other ways in which we can gain energy is through meditation. Now meditation can be defined in a number of different ways, but all of them have benefits and I will talk a little bit about them throughout this post, but for now when many people think of meditation they think of some bald headed person in a robe sitting down in a lotus position and saying ‘om’ a lot, and I admit I used to be from this camp too at one point. And that type of meditation is beneficial, as it clears the mind and rests the body. By focusing on sound, or your own breathing you can rest and recharge. Recent studies have shown meditation to actually change the brain in a positive way. Daily meditations may also simply involve sitting on your patio drinking a cup of tea while you look at your garden, going on a walk as you take in the sights and sounds of the moment, and it can also involve repetitive activities such as exercise. Repetitive actions keep you focused on the task at hand keeping you in the moment. Exercise is one of the better ways to do this of course because you must focus on the movements and muscles needed to perform the task and this is actually restful to the mind as much of the clutter and stresses of our everyday life can fade away. The well-known “runner’s high” is a good example of this. Of course when you first start to exercise this may be difficult as your body adjust itself to the activity as you may actually experience a lot of pain and/or be uncomfortable and this can be distracting. But this is why meditative activities require regular practice. You aren’t going to be good at it right away and the health benefits take time to come to fruition. I feel that one of the hardest things for people who begin to exercise is they never push through the phase in which it is painful, and tiring as they find they have less energy. But it does get better, and I’ve seen it happen for myself and for others.
If you exercise at a busy gym, or listen to music while exercise this may actually diminish some of the meditative aspects of the exercise as you may start to focus on other things and become distracted. I’ve seen many people pause their treadmill just to text somebody and so I doubt they are getting much of the meditative benefits of exercise, but exercise is still good of course. Being physically healthy gives you more energy and helps you recharge more effectively. Being physically tired is also an aid in getting better sleep which is important as mentioned above. Silence is also a helpful part of the meditative process. Of course complete silence is difficult, but relative quiet may help you pay attention to sounds you don’t often notice like the sound of your own breathing, the babbling of a brook, or the twitter of birds. In previous posts I have talked a lot about the importance of being in the present and this is the one the great advantages of meditation. We can’t always be serene and peaceful, but taking time out of our day to quiet the noise of our everyday lives is important and is something we do in solitude.
The dictionary also defines meditation as continued or extended thought, reflection and contemplation. This is the sort of meditation I do a lot. For better or worse I suppose as I am frequently lost in thought unaware of what’s going on, which is bad for activities like driving, or paying attention to your spouse when she is talking to you. This type of meditation is our natural scientist at work. Whether we are reflecting on our own actions, searching through the past for understanding, issues of the day, or just things that we’re learning, thinking deeply about things is a positive activity. It is our way of helping us see how we can do things better in our lives (humility), what changes we like to make about ourselves (courage), what questions we still have and thus areas we need to understand better (curiosity), trying to understand the actions of others (love/empathy), or setting aside our worries and stresses about future events (faith). In the scientific method it is the final stage that allows us to make adjustments to our original hypothesis and form new ones. Thus our introspection, outrospection, and contemplation ensures that we continue to grow and change in an ever changing world. We may even may take time to plan activities that are both fun, and those that help us better have time to ourselves (play and solitude). And meditation like this and what I described above is something we should try to do every day (vigilance/perseverance).
These meditative activities are all performed in solitude. Even if we don’t get much alone time during the day, 15-30 minutes of meditation can be an important part of good health and if needed, keep the creative juices flowing. If you are constantly surrounded by people your only time for this might just be a nice long shower, or a satisfying crap on the toilet, but in all likelihood you appreciate that time to be alone with your thoughts. Mix that all in with a good night’s sleep and conquering the day may not be seem so daunting, even if it isn’t easy. The amount of solitude that everyone needs for a good sense of well-being I’m sure varies, but I think it’s important that we try to give ourselves that time if possible. In doing so we can gain increased feelings of serenity, understanding, and peace which will help us fight battles in the present instead of the impossible task of winning future ones. The dark side of solitude in the extreme is known, I’m sure, to all. We are a social species and whether you want just a few good friends, or be the life of a party we shine the most in the company of others. Few of us could live the life of a hermit. We do best when we are cooperating, collaborating, and helping. Too much solitude can make us feel lonely, often worse is that feeling of solitude when surrounded by others. Like the other qualities the down side of solitude comes to fruition when we don’t practice the other 7 qualities in this series in some balanced way. And it is possible that what makes solitude good is some security in knowing that solitude isn’t our only option. That we have other treasured people in our life that we can depend on when we no longer wish to be alone.
This series has been long and if you’ve taken the time to read all of it, I do thank you, but I cannot sum it all up in just a sentence or two so I will have one more post in which I will try to take a more holistic view of them all, and take a critical look at how this intellectual exercise of mine doesn’t always mesh well with reality.
Well, if you know me, you might be surprised at this quality. And to be honest this is one that I wasn’t sure I was going to include but could not really make it fit as part of any of the other ones and so have put it here. This one is 6th in the series and so if you were keeping count there will still be two more to come for a total of 8 (as opposed to the 7 I thought I was going to blog about in my intro to this series). Hey I did say that this list was not set in stone, and my final quality justifies this change quite well so stay tuned. 🙂
So let me be clear here that when I say faith, I do not mean religious faith, nor do I mean blind faith. The first definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”, and this is the faith I am talking about. Perhaps I place too much importance on stress and too much importance on living in the present moment, but one of my reason for including faith is borne out of the fact that we are exceptionally good future thinkers. It might be somewhat natural to think about the past, and of course we live in the present, but what value is thinking about the future, when the future is uncertain. Of course we can see the value in thinking about the future from simple mechanical movements like anticipating the trajectory of a ball as we reach out to catch it, to having grand visions of the future that we work to make a reality. Our imaginations and our ability to envision a path to turn what is in our minds into a reality is a great strength, and it’s safe to say our ability to think about the future is greater than any other creature. There is a double edge to this sword and that is worry. We worry about that uncertain future at times, and we worry that what we want to happen will not come to pass. Much of the grief we often feel when we lose somebody important (whether from death or breaking up our relationships) comes from a loss of a future that will now no longer exist with that person. Our ability to imagine the future is so strong that it can feel as real as any present moment. In a previous post in this series I talked about the value of play for helping us be in the moment, so too does faith. Whereas play helps us become lost in the moment, faith can help us focus on the present by making us feel like “everything will be alright”. Faith can give us hope and keep us steady.
One of the reasons that the future is so uncertain is that we can’t account for all the variables in any particular problem. And even if we could, there would be several that are simply not in our control. Wanting to fix things that are beyond our control is one big source of worry and stress whether it is a personal situation or the larger sadness we might feel over big problems like world hunger, gender inequality, or racism as individuals most of us can only do so much. The weight and burden of the future can drag us down and we need something to ease the mind and focus on the present. It is not surprising that faith is always used in the context of something that we feel is good. Whether it is a supernatural being who we believe is watching out for us, loves us, and protects us, to more tangible things like faith that a good friend will come through for us, a general optimism about the improvement of society, and perhaps most importantly a faith in ourselves that we can overcome challenges in our way. In reality none of these things are sure things despite what past experience might tell you. You may actually fail at what you are attempting, even if you’ve handled similar or even the same situations before. Society may get worse. Your friend may not come through despite how often they might have come through for you before. The world is dynamic and constantly changing. Your friend is changing, you are changing, and society is changing and so there will always be some unknown variables. We can also be wrong that we understood a past experience properly to ensure similar results in the future. Humans are prone to Type I errors (seeing patterns or connections where none exist) and quite often we don’t understand our experiences fully. However, without some faith we’d always be questioning and doubting and while there may be a time for questions and doubt, to dwell on such things constantly can also be equally wasteful. Doubting your friend all the time may actually strain your relationship. Doubting yourself all the time may make you actually more prone to making mistakes. Being pessimistic about the world may actually make you less happy and less able to make a positive impact, which is the only way the world is going to get better, if we do something about it.
Richard Dawkins and others are often quoted as saying that faith and science are not compatible because science makes conclusions based on evidence, where as faith makes conclusions despite evidence. I tend to disagree with this notion, because I feel that to develop faith it cannot be built on nothing. In my experience what people disagree on is what people consider evidence. I wrote about this previously here and here. A large of the aim of religious institutions in keeping members of their faith is to discredit contrary evidence. If the evidence against what you have faith in seems faulty you are less likely to let it change your mind. But we’ve all had changes of faith as evidence is presented to us. What happens if that friend lets us down a few times? Chances are, our faith in them will be lessened. What happens if we start getting inundated with all the evil that happens in the world? We start to lose our faith and optimism in humanity. What can happen when let ourself down? We start to lose faith in ourself, which is often a scary place emotionally to be at. I think faith is born honestly in most cases, and I think if left unhindered we would adjust the things we have faith in over time as we continue to question, experience and learn. The important part is that faith should be changeable and it should be personal. When we indoctrinate children about what they should have faith in this is from a developmental context abusive, because the stronger our faith becomes in something, the less likely we are able to adjust it over time because of how beliefs work in our brain. The inability to change what we have faith in as we experience and learn new things leads to an unhealthy conflict: the struggle to remain static in a dynamic world. I think some people might wonder, what is the point of having faith if it may change some time in the future? Because the world may seem chaotic, painful and beyond comprehension at times, it makes some sense to have faith in an order, an intention, or a purpose that is forever and unchangeable. However, it’s only a convenient illusion that will become harder and harder to maintain with time without willfully ignoring contrary evidence.
There are no guarantees in life and it’s okay to be wrong about what you put your faith in. Everybody has been wrong about things before. Being wrong is one of the greatest shared human experiences. I do understand, however, that it can be distressing to admit when we are wrong about things, even more so when we invest a lot of time into having faith about someone or something. Faith as a result is perhaps the trickiest of all the qualities I’ve discussed so far because it can cause us to double down even when the odds are against us. In my opinion the thing to keep in mind is to let your faith work for you, and to not let your faith gain mastery over you. And don’t expect others to share your faith. That’s simply not realistic. But if I were to pick some basic things to have faith in, it would be this:
Change is inevitable
You have it in you to deal with that change
Everything will be alright because changing what you have faith in is not a loss, it’s a gain – for you must have learned something new in order to get to where you are now.
If you read the title you are probably wondering, who am I to write prologues, or preludes, or introductions? What’s all this about? Your blogs are only marginally interesting to begin with, why should I read anything doesn’t really tell me anything? All fair questions, and the best answer I can come up with is that, good things come to those who wait. Of course it’s also true that sometimes good things come to people in an instant, but this is not one of those occasions.
A fellow blogger I met when I first started my blog asked me what I was my goal in having a blog, because clearly it’s not all for yourself or you wouldn’t be putting your writing on the internet. I knew the answer at the time, but was modest about saying it aloud, and I guess I still am, but ultimately I do want to inspire people. Inspiration is an interesting topic in itself, something worth having a blog post about someday, but the truth is I don’t know that anybody could say how to inspire others. It’s something you can’t really predict. Sure there are ways you can communicate more effectively, more enthusiastically. Inspiring someone through written word I think is more difficult than face to face, and I am not sure that my writing is that good yet. But I believe inspiration comes also through expressing ideas and asking questions and that is the route I have taken. Given the number of followers I have that read my blog I can tell that my writing is limited in how it has impacted others, and that’s okay. Ultimately some of the blogs I enjoy following the most are ones that have a nice sense of community, and it would be nice to get to that point and just have a handful of people that regularly comment and read my blogs who have interesting things to say and interesting and well thought out points of view. I think I’m moving closer to that as I have met some wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful bloggers over the past couple of years. But that doesn’t mean that the blog isn’t also for me. It is also where I can explore, where I can get my thoughts out and help me sort out things in my own mind. So while I hope the things I write mean something to others, I am also happy in the way that it helps me grow and learn.
My next series of blogs, which this is an introduction for, are what I consider to be the essential qualities of a good human. These qualities that I am going to write about represent a culmination of years of thought on the matter. So while it might seem overly bold, and though there may be disagreements, these are not qualities I have arrived at quickly or arbitrarily. I make no claims that such a list may not change as I continue to learn and grow, and I have also, through careful thought, tried to condense it to as small a list as possible. Not because that is necessarily important, but because over the course of my life I have come to see connections between certain qualities and realized that perhaps such qualities might exist under a much larger umbrella. These qualities have been alluded to in my writing before and blogging thus far has helped crystallize ideas in my mind. I also don’t make the claim either that these are overly original either, but I hope to make people think about these qualities in a slightly different way, specifically to try to broaden one’s views of this quality as very often people have a very narrow definition.
One of my first posts when I started my blog discussed the dangers of categorization. We are species who constantly makes poor correlations as a result of our tendency to make Type I errors, which is to find patterns and connections where none exist. As I have also written before I grew up in two cultures being biracial and this helped me see from an early age that the innate goodness of a human being had little to do with religion or culture and yet these are characteristics that we seem to tie to goodness or badness most often. And of course as I grew older I have seen even more judgments of character based on gender, class, job, education, etc. It might be natural that we make these poor assumptions simply because we are bound to make determinations about a person’s quality based on the people we know throughout our lifetimes. I have often observed that most prejudice of any kind comes from a lack of exposure to diversity, not because of it. If I were to say something positive about myself, it’s that I do always try to look for the goodness in all people. As a result I have never shied away from getting to know somebody from a different walk of life because it seems the more people I get to know, the more I am convinced that they way we separate ourselves from others is false and ultimately harmful. In that vein I have thought a lot about what are the qualities that good people have in all those different walks of life I have encountered. This, in addition to what I’ve learned through my education has led to me to conclude that there are 7 things that we must all have. The fact that 7 became the number has me already a little worried that I’m not right, because the number 7 is full of romance, but try as I might I couldn’t think of any more or any less, so I’m just going to go with it.
Finally I just want to emphasize that all these qualities I will blog about over the coming months are equally important. So much so that missing even one of these qualities can be problematic. While the degree to which each of us has these qualities may depend on the individual I believe that all are qualities we must demonstrate and develop every day. There were times that I thought there was a ranking to these qualities, but now I am not so sure. Anyway, enough of this introductory business. I shall end this by thanking you for reading this and my blog and hope to hear your thoughts in the coming months as I complete this series of posts.
Well between being a dad and a professor, blogging has taken a backseat. This of course doesn’t stop the ideas from flowing, so I just thought I’d get at least one of them out even though I’m having to wake up at 5:30 am to do it!
My blog post is once again inspired by my son. One of the things my son likes to do is drink, whatever we might be drinking, from our glasses. I find myself enjoying this quite a bit, because it’s clear that he wants to do things like we do. At times he will often try picking up our glasses and try to drink from them, with of course disastrous results, but his drive to be like us is clearly strong. The reason why I enjoy this so much though is because there is something wonderful just being around someone who is clear is striving each day to be more than they are. You might say, well of course babies/children strive to be more than they are, because they have to grow and develop those basic cognitive and locomotive skills. So I know I’m not saying anything groundbreaking, but it made me reflect on a number of things that I think have meaning at any age, and gave me some important reminders as I move forward in life both as an individual and parent.
As I was reflecting on this last night it occurred to me the importance of failure. While, as parents we marvel at our child’s successes I wonder how often we think of their failures. If I really start to think about it I know that every achievement of my
son is built on the back of many more failures. Whether it was a failure sit up, stand up, walk, or clutch an object in his hands, these activities failed numerous times before he was able to master them in any meaningful way. And it occurred to me that if you are not failing at anything right now, you quite simply are not growing. In these early stages of life the failure to success ratio is high. My son is constantly reaching in ways that exceed his grasp, but is undeterred by failure and this is something I find wonderful and inspiring. While he still needs help sipping from a drinking glass because he cannot lift it up to his lips in a controlled way on his own, I know that he will get it. Sometimes I wonder if I slow his progress by helping him though. He’d probably learn a lot faster if I let him fail more often, but of course the amount of spills I’d have to clean would be a drain on my time and resources. It takes away from other things that I could be doing which would be important for parenting or important for myself. And of course in some cases these failures might be detrimental to him as well. We need fluids, and if we are constantly spilling ours then we aren’t getting the sustenance we need. This is, of course, one of the things we must balance in life. Doing an activity that we’ll fail at is an energy cost, and thus we must have energy in excess to afford to fail. Growth implies risk, and risks can be costly. That doesn’t change the fact that without taking risks we tend to stagnate.
So what deters us from this completely necessary quality of risk? Since risk involves the uses of resources and energy, there are environmental factors that simply put limits on the risks we can take. The beautiful thing about children (and often scary at times) is that they think nothing of the risks they take. No matter how many times he fell trying to walk, or get down from the sofa or bed, he still did it. As we grow and become aware of more things we learn restraint. If I lived in one of many places in Africa where clean drinking water is scarce, one of the things I would make dead sure of is that I didn’t leave a glass of drinking water within in reach of my son, because drinking water is precious and we could ill afford to have any spilled. So the risks we are willing to take or let others take are governed by the energy and resources (or the perceived energy and resources) we have available to us. I think this is something we forget. It is very common in the world to denigrate the poor and criticize them for not lifting themselves out of their poverty. Since risk leads to growth, and risk is at least partly a function of the security of energy and resources in our lives, those that have limited resources simply cannot achieve as much as those of us with privilege can achieve. While there are always remarkable stories of people crossing that boundary, on average a person who starts off with more will always have the potential of achieving more. Therefore we’d be well served to stop judging those in poverty and that they require our compassion to help raise them up. Should I wish to let my son fail at drinking water from a drinking glass I have the resources to supply him with endless amounts of water. It seems that the path to a better society comes from those of us who have an excess in resources finding a way to create an environment for those in need to have some minimum level of security so that they feel safe to take risks.
Our inability to take risks can also be impacted by our memories of failures. There comes a point where feelings of failure can be somewhat traumatic. It can make us not want to try something again. I have postulated, not sure if it’s true, that one of the reasons why babies don’t form a lot of memories is because if they did they might be scared to take risks. This is something that a young child absolutely has to do just to be able to master basic movement and communication skills. My son has fallen hard at times, and after a few minutes he is back trying the same thing again. This short term memory seems a blessing at this age but it won’t last forever. Of course if we reflect on failure we would see that it is teaching us something, and that we probably should worry about failure a lot less than we do. If you’ve tried something a number of times and still failed, well maybe the lesson to be learned is to not do that activity anymore. That in of itself can be a success. Learning about what you can’t do, moves you in a different direction to try things that you have a better chance of succeeding. If energy and resources are finite then there is wisdom in not continuing in an activity once we realize that it is beyond us. This means the only truly detrimental failure is the failure to never try.
It’s easy once you get to the age of 40 to play it safe. Likely your life is already full of failure and it’s simple to say “enough is enough” and just survive. I was joking yesterday with my wife, given the extremely fast rate my son is figuring out how to use an iPad (and believe me we don’t give him a lot of access) that maybe that’s why kids always have to figure out technology for their parents, because once you have kids it’s easier to stop learning and let them (who learn things much faster and easier than you) do it for you. Ultimately this is not the type of person I want to be. I want to continue to grow, and over the last couple of months I’ve realized there are numerous areas of personal growth that I want to achieve and while I may like myself, to rest on my laurels would also be a mistake. I watch my son attempt tasks that are beyond his abilities and must remind myself that I must never stop trying to push my limits, and to take chances doing things that have a high chance of failure. It’s surprising how cautious we become as we age. It seems that perhaps the real secret to staying young is to maintain at least a shred of fearlessness and at least an ounce of self-confidence that defies what we think we know of ourselves. I must also remember to turn my parental instincts in a way that supports experiences of failure for my son. I’m not saying that I would intentionally cause him to fail, but only to remember that loving my son is not about preventing him from ever failing, but rather allowing him to fail, and stepping in at the right time to help him learn the most from his failures. So smile at your failures. They got you this far, and here’s to hoping you have many more.
I write this letter to you because I know that time changes our memories and feelings about events, and I wanted you to know what I was feeling in the first year of your life. I also wanted to let you know who I am now, and maybe what I’ve become as a result of you being in my life.
I will begin with the day you were born. We were at the hospital already. One of many trips we had taken in the last couple weeks as your mother’s blood was racing in excitement for you being born. Well that’s a nicer way of saying she had abnormally high blood pressure and we need to check her health and yours. We knew that day, which was 3 weeks before your due date, there was a possibility they would want to take you out to make sure she was safe, and that is exactly what ended up happening. I’ll proudly admit that I was rather calm. Perhaps because I had to do none of the hard work, but I also have a lot of faith in statistics. Problems with deliveries in our part of the world are rare, and we were at one of the best hospitals in the area with excellent doctors and nurses. I just knew everything was going to be alright, and I just wanted to make sure that your mother and you were fine and be calm and as in control for her as I could be. Since all the hard work was your mothers, my panicking would have served little purpose anyways. As they induced labor on your mother she got contractions quickly, and they started to impact your heart rate and so they decided that a cesarean section was necessary. They wheeled your mother away and got me suited up so that I was sanitary and when they let me into the operating room they told me to not touch anything covered in blue. The whole room seemed to be covered in blue and it was frightening obstacle course to get to the small stool next to your mother. I held her hand and she smiled at me. There was a large curtain separating the bottom half of your mother from our eyes so I couldn’t tell what they were doing. Apparently they were making a big slice into your mother and taking you out. The nurse handed you to me, all swaddled in apparently the same towel design they use in every hospital in the United States. You were born at 9:59 pm on Dec. 27th, 2014 at 5 pounds 5 ounces, 19 inches long. You were so light and I looked at you and said to myself “So that’s it then?” But your mom was tearing and she was too drugged up to really hold you. You were so light and I brought your face close to hers and she smiled and cried at how beautiful you were. I think it was a different experience for her. She carried you around for almost 9 months and could feel her body change and feel you grow. I would say at first I was more like a curious scientist, observing the whole process. It did not feel like you were my son yet. I hope that this doesn’t make you sad if you read this someday. I was emotional because your mom was, but I have to say I didn’t feel like a father yet.
For the rest of that evening I continued to play the scientist as I watched them put you in a little warmer since you were so tiny, and found it humorous that you were under a heat lamp like a burger at a restaurant. My feeling of being a father wouldn’t come until the next day when you didn’t have to be in the warmer anymore and we had be moved to our post delivery room and you were being fussy and unhappy and I picked you up and you quieted right down and became peaceful in my arms. It was at that moment that my eyes begin to water. I felt like you knew you were safe. And I felt like you knew you were with your daddy and I knew you were my son. And I knew that once someone feels safe with you, that you must be responsible so that they always feel that way. I began to feel this surge within me out of nowhere, wanting you to be healthy and strong, wanting to make sure that I safely guided you to be someone that could handle this world that can be both terrifying and wondrous at the same time. My head began to fill with dreams of what you would look like walking and talking, and questions you might ask, advice that I would give you, nursing tears and sharing joys. That’s when you know you are in love, and that’s when I knew I was in love with you.
But time teaches you patience. Perhaps that’s one advantage of having a 40 year old father. As I process this past year I think about all the amazing moments I’ve been able to see. These moments are small in comparison to what any human is capable of, but they remind me that in the process of growth even the most insignificant things can be great triumph because they happen along the way of great journeys. And you have a great journey ahead of you. I remember your first smile, the first time you opened your hands, your eyes following an object around the room for the first time, your first steps, your first crawl. However, if I were to pick a favorite moment, when I think of your first year, is the first time you made vocalizations. It happened one evening in between the age of 2 and 3 months. It was like for the first time you wanted to greet the world. It’s like you suddenly realized that you were no longer an extension of your mother, but you realized you were a separate individual entity and you wanted to announce your presence. Or perhaps it was that for the first time you realized that the world wasn’t just happening to you, you could happen to the world and you were just glad to be alive. You made the cutest gurgling noises, and were smiling and waving your little arms about. Your mother and I laid at your side on the bed and we just watched you. It was the most entertaining and amazing thing I’ve ever seen and your mother and I were incurably happy next to you. We would look at each other and just knew that as tiring as this might be some times it was also going to be incredibly rewarding and full of joy. We knew what family meant, and we felt an incredible amount of love for you and each other.
Tomorrow you will be a year old. You are now eagerly walking around and getting into all sorts of trouble. You are curious and exploring and it reminds me how important the process of movement is to discovery. In human history, the building of boats, cars, rockets, they all have allowed us to discover and learn more. Now that you can move the rate in which you will discover grows exponentially and I find myself continually blown away at how quickly your strength, dexterity, and intelligence grows. As I look back on the day I first fell in love with you I realize that my love was a beautiful house that is empty on the inside, and each day you fill that house with amazing memories. That love is now a home, and we are happy there, and excited for all the new memories that will fill that home. Sometimes I get really scared that something might happen to you, and that being in that home alone without you, with only those memories to look at, would be the saddest thing imaginable. But I would not dishonor your joy by getting lost in those fears. I keep in the back to keep you as safe as possible without taking away from your desire for self-determination and knowing that ultimately what we learn from risk and failure is as important as any other way there is to learn.
My heart is full of love and excitement because as your development continues I can show my love for you in so many new ways and I am anxious for you to experience it. I am also anxious to experience your love in new ways also. Though my appearance may change little, make no mistake that we are growing together. And as I sit here and write this I know one thing for certain. There are no words to express how much of a gift you truly are to my soul. It will take a lifetime together as father and son for those words to manifest and even then it will be in no language that can be spoken, but I guarantee that you will know it.