Some time ago I was told by a wise man that having a child is like wearing your heart on the outside of your chest. He was right; I love you more than I thought it was possible to love. And to be quite frank, over the past couple of years I haven’t quite known how to deal with the vulnerability that you bring to me.
By vulnerability, what I mean is that my heart physically aches when I think of you in pain. The range of emotions is pretty vast, in one second I feel upset when you fall over and hurt yourself such that I buy you ice-cream, and in another second I feel absolute anger when a child ostracises you at playschool such that I entertain you with more enthusiasm than you can probably handle. I just can’t deal with you not being ok. Functionally it is obvious what is going on here – I don’t like my own pain at seeing you in pain and thus take steps to stop it from happening.
But this is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, I know that as much as I would like to be a protective shadow for the rest of your life (I’d happily follow you around, no joke) that it wouldn’t do either of us any good. Secondly, even if I were able to protect you from bad things out there in the world I couldn’t do anything to protect you against your own thoughts and feelings. I know the statistics about psychological angst i.e. it happens to everyone. This means, that at some point in your life, my beautiful and carefree boy, you will probably experience depression, anxiety, worry, anger or a number of other heavy feelings. That thought is something that keeps me up at night.
So here I am Max, on the day of your 2nd birthday, writing you a letter to prepare you for what is to come. I do this today because I am frequently reminded of the unpredictability of life. So, on the off-chance that something ever happens which stops me from being your Dad in person, this is me having a Mufasa-like advice giving moment in the hope that it might be useful to you in the future. You ready for it? Here goes:
Life is hard. People die, people lose their jobs, people get their hearts broken, people struggle to feed their families and people struggle to maintain important relationships amongst a host of other hurtful events that can crop up along the way. Consequently, people suffer, and you, my son, will be no different. But here is a funny thing that not many people know; there is nothing wrong with suffering by itself; it is a normal human experience. What is problematic, however, is when we respond to suffering in unhelpful ways i.e. we often try our best to not have it by doing things designed to help us run away from our feelings. This could be drinking lots, shutting down people, working extra hard, exercising extra hard, taking an unhealthy amount of drugs etc. I am here to tell you that you don’t have to become embroiled in a war against your own feelings. You can just have them; you can let them play like a radio in the background whilst moving your feet in directions that are important to you.
I need you to know that suffering is not an enemy that you need to get rid of. In fact, quite the opposite; an understanding of the nature of suffering may come to be your greatest ally. Follow my logic here: in my opinion, loving relationships are the single most powerful reason to be alive. And for me, love involves being present, being open and being accepting of yourself and others. If you know the nature of suffering i.e. that you don’t have to run away from it in either yourself or in other people, then you will provide anyone that you ever meet with a space that honours their very human pain. Think about how that will bring you close to people, think about how it will better allow you to do the most important thing on earth; love.
So Max, love wholeheartedly, with energy, with compassion, with humour and with sincerity even when it hurts you to do so. I am already magnificently proud of you, my son; you are my very best friend, but if you manage to suffer and love in the way I have described then the world is yours and you’ll do a good job at this thing called life.