They Grow Up Just RightFebruary 1st, 2013
“Kids grow up too fast.”
With two of them running around my life, I think this is the common advice I receive from the passerby.
“Enjoy it! They grow up too fast.”
These lines are interesting for a couple of reasons. First, they indicate a problem: Kids growing up too fast. This seems to be a universal problem. Second, we see a “solution” for the fact of kids growing up too fast – enjoying them, enjoying the time while they are young.
“Enjoying it” is not necessarily bad advice. Ecclesiastes draws the same conclusion about life moving quickly toward death, its apparent end. He says, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun” (Ecc. 9:9; see also 3:13). But in Ecclesiastes, this advice about temporal enjoyment is still dissatisfying because it doesn’t adequately answer to the problem of death.
I would argue that the same holds true in regards to “enjoying your children,” while the fact of their growing up still looms in the immediate future.
What does “enjoying” actually mean, anyway?
As an initial observation, I would note that we are all busy with many things, and are often quite distracted. This makes “enjoying” something, or really entering into its mystery, rather difficult.
Sometimes, however, and often in short bursts, we do a really good job with activity (family vacations, meals, sporting events, etc.) or with “capturing the moments” with cameras, HD camcorders or blog posts. Thus we have “enjoyment” through activity – how American!
I think most people bounce between these two poles – distraction and over-activity. At least this is typically the case for me. Honestly, neither position is very satisfying. The former misses the mark entirely, while the methods of the latter still result in a fleeting sense of happiness, or worse, sentimentalism. In the end, it’s all vanity.
In order to probe deeper into an answer about what “enjoying” children means, let’s look at the real problem: Kids growing up so quickly is a supreme injustice.
Aside from the thought of losing a child, my reflections on my children growing up result in a certain pain that is difficult to express. (Now, this isn’t to say I’m depressed about their futures or something of the like – there is great reason to be hopeful and joyful in that regard. What I’m trying to get at is the common pain of loss). On the first day of school this year, I passed a family standing in their front yard snapping some photos of gangly kids with big backpacks ready to start school once again. In those moments, life surges forward in your head and you picture yourself in the same situation – it is tragic. Certainly exciting, but the feeling of loss is tragic.
Here’s another illustration:
Last Fall (as in 2011), I was raking leaves in the backyard, when our 2-year-old joined me. She was being consumed by her hat and coat, and was rather poor at handling the rake. She spent most of the time looking around and talking. In fact, she made me less active and less productive. Yet, that time spent with her was imbued with tremendous happiness. And, the consequent experience was one of extreme sadness. Why?
Well, I think beauty leaves us wounded – more than we would like to admit. In those moments with her, God gifted me with a certain attentiveness to the beauty of nature and humanity, the purity of innocence, and the goodness that is the gift of life – I was open to being surprised instead of busy with many activities or distractions. This was more than a sentimental fling – it struck far deeper than affectivity. This was an experience of truth, beauty, justice and goodness.
Then, it was over.
It got too cold and we had to go inside. Riches turned to poverty – happiness to sadness. My wife snapped a photo of our daughter that afternoon. It sits in our living room. Each day I look at the photo and I suppose I’m motivated to “enjoy” our kids more, and I suppose that’s good. But, I can’t deny the fact that I’m actually more consumed with this deep sadness or restlessness, and not even for some sort of sensational return to that moment on that Fall afternoon.
And, I think this is the point of “existential sadness” (as I like to call it). The fleeting nature of experiences of truth, beauty, justice and goodness, the fleeting nature of kids growing up and life in general, strikes a deep chord of dissatisfaction, or supreme injustice, in the human heart – if we are willing to enter into the full mystery of the moment and risk the sadness that will ensue.
And here’s where “enjoying it” takes an unexpected turn. I am arguing that enjoying time with kids means embracing the full mystery of existence. It means standing before reality without an agenda, or a project, without distraction – willing to be surprised and even wounded. Why? Because only in this position are we able to fully enter into the mystery of life and realize that the restlessness and dissatisfaction actually has a purpose or an aim. This experience is the desire for infinitude and perfection that only finds its satisfaction in the Infinite himself:
CCC 27: The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.
Here, human attempts to quell the pain of loss or injustice give way to acts of surrender to the Mystery himself. The restlessness of the heart find rest in Him (thank you St. Augustine).
Thus we can note at least two things in conclusion:
The desirable position is the one that freely allows the heart to live and be consequently pierced by the temporal nature of this life – because in the happiness is gratitude, and in the sadness or injustice, there is entreaty.
Photo credit: B. Bursa, used with permission