Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled "If," in which he listed a bunch of things for his son to do, concluding that if he did them all, he'd be a man. It's a great poem. But as I reflected on it, I wondered if perhaps to make such a list is to set the bar too high - to doom one's son to failure, and then guilt. Who, after all, could measure up? If a boy must do all these things to be a real man, does failing in one or more of them make him less real, less a man?
I don't think so. To be a man is also to fail, and although it's cliche to write this, it is what you do with those failures that matters (as Kipling's list acknowledges). I am writing this list then, my son, not as a standard for you to measure yourself against, but as a letter of love to outline what my hopes, prayers and dreams are for you as I watch over you in the middle of this night, a month from the day of your birth.
These aren't my achievements. More often than not, I included them because I hope to spare you some of the heartache I bear over the ways in which I have failed to keep them.
I love you, son. Not in some Hollywood string quartet way, but in the guts and gristle of the everyday. And if time, fate, God, or those weasels in Washington should take from me the chance to help you grow to manhood, perhaps this short list will help guide whomever has that privilege. So without further ado...
BECAUSE YOU'LL BE A MAN, MY SON:
1. You are Amazing. You were born wonderful, with wonderfullness oozing from your pores. You are a fragment of the divine, envisioned in God's infinitely-faceted creative eye and refracted here, now, as a unique expression of that creativity. You therefore have boundless intrinsic value. Although your life will be enriched by other people, by things, and by experiences, these are not necessary for you to matter and to be amazing. You just are.
2. Other People are Just as Amazing as You: This is a tough one to actually live. Not only were you born selfish, but you live in a world that tends to glorify selfishness, rarely acknowledging the paradoxical truth that only when you know how to sacrifice some of your immediate urges for the good of others can your True Self come alive.
The differences between you and others are socio-cultural imaginations and not, therefore, an occasion for pride. You are born to privilege: a white male member of the richest, most powerful nation on earth (for now). The silver in your mouth is practically a shovel. Not only that, but you'll probably inherit my dashing good looks and your mother's family's physical strength, two things that your nation values almost as much as money. Face it, boy... you're set up.
This is why you must always remember that everyone else is just as amazing as you, and that it would be silly to use your advantages of wealth, race, gender, strength and nationality to dominate other people. Take women, for instance. Or rather, don't take them. Cherish them and ask them nicely, and then accept when they say "no." Yes, yes, I know: they are hot, sexy tamales. But in that aspect and in that regard, I believe you will only ever be at your best with one of them (at least at a time), and only after you've committed to love that one with the self-sacrificing love that is the mark of true greatness.
3. Be the Captain of Your Soul: You were born with an amazing gift: the capacity to choose, and by your choices to change the reality in which you live. At times your range of choices will seem to you to shrink down to nothing -- but don't be fooled! There will always be more options than it seems. The power of your proactive self is incredible. While you cannot do absolutely anything you set your mind to (despite what Hollywood and the Little Engine That Could try to tell you), unless you set your mind to something and work hard to attain it, you won't accomplish a thing.
So instead of complaining about things you are unwilling to make personal sacrifices to change, act! The world does not need another armchair messiah. Complaining is easy. Do the hard thing.
4. Learn to Be Still: It is one thing to tell you to charge out and do things. It is quite another to show you what it is to do. A lot of awful stuff has been done by proactive people who, in one way or another, have gotten their well-intentioned heads screwed on backwards. Why should you be trying to change things, if there's a distinct possibility you'll just make them worse? I think it's because - as one of the most gifted, privileged people on the planet - you have an obligation to the less fortunate to try.
Start by stopping. Calm yourself. Listen deeply and well before speaking. Seek first to understand, with empathy, the minds and hearts of others. Reserve judgment for as long as possible - perhaps forever. Consider extensively, pronounce rarely. Pray, walk around a lot in the woods (naked, if you have to), and breathe deeply.
5. Love Yourself: Show that you love yourself by being kind to your body. Your body is not you, not entirely, but it is a very important aspect of who you are. It is, as the Bible would say, a temple and a vessel of the Divine that is in you. For this reason it is holy, and ought to be cherished as such. So be active. Exercise your body and feed it good food. This will not only help your body, but it'll nourish those mysterious deeper bits of you that we talk about when we refer to your mind, personality, and soul. You'll think better, and you'll feel better about yourself.
Don't get me wrong. You can't ever fully control what happens to your body. This isn't a power struggle against your cells because, sadly, your cells will degrade and fail you. But however your health may be, you are still in a love relationship with your body, and all love relationships require discipline and an exercise of will in order to maintain what health is possible.
6. Love the Truth: God is Truth. If you seek after Truth, God will be there. And here's another thing - you don't even have to seek! The Truth is here, all around you. The trees sing Truth! Truth isn't some new way of thinking, forever skittering out of your grasp. Truth isn't about knowledge, or power. No, Truth is a very old thing, so obvious that most people miss it. You'll never find it by micro-analyzing a tree. You'll find it by smiling through the forest, with gratitude. Because the path and the destination of Truth is gratitude. So smile and say thanks, because the good news is here, and it is freedom!
7. Be Amazed: You are amazing. Other people are amazing. God is amazing. Everything is amazing. There is more amazingness in one flower in one crannied wall than you can ever comprehend, or dissect down into the sterility of its component parts. You can seek Truth day and night, but in the end, one of the greatest Truths you'll ever find is the ability to accept the incomprehensible amazingness of it all. Some of the smartest people the world has ever produced have failed to grasp this, because grasping this is an ongoing act of great Humility, and one thing people don't like is to be humble.
But there are more things in heaven and earth, son, than could possibly be dreamed of in any philosophical system you might devise. The Truth is not just there to be humbly accepted, however, it is there to be enjoyed, wrestled with, and smiled at. I have seen a number of amazing things in my life that I could rationalize away, but I don't want this to be my fate, or yours. It may be smarter to never let a mystery BE, but it is not wiser. My heart says some mysteries should not be understood. And the head, un-tempered by the heart, is dead.
8. Forgive: Hone this ability through constant practice. Not forgiving is like rolling around in radioactive waste, and then hanging around the person you won't forgive, waiting for it to hurt them. Yes, they'll suffer -- but not nearly as much as you.
Learn to forgive, and you'll begin to get a glimmer of what it means to love, because true love doesn't impose conditions. True love forgives before the beloved even has a chance to offend. And love like that makes everything possible. Until you can give that kind of love, you won't be free to receive it. And you need that kind of love, son, way down in your bones.
9. Cherish Your Mother: You have no idea what she went through to share with you this amazing Gift of Life. Bits of her had to die for you to live. That's true love right there, and you should be grateful (and tell her so, often).
10. Live Now: Try to spend as little time as possible yearning for the past or the future. There is no time but the present. Experiences from your past and plans for your future should inform how you live right now, but they should not define you. Your life is a tabula rasa - a blank slate. Learn to be still, and you will learn to hear and understand the messages being broadcast into your psyche by the experiences of your past, in order to channel and direct your best longings for the future. C.S. Lewis (another writer you should look up) says that the present is the only place that time touches on eternity. The way to live forever, son, is to live now. The way to touch the face of God is to swim through the truth of the present.
- - -
Well son, I guess that's all I have to say for now.
I love you, always forever.
- - -
I found this letter this past week whilst cleaning out some old papers. My son is five, now, almost six, but I've had a compelling urge to type it up onto the internets.
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