My son turned 13 yesterday. A teenager! When he was a baby and toddler, my boss – a father of teenagers himself – liked to tell me, “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.” This was…. an ominous and heavy response to my stories of “he just won’t go to sleep” and “I wonder if he’ll ever eat vegetables.”
He still has a hard time settling in to sleep, and he probably ate more vegetables at age 2 than he does now. He has a hard time with things that were easy for me and his dad. And things that we struggle with are no problem for him. He’s not us, and yet we get to raise him. We know him like the palm of our own hands or the beats of our own hearts -and yet he’s a mystery, a whole person unto himself. What a privilege it is to raise him. And what a responsibility.
In particular, it’s a big, tricky responsibility to know what the nonnegotiable rules are -what we must make him do for his own good – and what are the points where we need to back the heck off. What are invitations and what are mandates? I can make him take his mask with him when he leaves the house, but I have to trust that he’ll have the good sense to wear it when he gets on the bus. I can impose consequences if I see him without a bike helmet, but I’m not there every minute he’s riding. I can make sure he turns in his writing assignment, but I can’t make him love the work. We love him so much we ache with it, but we can’t make him be happy.
I think he is happy, actually, but I can’t make him tell me. I can’t make him show happiness in order for me to pat myself on the back for raising him to be happy.
He’s still a mid-size kid with mid-size, manageable problems. He’s the source of outsized joy and love. We know that God wants him to be happy, and we want him to know that our love is always there for him. He wants us to play soccer with him and get him shoes and sometimes drive him home from school rather than make him ride the bus all the time. I’m totally cool with that.
Love Power (Notes for parents!)
Love is the most powerful thing in the whole world. But love isn’t successful in the short-run. What can God do? God cries with us and suffers with us. Those who are parents with children know that you can’t make their way smooth all the time, can you? They are going to make mistakes and be wrong and do destructive things. All you can do is cry and hurt and suffer with them, and continue to love them through the whole mess.
That’s an example of how God works. I think when God sees the hurts and destructive messes, God cries and God suffers and God is in pain. That’s what love is. We can draw a couple of practical conclusions from this. We can look at our selves and our relationships, especially family relationships and romantic relationships. There is always the tendency to control and dominate. Did you and someone else ever try to make each other do what you each wanted the other to do? We all do that. Sometimes it is obvious and sometimes it is sneaky; sometimes we do it by being bombastic and sometimes by being coy – but we do it.
In our close relationships, how much do we imitate God and allow the person to be free – let them grow, love them and nurture them and permit them to be who they are? We don’t do a very good job of that, because we are in the process along with the whole universe, and we are a long way from where we would like to be, but that is what God is drawing us to.
The strange thing is that when we are trying to control people and make them do what we want them to do, we convince ourselves that we are doing it for their own good. “I am making you do this for your own good.” We so easily get into that. The more we are into control, domination, and power, the more we tell ourselves, “I am doing this for their own good.” That’s baloney.
God is love – total and infinite love. That is the glory and it is also the problem for us.
Excerpted from the homily “Love Power” in Surrounded by Love by Father John Clay, (c) 2005