Reflections on the old Chinese Curse: May You Live In Interesting Times!
I spent the morning today talking with a friend who lives across the street. We sat on the porch enjoying the Indian summer weather and talked about being parents and coaches for our children, and we talked about change. My friend and I are not many years apart in age. We came from different parts of the country and had different educational experiences, but we grew up in the same social class. We are the sons of yeoman workers, people without formal educations who would be classified now as blue-collar workers. We reminisced about our journeys over the last fifty years or so, and how America and we have changed.
My friend has two grown children. I have one who is grown and one who is sixteen. We talked about the roles and responsibilities of parenting. My friend and I are interested in the question of freedom and control. When our children are young, as parents, we have absolute control, but the parenting journey is one I call the “dance of separation.” The goal is to raise children with the skills, values, and abilities to separate from us and our households, to take their place in society. Our children must learn to live independently, support themselves and continue the generational evolution.
We spent a lot of time talking about generational evolution. I grew up in a white, southern, blue-collar, alcoholic household in the late fifties and early sixties. My father was not formally educated. He dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade to join the navy in World War II. He survived, came home and joined the Little Rock police force. We lived in a very racially segregated and economically stratified society. Our town was divided by a railroad track. The further away from the tracks your house was on the north side of the tracks up into the hills, the more money and status you had, the more “acceptable” you were. The closer to the tracks you lived, the less acceptable you were. We lived on the last white street before the tracks.
Interestingly enough, the black community was the opposite. The closer to the tracks and to the white neighborhood you lived, the more money and status you had. While growing up there, I played mostly with black children. But, I had more status and was of course, more equal than they were. I was a teen during the Central High School integration. I remember Orval Faubus, the paratroopers and the angry tenor of the times. I mention this to open the door for a conversation about cultural change. I found out as an adult that my father had joined the Klu Klux Klan when he became a police officer because, as he said, most of his policeman friends belonged. Remember he was not formally educated and was a product of his times and his culture. The reason I write about this is because in the span of less than twenty years, my father changed from being a member of the Klan to being one of the men who integrated the railroad unions in Arkansas. He grew, he changed. He could recognize and advocate for justice and legal equality, even while he remained prejudiced. Few people used the dreaded “N” word more than my dad. What a mixed bag he was. He was self-educated, and at times violent and drunk. Yet, he performed in his responsibilities as a just advocate of social change. What a paradox!
My friend told me about his family. He had a sister who was severely retarded and epileptic. His mother was advised to put her daughter away by the medical establishment and the schools. There was pressure in the neighborhood to keep her hidden. My friend remembers that his first girlfriend was forbidden to date him when her parents learned about his sister because it might be contagious and was certainly an indication of God’s judgment on him and his family.
It is so fascinating how certain our social mores are, how absolutist they can be and how our political demagogues use this certainty to try and “control” their vision of society. They “know” what is best. They pass laws and enforce rules of behavior to make us conform to what they know. Yet in spite of that, people change. My friend has a daughter that lives a non-traditional family life. He has struggled with that but has made his peace with it (mostly.) He loves her and has learned that he cannot reject her because she did not follow the path that he envisioned for her. I admire him the same way I admire my dad. It is hard to go against your upbringing. It is difficult to challenge the social certainties and verities of your community.
How can I teach my son to be this kind of man? I cannot control his choices or his thinking. I can model for him, and be as conscious as possible that I am always on stage. He watches me and learns from me. If he is typical, by the time he was in the fifth grade he would have made a list of “when I have children I will……, and when I have children I will not……” He has certainly gone through the stage of comparative parenting where he looks at the life my wife and I create for him and the lives of his friends. I do not know what he thinks in his heart of hearts. But I pray that he is gentle with me in his memory when he is my age. Age has allowed me to see my dad from a different perspective than the man I saw growing up.
In the end, I can only live my life and try to do no harm. I try to live this way as a teacher, a therapist, and a friend. I will be judged. My son will judge me. I can only do what I do. I wonder what he will think of my “social evolution” fifty years from now when he sits on the porch with his neighbor? How will I wear over time? Who will he be? Will my life and my values “pay it forward”? Will the ripples of me touch his children? Will they touch the lives of my students and clients? Do I matter? At the very least, have I done no harm?
I will not know. We cannot see the entire string. We can only see the segment where we are standing. I can only walk my path. I cannot control the outcomes. I am a part, a reflection of the whole of my society and culture. I contribute, but I do not control. I can only strive to be a positive contributor, but it is for others to know the truth of that. I would love to hear his front porch conversation in fifty years.