It seems in society today people are on the constant search for happiness. We try to obtain it through materials, success, fame, a nice body, a new perspective, the “perfect” relationship. But why does it seem that when we have all these avenues for happiness at our door step so many people are still dissatisfied? Maybe its not because we aren’t finding things that are making us happy but that we aren’t understanding that happiness can not be a 24/7 feeling.
And why should it be? What would life be without struggle, sadness, anger, or despair? How can we be in touch with the full experience of human life if we don’t expect difficult parts? I want my son to understand that happiness is not something to be constantly chased. Happiness is a wonderful part of life but it is one part and not the entire meaning of our existence. I believe that when we only focus on being happy we start to lose our tolerance for everything but happiness. Uncomfortable emotions become “bad” and something we should avoid at all costs. But sometimes we need sadness, fear, anger, vulnerability, and even jealousy because these emotions hold the clue to who we are, who we want to be, and what we care about. When we teach that happiness is the ultimate goal we start to equate that with an avoidance of everything else.
This does not mean I want my son to live a life of despair. I want him to have goals and desires and know what brings feelings of joy, pride, and a sense of accomplishment. But ultimately I want him to know that to get to those feelings you often have to tolerate and embrace the discomfort of vulnerability, potential rejection, frustration from barriers, and disappointment when it seems you aren’t getting anywhere. None of these things are “bad” but a part of the journey to getting what we want. They are the character building hurdles we must jump over to get to the grand prize.
Sometimes when he cries it tears my heart apart. I don’t like that feeling but I understand that it goes hand in hand with my love for him and that my discomfort with his struggles is a symbol of our beautiful connection. I cannot lie to myself in believing that he will never know suffering. Nor do I really want to prevent it full stop. I want him to know rejection, anxiety, vulnerability, guilt, jealousy, and anger. I want him to know himself, his strengths and limitations, and ultimately, his purpose. I want him to know the fullness you feel when you have pushed through a difficult time and emerged knowing more of yourself.
Our child’s lives will have pain, anguish, rejection, and despair. It does damage to believe our children should be shielded from that fact. It can send a message that they can’t handle the tough parts.
So I let him have tantrums on the floor and cry his heart out without offering quick fixes. I tell him he is feeling sad and that is okay. Initially I have at that discomfort with his negative feelings. I acknowledge this in myself; the vulnerability I feel. I push past it and start to see the beauty in our struggles. I comfort him but I do not fix it. I allow myself to witness his wrestle with his feelings. I see him start to take deep breaths and calm down. He comes over and gives me a hug. That moment is bliss to me and not because he’s calm now but because he’s wiser, more resilient, and more aware. Those are the tools that lead him to live a purposeful and full life. These are the moments that define him. I have Christmas mornings, opening birthday presents, watching him ride his first roller coaster or win his first soccer game. Those fill my maternal need to witness his happiness. But I will not push him forcefully towards happiness or shield him from any discomfort. I will guide him through darkness and teach him not to be afraid but to embrace it because those feelings are a part of him that is just as beautiful as his smiles and laughter.
So what is my #1 priority for my son in the grand scheme of life (other than the obvious-safety)? For me, it’s finding meaning in his life experiences. When we can take our experiences and derive meaning from them we are able to use the experiences as tools rather than view them as unnecessary pain. Finding meaning means examining how the experience changed us, how we can grow from it, and how we can use to it obtain joy and purpose. So I may be that annoying parent that asks my child “what can you learn from that?” when he makes a mistake or encounters rejection but I do this so he can build meaningful experiences from the painful ones. In meaning there is hope.
My love for him is stronger than happiness and joy because it is full of all the human experiences. My love knows when to tell him no, when to allow him to fail, when to encourage him to do something he wants to even thought it might not work out. I will not protect him from discomfort all the time especially when it’s for the purpose of keeping myself comfortable. My love is stronger than that.