Judging our parents … or standing on their shoulders

One of the guys I mentored in college, Mike*, has decided he’s going on the World Race, and I couldn’t be happier. I joined him and his parents for dinner tonight, and did my best to honestly lay out the philosophy, nuts and bolts, and heart of the Race to them. I tried to explain why anyone would want to go on it, why anyone would feel a need to go do something so drastic.

*Mike is a placeholder name.

A large part of the philosophy that motivates a journey like the Race is that we are adolescent, and somehow we need to grow up. We are asleep, but we need to be awake. Our hearts are dull, but we want them to beat strong. I believe these things are true. I am still growing up, I am still coming awake, and my heart is still learning to truly beat. Mike hopes the same things might happen to him. He knows he isn’t there yet.

In short, we decide that there is something wrong in us, and we are going out on a journey in the hope of making it right.

So, an issue arises when you try (even subtly) to communicate something like this to parents. I remember it with my own parents a few years ago. I know that every kid that ever wants to go out on a wild journey has to walk through the same issue with their own parents.

The issue is this: most parents think their kids are fine, just as they are.

Well, duh. If they’re loving parents who unconditionally approve of their kids, of course they’ll think their kids are just fine. I ain’t condemning that. But still there’s a mean problem there. It shows itself like this, as an unspoken dialogue:

Parents: Son, you are fine. You don’t need this thing.
Son: No, I’m not fine. Something is wrong. I need to go.
Parents: Well, we think you’re fine.
Son: You don’t understand.
Parents: But you’re doing as well as we were, when we were your age.
Son: That … that isn’t good enough for me.

That last line hangs in the air, and everyone in the room slowly catches the message whispered through it. Mike’s choice to not follow the developmental road of his parents is not just a rejection of their plans — it is an implicit indictment of their standards, their choices, even their lives. It is an act that says I don’t want your life. It is a cutting-off, a delineation in the sand, and it is decisive.

It doesn’t help that usually this son or daughter is going through the unrest of adolescence, the anger and turbulence of self-discovery. In that mood, they could be resentful, judgmental, openly condemning toward their parents. Mom and Dad might feel their child has decided to discard everything they’ve tried to pass down — all the values, the cultural inheritance, the standards and wisdom from both their lives. All rejected. Both parents and child can feel deeply misunderstood. This cutting-off can really hurt.

But, thank God, the story doesn’t end there.

##

Sometime much later, Mike will come home. He will be able to look his parents in the eyes, and see that these two people tried with all their might to lay a foundation, to provide a launchpad for his life. There is no more resentment — there is no need for it. How can Mike blame these parents anymore for trying to provide the best life possible for their son?

Yes, the process of identity-formation, apart from parents, is an implicit process of divorce. No, that is not the final word in such a story. The final word is that we sons and daughters get to build atop our parents’ bedrock. Instead of working back up from scratch, as though we were orphans … we get to start where they ended and make something new with our lives, something better, something more.

These last couple of years, readjusting to life in Austin, I’ve become incredibly grateful for my parents. We do not share all the same values, and my goals and hopes are not the same as theirs. But, I can see that what they taught me has become folded into who I am — and for that, I am not resentful, but happy. May it be so for all the sons and daughters who go out and decide to do something wild.

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