For When You Are Older: a Letter to my Son

August 12, 2014

While we’ve been here up north for a therapy that will hopefully help you in the long run, there have been things happening in the world that are horrific and terrible. You will soon learn two things: 1) we live in a world that is both stunningly beautiful and devastatingly awful and 2) your mom and dad, like many parents, are working hard to stand between you and the particular ugly things that exist.

But at some point you will know it and see it and hear about it and read it. At some point you will find your stomach turned more than once at the news. At some point it will hit you- the fear and horror that happens. Maybe it will start small- when you encounter a bully at school who punches because he can’t handle his own pain, or when you listen to a lady from church who is verbally violent about others and hides behind false piety. Maybe it will start big- when you learn of government backed nations that shoot bullets into preteen boys playing on a beach, or when you discover the terrible events of other countries which the world mostly ignores since nothing can be gained from those countries’ land.

In some ways, as I have pled your case before God at night while you sleep, I have felt guilty thinking of the mothers in these other countries who are screaming in agony at the loss of their three year olds. I’ve felt like my prayers for you seem so mild compared to the parents of starving kids stuck on a mountain- their only place of relative safety from the ruthlessness of hateful violence that waits outside the mountains vicinity to kill any who might venture down- slowly dying of dehydration. I have felt humbled knowing my prayers for you are so safe compared to those who live in war zones.

The shocking violence of the world worries me. To put it mildly. I have sometimes wondered if it was wise to bring you into a place where you could be shot by a classmate and have your face be exploited by both anti-gun and pro-gun lobbies. I have thought in fear that the world you inherit will be a place of deep hardship for you as you dodge things I never had to face as a child. I worry for you, not simply because most mothers worry about their kids, but because this particular generation of mothers is dealing with stresses that we might never have imagined. The world is a beautiful place, and it is also a scary one. And the escalation of violence, which we see at the touch of a screen or the flick of a finger, makes me cringe sometimes when I think of how I will explain such things to you.

And the reality is, I can’t. I can’t explain these devastating events and opinions and actions. I don’t get it either. But I can offer you this:

Son, if and when you are faced with a situation that has no easy way out, think long and hard about your options. I don’t care if you are facing the bully in your class or the enemy of your country- think long and hard about your options. Too often we told that our only recourse is to hit back as fast as we can and harder than they hit us. Sometimes we are even told we should hit them preemptively because they might hit us (that kind of thinking is very dangerous, son). It is true that violence begets violence. That in order to enact the violence we are so capable of and yet don’t always realize it, we must go through an entire (often subconscious) process of exalting ourselves and our beliefs and thoughts, while dehumanizing the other and placing less value on that person’s life and well-being. It’s our way of justifying what we choose to do. And it is wrong. And on a lesser scale, we begin to explain to ourselves that such actions are required in order to teach the enemy a lesson, to force him or her to see their error and to punish with some sort of painful action, with little regard for their personhood.

This sort of stuff is real. And it happens every day to every one of us on various levels of intensity. So that’s why I want you to think long and hard about your options.

If you encounter a situation of aggression or violence (or if you live in a country encountering a situation), you will be told you must act. And it’s possible that you must. It’s possible that you need to something  to stop someone from acting a certain way toward others or even toward you. The question is not usually, “Should I do something?” The questions usually is, “What should I do?”

The answer you will hear the most where you live is this: hit, strike, hurt, kill, do whatever you must to stop the aggression. This is a common belief, very popular. You will even hear this among those who claim to support all life one day but then gladly vote to bomb entire countries another day. And yes, when you learn of those people, I will join you in the perplexity of such an incongruent life. You may equally scratch your head at the people who will protest bombing others, but harbor such venomous rage toward the people around them. They too will live an incongruent life that (I hope) will confuse you. But you will hear this belief to be aggressive in response to aggression often and loud. You will find that it is your impulse is to act in that way. You will want to hurt people who hurt you. You will want to hurt people who you think might hurt you. And sometimes you will follow through on that impulse.

And here’s what I want to tell you about that:  If you make a choice to hurt someone, you must be willing to bear the responsibility of that decision. You cannot pass the buck to someone else- even if someone else told you to do it. You cannot even place the blame on your enemy, even if you felt you had to choose the best option out of a bunch of bad options in order to deal with the situation. If you make the choice to hurt someone, to strike, to hit, to punch, to kill in defense, then be prepared to take on the full responsiblity of that choice. Know the reasons for doing so and make sure they are very, very, very solid, because you will have to have own them and own them well. Perhaps if you do that- perhaps if we all did that- we might be more prone to finding other options than the common violence you will someday begin to see.

And the second thing I want to tell you is this: never, ever, ever celebrate that you responded to someone’s aggression with aggression of your own. Even if the reasons are solid. Never, celebrate your returned violence. If you reflected long, if you entered in ready to take full responsiblity with a seriousness that is needed, then you will know that any response with aggression is a failure. Perhaps a necessary failure, but certainly a grievous one.

But aggression in response to violence is not your only option- no matter how popular it may be. There’s also the possibility that you might take seriously the life of Jesus, who called us to live peaceably with others. To turn the cheek. To speak truth but in grace. Perhaps you will learn what the disciples who walked closest to him learned- that the gospel was worth dying for, but they never chose to kill for it. Had they done so, it would have destroyed the entire point of the gospel. Perhaps your generation will grow weary of the violence that my generation and the generations before me and between us have perpetuated, and you will find creative and firm solutions that put down weapons and weapon-wielded words. Perhaps you will choose to be an active peacemaker, aware of the wild ugliness of the world and standing firm that with the Kingdom of God there is another way. I hope and pray you will do better than we have. A lot better. I want you to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, but to do that well, you must be willing to learn it well, from Jesus. The Jesus that some people try to explain away to justify violence. But in the end, to be true to who he is, you must agree that the direction he leaned in such matters was always toward peace. How we come to peace seems to be the hard question we all face.

So far, you have avoided learning the ways of aggression and violence in the world. Your daddy and I have committed to parenting you gently. To the art of training and teaching and discipline that does not include striking and hurting or using weapon-words. We will fail, but the belief and value of gentle parenting is one of the touchstones of our roles with you, one to which we return and relearn daily. It is not what we were taught, and it is hard sometimes because of that and because we too have this innate, human impulse to hurt others when we believe we are being hurt. We know that thus far you have not learned the ways of aggression to do what you believe you must in a situation. But we are not naive. We know it is coming. We know it is going to happen. Because you can’t live long in this world without it happening. And it is the propensity of the human heart to act in such a way.

But that is why I am writing. Because I know that one day your heart will be crushed by the events such as the recent ones across an ocean from us. Because one day you will have to face a boy or girl who is too wounded in spirit to know not to hurt others and his or her desire for power over classmates is so strong. Because one day you may experience the heaviness of a gunman in the room down the hall, or at the movie theater, or in the car beside you. I write this because one day you will see the injustices done to people half a world away, or to people in your own neighborhood who are killed simply because their skin is a particular color and someone has attached stereotypes to it, and you will feel the impulses rise from somewhere deep inside of you to retaliate. Because that time is coming and will come over and over and over again. And I what you to be as prepared for it as possible. Prepared to make careful choices, to reflect closely and deeply on your options, to own your actions… and to hopefully choose to be a man of peace.

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