The Better Path

There is a fairly famous poem called “Desiderata.” You may have seen it before. The first lines are “Go placidly amid the noise & haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

Desiderata

I found a large framed copy of this poem recently as I was packing up my mother’s apartment. A little over a year ago, my mother had a stroke that requires her to live full time in a nursing home from now on. I remember this framed copy hanging in the house I grew up in, so it meant enough to Mom to have kept it for a long time.

My mother is a person of many contradictions. She can be both generous and cold. She is often critical and just as often accepting. She is relentlessly critical of some people but is capable of acceptance and forgiveness.  She voted for Trump but also has spent an unknown amount of money to support children in developing countries and also children with developmental disabilities in this country. She has done many things in her life but complains that she’s not accomplished anything.

The poem exhorts us to be the best version of ourselves and not worry overmuch about what might have been. “You are a child of the universe,” it says, “no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

And maybe that’s why mom has this framed copy, as something to reflect on when it all seems too difficult, as a way of reminding her to stop once in a while, take a deep breath, and try again. Perhaps we all have things that we put in place to remind of to strive for better and not succumb to the darker impulses. It might be a poem, a book, or a song. It could be rosary beads or a religious artifact. It could be a special picture or movie.

The thing is, even though the poem was parked in my mom’s closet and not hanging on a wall, the fact that she still kept it tells me that she is, at 84 years old, still in the process, as are all of us I suppose.

I’ve said before that knowing one’s parents is complicated, especially for those of us who have our parents in our lives for over five decades, and for those of us who have parents who have been difficult to understand.

So it can’t be said often enough that stopping once in a while, taking a deep breath, and trying again can lead us to the better path.

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It Is Hard to Be Kind to Your Parents

It is hard to be kind to your own parents.

Wait…I know that sounds harsh, especially on Fathers’ Day, so let me unpack that a bit.

I think there may be a reason that the Bible tells us–in fact it commands us–to honor our fathers and mothers. Think about it. Why would the ancient Hebrews need God to come down out of Heaven and tell them to honor their fathers and mothers? Is it perhaps because it is not an easy thing to do?

Kindness has been defined by some as empathy and respect for another person.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Empathy is the ability to really be inside another person, as much as that is possible. You can do it with siblings and peers. Can you really empathize with your parents?

Parents, by definition, are of an older generation. They are shaped by social and economic forces that did not shape you. They try to pass their “values” down to you, but out of context, those values can be quaint to the point of being meaningless.

Also, parents change over time just like anyone else. Their parenting styles evolve, their belief systems evolve. No matter how much we’d like them to remain the same person we knew as children, they are not, and neither are you.

My mother used to say that each child in a family is raised by a slightly–or sometimes wildly–different person. That would mean that my view of my father and mother is different from that of my brother and two sisters. And it is. My brother, who is younger, is much angrier at my folks than I am, for good reasons. Some writers publish childhood memoirs, only to hear from brothers and sisters that they didn’t remember it that way at all.

Parents also have privileges or struggles that we often don’t have. This can make us sad or angry at them. It can make it very hard to be kind. So how, exactly, are we to empathize?

As for respect, that is also complicated. Respect is something that must be earned from another person. To demand respect because of your position, age, wealth, or any other reason, results in bullying and hypocrisy.

Am I saying that parents must earn our respect? Yes, I am in a way. We cut them a lot of slack, because they are our parents. But ultimately, they have to earn that or risk losing everything that a family is supposed to stand for.

So, it is hard to be kind to one’s own parents. We do it anyway, because we are expected to–by our society, by our culture, by God. But let’s not reduce it to greeting-card sentimentality and phony familial relationships.

Let’s be honest about how hard it can be, and then forgive ourselves for not always being very kind.