Where Did We Wander from the Path?
The insecurities of a parent and human being, poorly articulated, generalized, projected onto others, and otherwise all messed up into a ball of vague and dangerously pandering pilotage. Yeah, it’s one of those posts.
Image used by generous permission from Mark Whitaker
I, like a few billion other people on this planet, have kids. They are a fascinating study. Most days I feel less like a parent and more like a disheveled psychologist-zoologist hybrid. If I bothered to carry a notebook around, I would have enough notes to write several treatises on the applied chaos theory that dictates peanut butter and jelly versus turkey and cheese, or the dominance of the id and the surfacing of early onset Münchausen syndrome at bath time.
But like most parents, I do the only thing I know how: I just try to keep up.
Young children have constantly shifting personalities, tastes and passions. One minute they are quiet and sweet, and the next they are full-bore assholes throwing military-grade tantrums. One minute they want to draw giant trucks on construction paper, the next ride their bikes inside and crash into walls on purpose. One minute they want to watch a PBS documentary on polar bears, the next it’s Yo Gabba Gabba.
We ask the wrong question.
But there is one constant. Whatever my kids are doing, whatever they want to do, whatever part of their school day they’re describing, it’s the single most important thing in their life. They latch onto something and they throw their very soul into it. My son does not just draw trucks. He draws the shit out of those trucks. My daughter doesn’t just wrestle with me. She growls like a bear and launches herself throw the air, totally fearless, hell bent on dragging me to the ground. They don’t just play Candyland together. They sweat over every card they draw, curse the gods and gnash their teeth when the other gains the lead, and the celebration when they win is one stadium short of a SuperBowl.
Their passion, in every moment, overflows. It’s vibrant, almost tangible, a stream of energy that whips around them like liquid fire. There is no walking, there is only running. There is no kiss good night, there is only fierce hugs and 300 “I-love-you“s and “you’re-my-best-friend“s before I close the door. Sometimes, it’s contagious. Mostly, it’s exhausting.
We “adults” watch our kids race around like cats with their tails on fire, sip our lattes, and question where they get “all that energy”.
But it’s the wrong question.
It’s not about them having something we don’t. It’s about them having something we lost. Instead, we should ask ourselves: at what point did we wander from the path of living? At what point did we lose our passion? Because that’s what fuels the little ones. Unfiltered, high-octane, 100% organic passion for that very second that they’re living in right now. At what moment was our fire stifled?
Now let’s talk about our day.
We woke up tired. We went to the office and sat in front of our computer. We went to meetings we didn’t want to go to with people we don’t like to talk about stuff we don’t know anything about. We spent too much on a lunch we should not have eaten. We paid our cable bill late, again. We worked for maybe three hours of the eight our employer pays us for. Maybe one of those hours was legit; the rest was shuffling papers and delegation. We left early and sat in traffic and listened to news about oil spills and wars in deserts to which we’ll never travel. We ate a dinner rehydrated from some brown silt and chunks poured from a box manufactured by Kraft. We left the dishes in the sink. We watched four hours of empty cable television, laughed once, peed twice, and then went to bed where the sheer exhaustion of doing nothing all day kept us up late enough that we’re going to wake up tired tomorrow. Again.
In 99 percent of our day, you and I utterly failed to breathe any passion, any energy, into what we were doing. We drifted. We sleepwalked. We gave up before we started, because we knew exactly what the day was going to be like and we let it defeat us before we even stubbed our toe getting into the shower. We lived our life in the exact opposite manner of a child. Instead of embracing the moment, we did everything we could to avoid eye contact with the moment.
Somewhere, the world lost its way. Somewhere, we let the fire of our youthful passion be beaten and hardened into a cold gray lump. Somewhere, it sits in the back of our sock drawer next to our curiosity, empathy and creativity. Every now and then we bring it out. When we’re trying to get laid. When we lose our jobs. When it’s not our turn to be the designated driver. But most of the time, it’s missing, and we’re empty shells because of it.
The Shakespearian tragedy is that we let this listless poison seep into the bedrock of our children’s personalities, debilitating them, suppressing their fire. One day they can take on the world with a Lego figure and a back yard; the next, they’re removed, self-centered teenagers with cell phones and a Babylonian will of entitlement. Soon, we’ve aged into husks that even if some piece of us cared about anything, we don’t even want to acknowledge it. We persist the cycle of sleepwalking. And our corporate culture, the hollow, compartmentalized, ladder-climbing, money-grabbing, multitasking, self-starting, performance-review-driven giant ball of fuck that it is just drives this mentality home like a railroad spike through cream cheese.
But maybe it’s not that bad.
Some people, sometimes, understand in some vaguely precise or precisely vague way that something, somewhere, is missing, and they resurrect their passion. They rekindle the fire. Think about every person we look up to. They are the ones who have refused to let their childhood be completely exorcised and pumped with embalming fluid. They are driven by the traits of childhood (passion, curiosity, empathy and creativity) and not by the hollow gods of “civilization” (power, wealth, appearance and stature).
We all know people who are charismatic, persuading, understanding, emotional and giving; people, who if we ever actually stopped to think about it, exhibit the traits of a great kid. Somewhere, they kept that fire safe, tending it, letting it glow every day. These are the people who “light up a room”. I am not a particularly religious person, but one passage from the book of Matthew (19:14) has always haunted me:
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
I’m not sure if a guy named Matthew wrote the book of Matthew, but whoever it was seems remarkably prescient about our current culture.
Biblical foreshadowing aside, we need to figure out how to regain that passion, even if it starts with a tiny spark we can build into something bigger. I do not think it’s realistic for you and I to suddenly change our entire mental and metabolic states to be like a four-year-old. They have not yet invented that pill.
However, I think it is possible to re-align our daily focus. If we just sit still and dig deep and sift around in the charcoal of our soul, that ember of passion can be tended, protected, rebuilt, and if nothing else, used as fuel to brighten our daily responsibilities. We have to go to work. We have to mow the lawn. We have to help our kids with homework. But if we practice shifting “I have to” to “I want to”, I think we can start regaining that spirit of adventure that propels every kid like jet engines attached to their rear ends.
There may be some self-help book about this somewhere. Maybe you’ve even read one. I haven’t. This isn’t a 12-step program. It’s the subtlest shifts in our daily interactions, a fractional nudge in our mental tectonic plates, 12 miles below the surface. A slight change in attitude. Our tone in speaking. Making eye contact. Hugging. I believe we have to approach every moment one by one, embrace the chance to guide its outcome to a more positive path, and let the fire of a child burn in our eyes as we walk down a more illuminated road to take on the world.