Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. – Psalm 139:16
This story was recently featured on the Bosnian web portal klix.ba. I came across it the other day, and couldn’t help but click, read, and research the story a bit in the American media. Here’s a link to the Klix version of the story (Bosnian language). This is my take on it, as a father of three.
Abigail Lynn Fisher was born on January 11, 2016, with a rare disorder called Treacher Collins syndrome. In the months leading up to Abigail’s birth, her mother, Kristina, was single and “practically homeless” — short on money and unprepared for the challenges of raising a child. So she went to an adoption agency and found a couple from Georgia who was looking to adopt. No one yet knew of Abigail’s condition.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. Psalm 51:1
The gospel, if you accept it, is truly life-altering. It’s not a spiritual exercise. It’s not a mental experiment. And it’s not a political ideology. It’s a chance to be honest about yourself — like you’ve never been before — and be loved and accepted as a result.
Even as a “veteran” Christian, I still have significant problems with letting the gospel change my life. Just the other day was an example. My children were testing their limits; they were in rare form. As the day dragged on, I became more and more impatient with them. After my daughter’s entire dinner ended up on the floor — the last inconvenient development of the day — I reached the end of myself. Three children, all wanting their own way was just too much for me. I became prickly and sharp. They had spent the entire day disobeying and making everything so difficult — they did not deserve to do anything they wanted to do for the rest of the day.
There are no conspiracies
In my offended, angry state, I was disregarding several concepts that I have written about on this blog at length. The first is the idea that events in this world often have little to do with me.
I think this is a gospel issue, and the more I accept the truth of the gospel, the more I will internalize this truth, and the way in which I react to my children will change. The idea comes from John 9, when Jesus told his disciples that the blind man’s blindness was not a result of his family’s sin — rather, the man was blind “so that the works of God could be revealed.”
When my children disobey and disrespect me, I see it as a result of their sin, but when they continually so so I usually go a few steps further — I see it as a direct affront to me as their parent. It’s a conspiracy to deride everything I say and do as a figure of authority in their lives. They are shaking their fists at me.
You see, if this is true, then it opens up a long line of supposedly justifiable emotions inside of me. I have not only been disobeyed, I am also personally offended. I have been marginalized. I have been robbed of dignity. And what makes it worse is that two objects of my love have purposefully decided to do all this. They have conspired against me. Betrayal. Injustice. A little part of the world is against me, and exists to cause me pain.
Now that I’ve dissected my own thought processes, it’s hopefully easy to see how I am wrong. My children’s disobedience is not a part of some great conspiracy against me — it actually has little to do with me personally. Rather, it is a situation orchestrated so that the works of God may be revealed. Their actions are not directed at me — they are simply living the desires of their hearts. Just like me, they want to do only the things that bring them pleasure in this moment. But it’s not about me — it’s simply about them doing what they want to do.
If their actions are not primarily against me, then all of the betrayal narrative I described above on my part is out of line. I am no longer justified in behaving as if I’ve been marginalized, betrayed, and conspired against.
Instead, I get to take part in the works of God being revealed in their lives. Discipline cannot be an attempt to put them in their place or give them what they deserve. Instead, it’s a conversation, an object lesson, that will hopefully allow them not to see how they’ve angered me, but how God wants them to act differently.
Getting in God’s way
Did you catch that? If my objective is to communicate to my kids how much they’ve angered me, then I obscure what God wants them to see. I will injure them if they walk away from me with the idea that life’s purpose is to please their dad.
If we look at things with the end in mind, it puts our present actions into perspective very quickly. What am I trying to do, in raising my kids? If I am trying to participate in the production of well-adjusted, independent, mature adults, then the vast majority of what happens in our home has very little to do with me indeed.
If I am concerned with following God and seeing him work, then I ought to want to help them see him as well. They are in need of his mercy and grace, just like me. And if I see that as the root of their disobedience — not some plot to cause me pain — then I have a better shot at getting out of the way and letting them see the works that God wants to reveal in their lives.
I remember a conversation I had with my father long, long ago. I had been talking to a coworker about marriage. I was a single college student, I didn’t understand the first thing about being married. The man with whom I had worked the night before was probably 30, and had been married for several years.
“How long do you have to be married before you stop thinking of your wife like your friend, and she becomes more like a family member in your mind?” I had asked.
“When you’re married, your wife isn’t really like either of those,” the man said.
“She’s more like… An extension of yourself.”
“Sounds like a smart man,” said my dad.
I don’t know why I remember that random little conversation. Sometimes life doesn’t seem to adhere to any brand of reasoning whatsoever. But I find that I would agree with my coworker’s statement, one hundred percent.
The Definition of Vicariousness
I said in my last post that I live vicariously through my son. I wished I could have figured out another way to say what I meant then, because I could see later that it rubbed a few people the wrong way, and even though the words were technically correct, didn’t really communicate what I wanted to say. Making serious decisions because of some kind of vicarious desires sounds strange, and I recognize that.
What I wanted to communicate was the idea that, in a very real way, my son’s experiences affect me, and my experiences affect him. Now, that’s the most obvious, shallow way to say it, but what I’m thinking actually goes several steps deeper: my son’s experiences are my experiences, and mine are his.
Now, this might sound weird, but you’ve got to hear me out. It is not true for one hundred percent of the things that happen in our lives, but, at six years of age, my son is still very, very closely tied to his parents. We have seen or heard about almost all of the things he has done, every day, for every year of his life. Every real decision about his life has been made by us — whether he can go for his first sleepover, where he’ll go to public school next year, what he’ll have for breakfast. As a child, he is unable get very far from us.
Normally, when you make decisions, you bear the consequences. However, in parenting, you learn quickly that not you, but your child, is the primary bearer of the consequences for some of your decisions. Isn’t that strange?You still bear the consequences of your decisions, but indirectly through your child’s experience.
Maybe you could call the consequences you experience the “secondary consequences” — I don’t know how psychologists think about these things. But one must admit, when you decide that your child can’t have any cake, you don’t have the experience of wanting cake and not getting any — but you experience that disappointment in a very, very real way through your child’s reaction.
This is not just for parents
Enough with the parenting examples. As I thought about this the other day, it occurred to me that most people end up living this way, if they have any sort of relationships with other people at all. Friends, the closer they become, go through experiences together. They make decisions about their lives, and those decisions influence others. The more serious the decision, the greater the influence.
This is not in your imagination
The dictionary defines vicarious as “experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.” I would posit that anyone who genuinely cares about any other people that they are connected to, will experience the actions or feelings of others — not in the imagination, but in reality.
Our actions and decisions have real consequences — for both us and for others to whom we are connected. You may think you can move to Germany, and do it for yourself and no one else. You may decide it doesn’t matter to you what others think of your decision. But that doesn’t mean you have not had some affect on the lives of others. Anyone close to you, anyone who cares about you will know — part of their world is going away, and they will no longer experience life in exactly the same way. Suddenly, without so much as walking a mile they are half a world away from a friend.
Sometimes you can watch the dominoes fall after you make a decision. Whichever direction they take, you decision has spawned a series of other decisions by other people which are real. The experience that others have of your life is real — and while it should not handicap you, it should still be observed. We are not islands. We are connected to others.
Now some may say that these friends of ours are not really experiencing our decisions — they are experiencing their own life as a result of our decisions. But even that seems like a concession for anyone of the more independent temperament. Our decisions then are not solely ours. If we can influence others by making seemingly independent decisions, then it must follow that our own decisions are the result of the decisions of others. Though we may claim independence, we are ourselves living out our lives in light of many experiences that were not our own. If we accept that we have the power to influence others, who can claim to be the originator of that influence? It is a chain of influence that goes back infinitely into the past, and continues on indefinitely.
Maturity, then, seems to require that one come to terms with this stream of connection, while neither denying its existence nor drowning in its depth. As mature people, we have to learn to be proud of those connections that have made us stronger, and aware of those that have weakened us. We are not imprisoned by the debt we owe to others, but we are also not solely the result of our own decisions and experience. We are, in reality, living out the results of countless experiences of others, and at the same time influencing all the lives that we touch. This is not good or bad — it simply is.
Obviously, some relationships are more influential than others: parents and siblings are perhaps our most foundational relationships, then many of us move to spouses, children, then best friends, acquaintances, godparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, coworkers, neighbors. But I cannot view this deep connection to others as a bad thing, something to be jettisoned for some mythical version of independence.
I am not a rock. I am not an island. I never was, and never will be. And neither are you.