One of the most striking photos that I have seen of my own childhood is one that was taken when I was about three or four years of age, before I entered elementary school. I was sitting on a swing at my grandparents’ house, and the photo, which is black and white, shows me in some corduroy overalls with a very serious look on my face and hair not unlike that still on my haid (except there was a bit more of it then). Often I have looked at the photo and felt a bit sad that such a young man could not even look carefree in a photo at such a young age without such sad eyes. In looking at my photos throughout childhood, the sad and deep eyes appear over and over again, something that I have never been able to shake and will probably have to deal with as long as I live. For while one can put a smile on a face, the eyes don’t lie.
Although I am not a parent, nor do I have any prospects of becoming one in the near future, there is one aspect of parenting that is somewhat practical to my life that I wrestle with as a young adult. Since almost nothing about my life has been age appropriate, I struggle with the balance between being too open and honest in ways that might not be age-appropriate for others and being too reserved and seeming too unfriendly or awkward. Sometimes there really are no good options, and one has to choose between varying actions with serious tradeoffs. To what extent do we protect the young from risk and danger, and to what extent do we be honest and open about the way that the world is? Sometimes there is no way one can do those things correctly.
After all, for children to develop confidence they must generally feel safe (of course, this is also true for adults as well). Unfortunately, the world is not a safe place. For children to have any kind of peace of mind and self-esteem, their trust needs to be rewarded and they simply cannot know the extent to which the world is evil and dangerous. There is a time and a place for knowledge, and allowing children to build up strength and confidence, while giving them age-appropriate challenges, is definitely a difficult task and one that I do not envy. To the extent that we see God as a parent, we see Him also delicately balancing challenges that are appropriate (at least in His eyes) to our level of strength and maturity as well as providing the truth about life and existence gradually, so as not to dispirit and discourage us too quickly and too completely. If God likes His children to be properly broken, He does not like them to despair altogether. As human beings we are not always so wise in our behaviors.
In this world, some of the saddest examples one can see of youth without youth are among those young adults who are famous who became famous as children. It is difficult to think of a child or teen star of the last few decades that has managed to make it to adulthood reasonably intact, especially in recent years. I often think of the chilling example of Michael Jackson, a man who used his wealth to build himself a shrine to everlasting childhood, a man whose last two decades of life were haunted by the horrifying accusations that he was unable to understand. In his own mind, he seems to have thought of himself as a child, and was incapable of understanding that as an adult, much less an adult with large amounts of money and resources, that his friendship and affection served to corrupt the children he thought so highly of and identified with so strongly. No doubt such extreme stress, besides the demons of his own personal life, drove him to an early grave. Nor is he alone in that example, although his is perhaps the most poignant and even troubling.
I do not feel I can safely laugh at people in that kind of position, for I understand at least something of the bind that they are in, in the knowledge that there may be few or no good options for people in that position to take. All too often artists (who are generally sensitive souls to begin with) feel the need to deaden their sensitivity with some kind of substance, which tends to make them vulnerable to arrest, ridicule, and other unpleasant matters that tend to make someone even less inclined to face reality without some sort of fortification. And so initial problems and vulnerabilities tend to lead people to act in ways that reinforce those weaknesses and make them even more glaring. All too often a sad and familiar downward spiral results, but given my own knowledge of my own sensitivities and vulnerabilities I find it hard to laugh at those who are simply more dysfunctional than I am given the same general troublesome makeup. My own sense of identification makes it impossible for me to keep the sense of distance that is required to ridicule someone else for their weaknesses. If I have the strength to confront my own demons, it is not because of my own strength but because of the grace and mercy and favor of God. I do not forget how things could so easily be aside from that aid.
And so I am left to ponder the effect that I have on those people, particularly young people, I am around. I hope that my own friendliness and awkwardness and blunt honesty has not hurt those whom I care about, nor added to the burdens of any who have been given far too heavy of a burden to bear already. For I am not so selfish as to only think of my own wants and desires and needs without showing consideration and sensitivity to the concerns of others as well. If I have blundered and have hurt others, it has generally not been with malicious intent, but a bull in a china shop can cause plenty of havoc and damage without any malicious intent, but simply by being what it is. If the same is true of me, and sometimes that is probably the case, having an absence of ill intent does not remove the damages done. And as someone who understands damages all too well, I would not wish to be an agent of destruction and damage for any, particularly those with whom I so closely identify and who I care about so much.