“It’s time to get your bath,” I said.
“Hold on,” she said.
“I’m going to count to five. One…two…”
And by three she was running down the hall to the bathtub. It was like a magical spell I had accidentally discovered.
I used it sparingly, lest it lose its power. Always my tone would be firm but calm. And rarely did I ever get to five. Implicitly she understood that the countdown was serious and that five had best not be achieved.
This morning the spell was broken. She was standing at her little chalkboard drawing doodles when she was supposed to be getting her coat on for school.
“I’m counting to five. One…”
“I’m coming.” She was not coming; she was still drawing with chalk.
“I’m coming, Daddy!”
“It doesn’t look like you’re coming. Four…”
And then what? I grabbed her and carried her to the bedroom and forced her coat on. But I could do that anytime. The magic is gone; counting to five is a useless, neutered threat. I can force her to do things by imposing my will on her – she’s only two, after all, and I’m physically stronger than she is – but I can’t make her want to do anything. I have no control over her will. It reminds me of an episode of The Sopranos where mob boss Tony and his wife Carmela are trying to decide how to discipline their teenage daughter after she has a drunken party at her grandmother’s house:
Carmela: As a parent today, you are over a barrel no matter what you do. You take away her car, you become her chauffeur. You ground her, you've got to stay home weekends and be prison guards… [But] there has to be consequences.
Tony: And there will be, I hear ya, okay? Let's just not overplay our hand. Because if she figures out we're powerless, we're fucked.
That’s the scary little secret that all parents know in their hearts but are afraid to speak out loud even to one another: we’re already fucked. Any semblance of control is pure illusion; we are utterly powerless. Parents are powerless, pitiful creatures. We have no idea what we’re doing. The only advantage we have is that the creatures we are taking care of aren’t intellectually or developmentally capable of recognizing the implications of our powerlessness. But even that advantage has a remarkably short shelf life.
So what are we to do about this, parents? How do we cope with our total impotence? What do we do with this realization that we no control? I say we should embrace it.
I mean, what is the alternative? Repressing the truth? Living in an elaborate state of denial that requires us to act out our anger each time our child exposes the limits of our powers? No, we should just admit out loud to each other that we’re clueless and have no control over anything.
There is much spiritual truth to be encountered here. It’s not just our children that we have no power over; it’s everything. All humans are powerless, pitiful creatures. We work so hard to control something, to have some little sliver of the universe that we can be masters over. But it’s just not possible. I mean, for crying out loud, I can barely master control over my own actions, much less my thoughts and emotions. What good does it do to think I could control the thoughts, feelings, or actions of someone else?
I wonder if God made humans parents in order to teach us to accept our total helplessness. It seems developmentally appropriate if I think about it. We’re children, we rely on our parents for everything (powerless). Then we grow, we begin to assert our will and independence and differentiate from our parents. It’s our way of trying to gain power. We try on identities as our egos form and we begin to believe that we have control over our destinies. It’s an essential illusion, because it keeps us invested in the world. And then we have families and become parents… and that’s when God decides to show us that no, in fact, we do not have control over our destinies. But by then we’re too invested in the world to simply give up. Because now we have become responsible.
I believe this is the core truth to being spiritually enlightened people: we are powerless and responsible. We cannot direct what happens to us or to those we love and yet we are accountable for it. We must become conscientious custodians of a creation we do not control.
It’s so easy to err on the extremes of this. On one hand, we could relinquish responsibility altogether. The world’s environment is being depleted at an alarming rate? Not my fault. People are living homeless on the street? Nothing I can do about that. I am not responsible. But on the other hand, we could try to take too much responsibility for things as if we have control. We take responsibility for how other people feel or behave. We make ourselves the authorities over other people’s lives, attempting to order their behavior “for their own good.”
I think this is the common error for concerned, loving parents. I know I am responsible for child’s well-being, so I err on the side of too much responsibility. I get impatient that she isn’t eating her meal, and so I feed it to her, taking away the one thing she might be able to be responsible for. If I did this at every meal, she would never learn to feed herself. I don’t only do this with my child, I sometimes do it with the adults in my life, too. If I’m not careful, I assume responsibility for how they feel and I work to fix it for them and rob them of the chance to be custodians of their own selves. When we try to do another person’s work for them because it helps us deny the fact of our own helplessness, we are worshiping the idolatry of our own desired omnipotence.
My child disobeyed me this morning. She didn’t listen to me when I asked her to put on her coat. Counting to five was a laughably ineffectual gambit. I have no real power over her. And yet I am still her guardian, even though I can do so little to protect her. I try my best to behave responsibly with her, to do what’s in her best interest and provide her with a safe, protected environment in which she can thrive and grow. But I can’t control everything that happens to her, and I sure as hell can’t control her. The only thing I can fully do for her is to just love her. And is it just me, or does love feel a lot like impotence and weakness?
I’m sending out a clarion call to all parents to embrace your helplessness. Because we are powerlessly responsible, our task is to be responsibly powerless. It’s the human condition, after all. I thank God for sending us these little balls of chaos with sticky fingers and snotty noses and endless tantrums to remind us that responsibility doesn’t mean overcoming our powerlessness, but rather embracing it. It’s a simple thing, even if it’s unbearably difficult. But all spiritual truths are like that: simple and harder than hell.