It's Sunday, May 28, 2006. About 3:00 PM as I start to right this. You called me on Friday and left a message on my voice mail that I listened to as soon as I got off work. Your message told me that you had been called up early and that you would be leaving for boot camp on June 13. I could hear the excitement in your voice and I could feel my heart start to break.
I hope that this upcoming experience with the military will leave you with all the positive qualities it can instill: self-discipline, motivation, leadership, a sense of responsibility, a greater understanding of your own potential and a chance to see the world. I hope they don't take from you the things that make you so wonderfully you: your sense of humor, your compassion and consideration for others, your individuality, your strong will, your determination to get what you desire and your joy in life. You're leaving here a big kid (in a good way) and I sure hope that's what you come back as.
You haven't had much experience in the "big world" living here in Podunk. And like just about everyone else, you seem to learn things the hard way: by ignoring the wisdom of others and experiencing for yourself what others have learned the hard way too. But it's my job as a parent to at least put out there some of the wisdom I've gained in my experiences and hope that you'll at least hear it. Then maybe, when you're faced with a new situation and you're not sure what to do, you'll remember something I said and it will help you to figure out what to do. So please indulge me while I share with you some of the wisdom I have gained over the years.
I'm sure you already know what the first thing I'm going to say is. You heard it enough times growing up. But if you really live by it, you'll never create any negative karma for yourself and you'll never have any regrets. "Treat other people the way you want to be treated." And at our core, son, we all want the same thing: to be able to live our life free from the unwanted interference of anyone else. If you're unwilling to give people what you expect them to give you, you're acting like a hypocrite. And I've found that after people realize you're not going to screw them over and you're going to let them live their life as they see fit, then they'll let you do the same. Unfortunately, almost everybody has been screwed over so many times in this life that they almost automatically expect you to screw them over too. And so they react as if that's your intention. Which leads right into my next words of wisdom.
Give people a second chance. And a third and a fourth. Start doing it to other people and it will come a lot easier when you have kids of your own and they ignore the rules over and over again.
Don't judge people by your first impressions. Realize that you have preconceived ideas and beliefs— many of them you're not even aware that you have— and that you could miss out on a great friendship or opportunity by not getting to know someone before you judge them as worthy of your time and energy.
The world doesn't work the way all your high school buddies told you it did or the way you experienced it in high school. Remember your friends: forget the ideas they filled your head with. Remember the fun times: forget (and forgive) the behaviors of those who might have upset you. The vast majority of teens grow up filled with fear of the unknown and act according to that fear and the fears their parents have instilled in them. "You don't want to hang around him because he's (fill in the blank)." That's fear talking. And when we act out of fear, we're letting others control our lives. Remember how you handled the kids who teased you because of me? When you showed them you weren't afraid of them by making their attempts to tease and taunt you into a joke, they stopped bothering you.
Words are far more powerful than most people realize. I take great pride in the fact that I never called either of you stupid or idiots or a brat or any other derogatory name. (Well, there was once when you decided to throw a piece of glass across the room into the carpet and I said, "Are you stupid?" but I immediately caught myself and apologized.) Most parents don't realize how damaging it is to a child to say "You're such a brat" or "God! You're so stupid sometimes!" They think calling their kids names will "toughen them up" or not make them "cry-babies". But it's so very important to distinguish between your child and what they did or said. There's a world of difference between saying to your child, who just threw a temper tantrum in the store, "Don't be such a brat!" and "You're acting like such a brat." The former makes the child feel bad about himself. The latter makes them realize that their behavior was inappropriate. Unfortunately, many adults still call themselves names and call other adults names as well, unaware that every time they do, they're hurting themselves more than they realize. So be gentle with your words. Use them to teach and to build someone up, not to tear them down. And remember to include you in that "someone" and don't call yourself names either. It's okay to think that something you did was stupid. It's not okay to think that YOU are stupid.
Believe in yourself and Love yourself unconditionally. That means allowing yourself to be human and accepting that you're going to make mistakes. Don't use that as an excuse to be mean to others but don't beat yourself up if you slip up once in a while. Just keep trying to do better. It took me almost 40 years to learn to Love myself unconditionally and to believe in myself. I hope it doesn't take you nearly that long.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. But the power in Love is when you give it, not in how it is returned to you. Loving someone doesn't always mean you're going to be able to be with them, but even if you're not with them, your Love for them is just as strong. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to let someone go before all the troubles you're going through turn that love into hate. If you let them go— lose them just as if they died, and let yourself mourn their "death"— in time, you're left with the memories of the good times and the pain disappears.
When you have kids, remember that your job is not to make their life so easy that they grow up not knowing how to deal with disappointment or anger or pain or frustration. Your job as a parent is to provide your kid(s) with enough support and knowledge that by the time they're a legal adult, they are able to make mature, responsible decisions. To provide them with the tools they'll need in order to be able to live their own life as they see fit. That they're able to make it on their own and be contributing members of society. Not that they'll make mature, responsible decisions all the time and of course they'll need help now and again, but for the most part, they should be capable of taking care of themselves. But you also must remember that your kids owe you nothing in return for what you do for them. It was your choice to have them and your choice to give them what you may give them. Don't hold that over them through guilt trips or expect them to do something for you because of what you did for them in the past. You're raising them up to be individuals. To be who they want to be, so don't try to make them miniature copies of you. Give them the freedom to be who they are even if you don't like it.
You may not always like your kids, but you should always Love them unconditionally. Kids are, at the same time, the biggest heart-breakers as well as the most joyous blessing you'll ever experience. They can take you from one to the other with just a word without even realizing it. Your heart will break the first time you hear your kid say "I hate you!" even though by that time in your life, you'll hopefully recognize that what your child hates is what is happening to them and that, because you're the one "causing" it to happen, you're the one they hate. But they simply don't know how to distinguish between you and your actions. It's really your actions they'll hate and not you. But your heart will still break the first time you hear it come from their little lips. On the other hand, your heart will burst with pride the first time you see your kid in their kindergarten play.
Never be afraid to say "I'm sorry" or "I made a mistake", especially to your kids. By doing so, you'll show them that it's okay to make mistakes and to admit them. The world's too full of stubborn people who refuse to admit they could be wrong and who cling to their mistakes because of their false sense of pride. This leads to everything from gang fights to abuse to murder to wars.
There are two kinds of pride. The kind that gives you a swelled head and makes you think you're better than everyone else while looking around to see if everyone else noticed the wonderful thing you just did or the kind that gives you that inner peace and contentment and a sense of accomplishment even if no one else ever knows what you just did. Avoid the first kind and strive for the second kind.
Get involved. I don't care if it's just in your neighborhood or in international politics. Most of the problems in the world today are caused by one of two things: false pride or apathy. Most people who are apathetic will say "As long as everything's okay in my little corner of the world, I don't care what happens anywhere else." Only problem is that their little corner of the world is "anywhere else" to the rest of the world. When they need help, they're going to find out that the rest of the world is just as apathetic to what happens in their little corner of the world.
God isn't limited by the way many define him (or her). Simply because you disagree with one person's beliefs or ideas about God isn't a really valid reason to dismiss the idea of a Divine being that's there to help you if you ask for it. Just think of how many of your hopes and dreams have come true once you put them into words, even if those words were only spoken to yourself— which is really nothing more than a prayer.
Don't be afraid to change. Don't get yourself stuck in some image of who you were or who you think others expect you to be. When you let yourself get stuck in who you think others expect you to be, you're putting them in control of your life.
Okay...I think I'm done. But there's a few more things I want to say now.
You have been a blessing in my life. Even when I pulled my hair out in frustration, I never saw you as anything but a blessing. There's so much about you that I'm going to miss when you're gone. Please know that you will always have a home wherever I am and you can call me any time of the day or night. I have always believed in you and always known that you'll go far in life. All I ever wanted for you was that you find what it is that made your heart sing and follow your dreams. And that's what you're doing. I am so damn proud of you.
I love you, PJ.