Conditioned to Climb: Personal Reflections on “The Climber”

From the moment we’re born, society begins to shape our ideas about what’s important in life. Almost immediately, the reactions of people around us teach us that unhappiness is an unacceptable state. Our parents don’t necessarily consider immediate happiness to be the most important thing in our young lives—at least not in theory—but it’s unlikely we’ll emerge from those early stages of childhood without it residing near the top of our list, often trumping things like generosity and self-control.

As we become more aware of the world, the media and our peers step in to show us exactly what we need to do, buy and look like in order to be happy. As we start to make decisions for ourselves, well-meaning authority figures urge us to follow safe and familiar paths, afraid that taking risks and breaking new ground might lead us through hardship and misery. Don’t try to be radical or different, society cautions. Just follow this well-established happiness formula. If you do these acceptable things in this accepted order, you’ll be successful, secure and—most importantly—happy.

Of course, there comes a point where many people question what they’ve been conditioned to believe about happiness. Perhaps they’ve followed “the formula” to the letter, yet still find themselves unhappy. Perhaps they see someone who’s gone a different way, yet seems happier than they are. Perhaps they detect the stench of materialism and corporate greed behind much of society’s “wisdom” about happiness. Perhaps they read what Jesus said about it. Perhaps they begin to wonder if they even know what happiness is, and whether it really is the most important thing in life.

In 2007, I chose to marry my wife—the first woman I had ever dated—at the age of twenty-three, before I had completed my schooling or gotten my career figured out. A few years later, I resigned from a stable, corporate position at a great company to become the stay-at-home parent of a one-income family. Nobody could call these bad decisions in any absolute sense, but they certainly weren’t “safe” ones. Both involved significant risk and the defiance of expectations—including some of my own—about who I should be and what I should want out of life. As it turns out, both rank among the best decisions I’ve ever made. The question I’ve pondered since is, why? Was I just lucky, or was there something about the decision-making process that worked in my favor?

The Climber was borne out of my reflections on those junctures—and about why, despite some inevitable hardships, I have no regrets about either one. In both cases, I knew I was choosing the hard path up the mountain, one that would take me along cliffs and through valleys and might never lead to the top. But so what? I didn’t care about reaching the top. I wanted to explore the mountain. That’s where life happens. I’d been given the opportunity to invest in things that mattered far more than material dividends, and I didn’t see the point of waiting for some hypothetical future stability that would just be an illusion anyway.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as “the wrong time,” or that there’s never a good reason to put something off. Success in any endeavor depends heavily on one’s ability to delay gratification. My wife and I wanted kids long before we had them, and it was tempting to ignore the fact that we weren’t ready. In that case, waiting those few extra years was the right choice. At the same time, it’s important to have a solid understanding of why you are (or are not) putting off something important. If someone tells you,

“Slow down! You’ll have plenty of time for that later in life.”

or,

“That opportunity isn’t going anywhere.”

or,

“That thing you really want to do will be much easier if you get such-and-such out of the way first.”

you might want to politely remind them—or at very least, keep in mind for yourself—that there’s no way they can possibly know that. The future holds no guarantees. All we have to work with is the present. While it’s true that the thing you want right now isn’t necessarily the right thing, it isn’t necessarily the wrong thing, either.

Society conditions us to make decisions based on what will make us happy, either now or in the future. Ask yourself: is that really a worthwhile goal? Isn’t feeling happy just that: a feeling? Feelings come and go with the winds of circumstance. Lasting contentment (a state of mind that runs deeper than feelings) comes from being and doing what you were created to be and do, now and in the future. So dig down deep, find that thing, and be that. Do that. Anything else is a waste of time.

Yearning for the Ordinary: A Harsh Introduction to Parental Growing Pains

Earlier this week, I came downstairs to find my two-year-old daughter playing with a toy. I know, hardly newsworthy. To make matters worse, she was doing absolutely nothing unusual with it. Just standing in the living room, trying to open it up to find the switch that would make it play music.

“I’m making it sing, Daddy.”

Without a word, I went back up the stairs, barely making it out of her sight before collapsing into a shapeless mass of hysterical parent. And for the rest of the morning, my level of function lay somewhere between “comatose” and “diaper-changing robot zombie.”

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that this wasn’t just any old toy. Actually, you’d be wrong. It wasn’t anything particularly special. It was a colorful, musical ladybug that used to hang from the arches of a play mat that my daughter spent many hours in as a baby. A nice toy, one that got played with a lot, but not one that holds a lot of significance. The significance lay in what was missing: the play mat. As I watched my daughter probe the inner workings of a plaything that at one time must have seemed magical, my eyes were opened to a horrible reality: my little girl is no longer a baby. I suppose she hasn’t been for a while. I just hadn’t realized it before then.

I used to wonder why parents cry at weddings, graduations—all of the important milestones in their children’s lives. “They’re tears of joy,” I was told, and until the incident with the toy ladybug, I believed it. I’m not saying there isn’t joy behind the tears, but the tears are not birthed from joy. They’re not birthed from sadness, either. They’re tears of pain. Exciting as it is to watch our children change and grow, each new step involves letting them go just a little bit, and that hurts like an unfrozen root canal no matter how ready you think you are.

What I wouldn’t pay to hop a DeLorean back to when she was a baby, just for one day. Not for any kind of special day. Just one of those ordinary days. I want to watch her wiggle with excitement when I come to get her from her crib in the morning. I want to clean cereal out of her hair after breakfast and fight to get her to eat her vegetables at lunch. I want to read her a whole stack of those boring-as-hell baby books and give her a long, frustrating overnight feeding at three in the morning. I want every wonderful and horrible moment, especially the ones I wished away at the time, just one more time. And I want to see that look of awe and wonder she used to get just from looking at me, back before she knew I was only human. Back when I could protect her from everything and rescue her from anything.

For the record, nobody asked me if I was ready for her to graduate out of babyhood. Whoever signed off on this must be itching for a piece of my mind. Don’t they know how this works? She’s my daughter, God. She’s mine. How dare you expect me to let her grow up? But grow up she will, whether I want it or not. And so will her sister, who turned one yesterday (there’s a whole other blog post in there, but I’ll spare you that one). And growing up is exactly what I want them to do. I’m not raising little girls, after all. I’m raising women who are going to make a difference in this messed-up world. Unfortunately for me, the more I invest in them at each stage of their growth, the more it’s going to hurt when they move on to the next one. Fortunately for them, I know the pain is only temporary, and the dividends make it well worth it. Someday, when I have to release them into this big, scary world on their own, I hope it nearly kills me. But only nearly, because I don’t want to miss what comes next.

Finish Your Veggies and You’ll Get to Watch Dad Eat Humble Pie

“Never break promises you make to your kids” is parenting advice I’ve heard since before I knew how children were made. Some people take it a step further and say, “Never make promises unless you’re absolutely sure you can follow through on them.” It makes perfect sense, of course. If I lie to my kids, they won’t trust me. And if my kids don’t trust me, they’ll think it’s a good idea to get teen-pregnant while snorting every drug ever off of rolled-up porn magazines.

“If you eat all your tomatoes, you can have some strawberries for dessert.” That was the deal yesterday at lunch. It’s a mealtime paradigm that my two-year-old is very familiar with (not to mention a golden win-win for a health-conscious dad). Imagine my horror, then, when I went to the fridge to fetch the promised reward and found…

P.S. Don't look in your wallet. Sincerely, your wi...I mean, still the strawberry gremlins.

…no strawberries. No strawberries? Panic! What to do!? You know, besides envision a future therapy session in which she identifies this moment as the reason she was never able to trust men.

I was halfway through dialing up my wife at work when a thought struck me. Perhaps there was still a way to resolve this without permanently destroying my daughter’s future. If she’s able to comprehend “do X and you’ll get Y,” perhaps she could also understand, “Daddy’s a moron and forgot to make sure we still have Y. Would you like Z instead?”

And so, with a deep breath of contrition, I sat down in front of her high chair and said the most humbling words I’ve ever spoken to my daughter: “Sweetheart, Daddy made a mistake. I thought there were some strawberries but they’re actually all gone. I’m very sorry. Would you like something else instead?”

While I was speaking, her gigantic blue eyes stared quietly at me, absorbing each word in turn. When I was done, she glanced away to process what I had said, then replied, “Have some oranges?”

Whew. Disaster averted. I gave her some orange slices and a couple of other things she asked for (because she’s growing, y’know, not because I was feeling guilty). Our future relationship was saved, and all because I listened to another great piece of parenting advice: “Always be willing to apologize to your kids when you make a mistake.”

Raise Your Mug of Space-Age Coffee…

So, I returned from Christmas holidays to find a brand new coffee machine in the break room at work. (When I say “brand new,” I mean new to the office. I think it was actually built out of a rejected prop from Star Trek.) The first thing I noticed was how tidily it took up only fourteen square feet of countertop space. Then, I saw the nine-page booklet attached to the front of the device explaining all of the varieties of caffeinated goodness it was capable of expelling.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. (Actually, I thought it silently to myself. I try not to talk to myself so close to the executive offices.) After progressing through no less than five menu screens to select my beverage options (and I’m not talking about some sort of fancy frothaccino or molten mochasspresso—just a regular, ordinary coffee), I got to watch (get this) a progress bar that told me exactly how much of my beverage had beamed down from the mothership. Many toe-tapping seconds later, as I was adding milk and sugar (that’s right, the most common coffee additives were not two of the aforementioned options), I began to debunk my “rejected prop” theory and wondered if, in fact, Deep Blue had a new day job.

Ah, vacations. They’re always over too fast. Here’s to a fantastic 2011!