Over the years, my wife and I have accumulated a handful of children.
While I have noted time and again that they are not like one another in most ways, they have each inevitably come to face the exact same hurdle, and always with mixed results.
At some point they become 2-year-olds. All of a sudden, they recognize a fearsome intruder surfacing in their minds and informing their every action. They find that they have their very own expectations. And they deeply desire control.
You see, a 2-year-old is finally coming to recognize that one can have expectations on how a day should go. His expectations usually revolve around very large things that he considers to be exceedingly important. Exciting things like playing with that certain toy right this very instant, or getting a popsicle after this meal, or going to the zoo later in the afternoon. A single day is all he needs and more than enough to occupy his busy mind.
I am much older than a 2-year-old. I have gray hairs in my beard now, and my expectations usually revolve around very large things that I consider to be exceedingly important. Boring things like quarterly earnings and yearly dental appointments and 30-year mortgages and retirement plans. A single day is a simple obstacle that I can navigate with success. Or, at least, an obstacle that I can occasionally navigate with success.
As a dad, a man in his thirties, and someone who tries to follow Jesus, I still employ my 2-year-old tactics. I regularly strangle and claw for my own expectations, doing all within my power to force my ideals into existence. I freak out when I can’t control the actions or attitudes of others. I shout and bluster and do my best to establish that I can be the louder voice in any conflict, that I don’t need anyone but me to get by in life. When I’ve worn myself out with tantrum-throwing and I’m forced to be honest, I have to concede that I’m not really in control of anything and that I’m miserable when I try to go it alone. And those are some of the scariest things I’ve ever admitted.
When the dust has settled on my little storm, God (my Father) is ready to have a say about what I’ve been up to lately.
My Dad is waiting patiently, again, to show me how to avoid these terrible experiences. He wants me to trust him with open hands, just like I want my own kids to trust me when I’m leading them through the day (or through the grocery store parking lot). I’m looking a little further ahead than my kids can. Likewise, my Dad knows how to look much further ahead than I can. He wants me to know the satisfaction of following his design in me and to get good at shutting down my own visions of grandeur.
I have a bit more understanding toward my children now. I still don’t want them to act out in response to their unmet expectations, but I don’t want them to change their behavior just because they might make us look bad. I want them to recognize that people are always more valuable than any ideal outcome. My goal as a parent is to help rewire their process from beginning to end, so that their habits change course. Each time my angry child gets angry, I want her to respond with a little more grace for herself and then a little more grace for others. She should know that it’s normal and OK to be frustrated, even if she isn’t sure why. Each time my self-pitying child starts to play the martyr, I want her to start telling herself a truer narrative. You can be sad and feel hurt without being a victim. You might find that you are actually the bully.
We pull back the curtain on our feelings of sadness or frustration or disappointment, because there are no bad emotions. There are only bad responses to distressing emotions. Now, we have the opportunity to puzzle out where our expectations come from and where our responses have us headed. We do that in real time, while we’re still in the middle of the problem, and maybe we can cut off the miserable outcome. Then we reestablish the trust and community that are needed to recover quickly from a tough break or a hard day. We recognize the situation and we forgive. Next time, an expectation of acceptance might breed openness instead of chaos.
I haven’t nailed any of this down yet; I’ve only realized these things after a lifetime of hurting others when I feel confused or lost or lonely. If you have no idea how to begin to open up with your kids, watch Mister Rogers. I’m serious.
Go stream episodes of Mister Rogers and start talking to your children in the way that he talks to you. Take notes. Think about him when you are tying your shoes. Watch together and discuss all sorts of feelings when you’re not currently feeling them.
Maybe, reading this, you begin to realize that you have no hope of helping anyone else because you still don’t know how to wrestle through your own twos. Maybe you’re uncomfortable owning the anger or fear or sadness that you feel. It is much easier to ignore our complicated feelings than it is to pay attention to what hurts and ask why. First, admit to yourself that you have emotions like anger and fear and sadness. Now, admit them to God. When you get comfortable giving your pain to Him, he can start to rearrange you. He’s gonna love walking through those emotions with you. Eventually, you might find that you’re able to speak of your experiences in a way that brings life to others. I wasn’t always willing to admit my uncomfortably human processes to myself or to anyone else, but here I am, writing about it. My kids can see it. They continue to see clearly that I’m broken, but also that I am earnestly trying to trust my Dad with the things that I would rather not give up.
A very practical example came up this week in trying to purchase a new home. The property seems ideal, but the process has been beyond complicated. Over the past few months, my wife and I have been experiencing a lot of intense highs and lows. After a difficult snag a couple of days ago, I was at my lowest, blindsided by the expectation that it would all fall apart. In desperation, I took the time on my drive home from work to tell God that I felt completely helpless. By the time I arrived at home, I was telling Him that my deepest desire is that we could be excited and thankful for what he is doing in our family. In a few months from now, I want my heart to be glad in what He is doing. I can do my rejoicing in this house or in the one I hope to buy; just let me rejoice.
I came in the front door and immediately explained to my kids what I had just gone through. I had expected to be in a funk all evening, and I wanted them to know that I had been discouraged and God had exchanged those natural reactions for freedom. Then I asked each of them to pray for our family, that we would be able to stay centered on God’s heart and that he would be at the center of our hearts. Then I gave them all popsicles. It was a delightful celebration after a day of hard and scary work.
God, show me who you say I am, so that I can willingly give you more of me. Make me willing to go deeper with you. Make me an example of freedom to those surrounding me today. In the midst of strife, give me peace that spreads.