I have always loved children. If you asked child me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was invariably “a Mommy.” At one point in time I wanted scads of kids – as many as ten – but that number began to dwindle as I got older, and especially after having a child of my own at last. Still, I ended up with four kids, which is somewhat unusually large for someone of my generation in the region in which I lived. I never really wanted a career in which I worked with children, but it certainly became a recurring theme throughout my life, starting in my late teens, then at various times since then. This past month I lived at a summer camp in New Hampshire, where I taught glass, pottery and fiber arts techniques to kids from about 9-17. What struck me the most is how much children have changed since I began my career as a counselor at a therapeutic summer camp in college, and even since I raised my own kids thirty+ years ago. The changes are fascinating, and somewhat sad to me. It certainly isn’t easy to be a kid these days.
I was a big fan of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet after I read it in high school. I found his insights beautiful and compelling, and his words rang true to some of my own experiences. It spoke to me. Recently, on one of my camp days off in which I decided I just needed to be ALONE for a day before the start of a new session, I re-read the book after a gap of around 40 years to see whether it still held any meaning for me. As it turns out, my adult self thinks most of the book is full of droning, gimmicky doublespeak and inane comparisons (it reminded me a bit of the circular wisdom of the “Sphinx” from the movie “Mystery Men”). But, as they did in my youth, the chapters on love, marriage and children still held a few kernels of wisdom for me, along with the final farewell chapter.
Almustafa, the Prophet in the book, says of children:
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
These words struck me, long before I ever worked with children or had my own kids. And now that I will be working with children on a more regular basis, I understand even more fully the significance of the idea that you can give the people you raise your genetic material, you may teach them, love them, guide and nurture them – or not – but you won’t direct their lives or make them clones of yourself – or sometimes even anything in the world like you. They are their own persons, from the moment of their conception, and although you may try to shape them in a way that you hope will improve their lives, they will make their own decisions whether you like them or not.
I like the imagery of the parents sending forth their children into the world like arrows. We may try to hit the target, but most of us are not experts at making those bullseyes. A lucky few may make have perfect aim, but many will land well wide of the center, or their well-crafted hopes and dreams for their offspring may end up somewhere for which there is no map. Which, after all, is perfectly fine for those who “dwell in the house of tomorrow.” You don’t need a map when you have Google. Parents, teachers and others who care for children are living in worlds which were shaped by the past – an entirely different universe than those of their children. The possibilities and priorities of today’s and tomorrow’s kids don’t come close to those we remember from when we were young.
This fact really became clear for me while at camp. Not only were the campers I taught using words, phrases and references I had never heard of, my own offspring, now in their late 20s and early 30s, wouldn’t have known them either. The things they talked about openly (and constantly) – their sexuality, their gaming preferences, their social media influencers – were unknown or even taboo subjects in the world in which my friends and I grew up. I couldn’t possibly hope to connect with them on a deeper level in the two-week span of each camp session, since we literally spoke completely different languages. For example, trying to refer to some of them as “they” rather than “he” or “she” was not objectionable to me in any moral or political way, but it was really difficult to overcome 50+ years of grammatical training in the span of a few days. Explaining that to campers and counselors whose brains are physically more plastic and fluid than my old noggin underscored the reality of two ships passing in the night. I was shooting as carefully as I could at that bullseye… it just kept missing the mark.
As an empath, interacting with this microcosm of today’s younger generation was also difficult on another level. Some of them were in so much emotional pain, and struggling so hard just to be on this planet at this time that it broke my heart. These are children whose lives were interrupted by a terrible disease that they don’t understand. They may have lost family members, they undoubtably lost physical touch with friends, extended family and “normal” educational, recreational and social opportunities. Their routines were obliterated, and even reliable events such as holiday celebrations, sporting events, dating, school trips, concerts, etc. were gone. Like some generations of the past, they were forced to adapt to a world that they couldn’t control, and for which they had no frame of reference, along with the usual teenaged angst that is a normal part of growing up. But unlike their predecessors, their adaptive strategies are reliant on a cold, distant, unreliable, unnatural and sometimes dangerous world of the internet, instead of the comfort of laughter and hugs and other physical and emotional in-person contact. I believe this lends itself to spiritual and emotional isolation in ways that interruptions faced by those past generations who endured other plagues or wars or famines or the like, who at least had one another, or their spiritual communities, for solace, did not.
I sent four “living arrows” into the world. I was so emotionally young when they were born that I don’t believe I truly understood the significance of the act of child-rearing, and, being in a cold, abusive and oppressive relationship at the time, I didn’t have the emotional, physical or financial durability to do what I should have for my kids as they were growing up… and I see the result of that in their struggles as adults. Although I have a wonderfully close relationship with most of my children, at times the burden of guilt over my failures as a parent eats at me, as I imagine it does others – even those who hit their own bullseye. How can we possibly be consistently good at such an important job – beginning sometimes as just barely adults ourselves – for which we have had no training, for which there is no manual (or even agreement by so-called experts on the “right” techniques), in an ever-changing workplace – that has such dire and far-reaching consequences? The mind boggles.
The place of comfort, or at least acceptance, that I have reached is thanks to my go-to coping mechanism – the acknowledgement that nothing is within our control, that things work out the way they’re supposed to – always – and that the Universe’s plan is always better than any we may want for ourselves (or our children), simply because the birds-eye, long game view is so much more complete. The quest of my children’s souls for their own growth, just as mine for its own growth, is what brought us together at this place and time, in these bodies and under these circumstances, and the only way past any remorse or regrets I may harbor is to trust in the wisdom of those souls as we embark on our journeys together. With that reckoning, I was also meant to mentor the struggling children and adults (I also teach Art and Healing classes at the Glass Academy at Stained Glass Express in Manchester, Maine) I teach in the best way I know how, knowing that, likewise, we are placed together for a reason that may not be evident in this lifetime. It’s all part of the Plan.
My hope for you is that you will find peace in your struggles with being a parent, and with the parenting you experienced as a child. My prayer for the children whose souls dwell in the house of tomorrow is that they grow into their Spirits and find their place in this often painful world, and that their souls find their purpose. So mote it be.