Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Even a blank piece of paper has edges (limited capacity, pt. 1)


You know that scene in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker is flying his little X-wing fighter into the Death Star and has to find the exact spot to destroy it, and instead of using his fancy high-tech instruments, he trusts the Force to guide him, and he ends up saving the Galaxy? Well, don’t try that at home.

I learned that back when I was in third grade. On one end of Ridgewood Avenue was Adams Elementary School and on the other end, four blocks away, was my house. It was a straight shot, downhill. So, one day as I was riding my bicycle home from school, I got it into my head that if I coasted perfectly straight and closed my eyes, I would end up at 435 Edwards Ave. I knew nothing of the Force, since it was years before George Lucas would even imagine Star Wars. But, in my mind, there was no reason why this wouldn’t work. When a telephone pole jarred me into reality, I ended up with a chipped front tooth to remind me of how stupid I had been.  

Did you grow up believing the line that “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything”? And do you remember when you learned that it’s bullshit? For some of us the cold, hard truth came early on, while others continued to live in La-la Land way too long. But crossing over from idealism to realism is part of growing up. 

We all have limitations. Our school years alone teach us that. Everybody can’t be class valedictorian. We can’t all become the homecoming queen, or the star of the basketball team. And for those who seem to breeze through it all effortlessly with the wind filling their sails, it’s simply a matter of time before they, too, are confronted with the reality of their limitations.

It’s just not true that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. Although, it is certainly true that if you don’t put your mind to it, you can’t do squat. Figuring out what’s possible without selling yourself short is tricky. That's why, when you're trying to motivate someone, it's always a good idea to encourage them to strive for that which seems to be just a little beyond their grasp. Often what seems to be impossible turns out to be quite possible, after all.

There are all kinds of things that can limit us, including natural ability, available resources, and life circumstances. Some things are just beyond our control. The one thing that often limits humans from achieving their potential that really gets my goat is other humans. I remember having an interview once when I was in college. He was a middle-aged white guy and he asked me what my major was. When I told him I wanted to be a teacher, he nodded his head and said, “Yes, that’s a good thing for a woman to do. And if it doesn’t work out, you could always become a nurse.” I’ll never forget that moment. I wanted to scream. But, of course, I sat there and smiled.

It’s especially tragic when the one who imposes limitations on us is a parent. I don’t know that I always negotiated this very well with my own kids. I learned that there is a fuzzy line between encouraging my children to achieve their dreams and discouraging them from chasing after that which is unattainable. For example, I did everything I could to support them in the arts, and absolutely nothing to support them in athletic endeavors. Was it because I myself was an artsy type with no inclination to the sporting life? Or was it because I saw that my children also shared my same natural talents?

I don’t know if all parents do this, but I find that I’m always questioning my own motivation with my children. Given the complexity of the parent-child relationship, that’s not all that surprising. While we’re guiding our children into adulthood we never stop dealing with our own childhood crap and sometimes it gets all tangled up. That’s something kids don’t realize until they become parents themselves. (If they did, they would be a lot kinder and gentler with their parents.) When my daughter and son were young, I had a responsibility to protect them, but it wasn’t always easy for me to see when I was limiting them for their own good and when I was stifling them. I suppose the big question that I continue to wrestle with is the one that is a part of every loving relationship: Am I doing this because it’s what the one I love needs, or is it because of what I need for myself?

When my daughter Gretchen decided to move from North Carolina to New York City, everything within me wanted to beg her not to do it. But I also knew that it was something she had worked toward for a very long time, and I didn’t want her not to move to NYC, either. Certainly not because of me. (As if I could have stopped her if I tried.) She’s a woman now, and she chooses her own path. I’ve moved from being a participant in her life to being a spectator. And what I’m watching is a very brave, very bright young woman negotiate the possibilities and limitations of her own life. As it unfolds before her, she is figuring out what really matters to her.

Negotiating the possibilities and limitations of his life is a theme for my son Ben, as well. As a musician, he writes amazing songs that he performs with a talented group of musicians. He believes in his heart-of-hearts that it’s just a matter of time before he will be rewarded for his accomplishments. If talent and hard work count for anything, he will make it. I have no doubt about that. But I know that there also is an element of luck involved, and that’s something no one can control. And a part of me worries about what might become of him if it never happens for him. I can only trust that he’ll figure it out as he goes, and he’ll be resilient enough to adjust his goals should it become necessary.

Both of my children are in their thirties now. They’re both still figuring it out. So am I. But one of the things I figured out a while back is that it’s not my place to determine how they might learn to live within the limitations of their lives. That’s an individual journey for each of us. No, they aren’t settled the way some people are at their age, and there is a part of mothering-me that worries about their future. But my worry is far overshadowed by my admiration. For they have a kind of courage rarely found in our world. I don’t know if I had anything to do with it, as their mother, but the fact that it’s true for both of my children brings me great satisfaction. And here is the gist of it: Someday, when Gretchen and Ben turn fifty, they won’t have to look back on their lives and wonder, “If only I had…”

Neither of them enjoyed coloring between the lines as a child; they both preferred a blank piece of paper that they could color as they chose. That’s the way they’re living their lives. They have not settled for predefined limitations. No, if they put their mind to it, they can’t do anything. They have limitations. Of course, they do. But these are limitations they are discovering for themselves.

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