Monday, May 24, 2010

Cathedral parenting

Many years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Jakarta, mainly to help a friend who'd just become a single mother move back to the States. One day I went to the big museum downtown. When I came outside, I decided to go for a walk. I meandered this way and that, and when I turned around to go back I found I had lost my way. So there I was, in a huge city where I didn't speak a word of the language, where my normal gauges for what was safe and what wasn't didn't necessarily apply, in a warren of tiny crooked streets, jammed in with street vendors, looking relatively well-to-do and very much like a foreigner. In a word, I was vulnerable.

I couldn't read the street signs, and didn't know which way to go. (Not that signs are all that reliable: one I got lost in Florence and decided to follow signs pointing to something, figuring it would be downtown; it was only after 45 minutes of wandering that I realize there was no site named Paso Unico; it simply meant 'one way'!) There in Jakarta I could feel the panic rising, and I called on my city-dweller training to at least make it look like I knew what I was doing. As I walked purposefully down the street wondering how I was going to get myself out of the situation, I happened to glance upward. There in the distance was the spire of the cathedral.

I knew that if I could work my way to the cathedral, I could get home from there. So as I wound through cramped streets, packed up against strangers, absorbing novel sights and smells, with no grid to go on and no clearly defined path, what held me together was being able to glance upward periodically and re-orient myself toward my goal.

For me, this is what parenting is like. There are a lot of times I don't know what to do, don't know which way to turn, aren't sure if I'm doing the right thing or am in the right place. Choosing my landmarks, the cathedral spires I'm aiming for, is incredibly important.

In my early years as a parent, the spire I aimed for was to make my children happy. Not happy every minute of every day, but happy overall. I now think that was a mistake. Happiness is an emotion, not a goal, and we're remarkably poor at predicting what will give us lasting pleasure. Happiness shifts around, and is affected by many things we can't control. It doesn't make a good (or stable) cathedral spire.

I found that if I aimed for bringing joy into the family instead, I was in much better shape. Joy is different than happiness; it hits the soul instead of your seratonin level, and helps you grow into a better human being. I think of joy as the quiet, long-lasting type of happiness that makes you glow all over again when you remember an event years later. It's unencumbered by selfishness and materialism, and tends to have a peaceful quality about it.When I aim for joy I can keep longer-term needs in perspective with short-term desires. It makes it a good 'cathedral spire' toward which to orient my parenting.

 The picture of Jakarta Cathedral is from the official Jakarta Tourism site.

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