On the Occasion of Your Fifteenth Birthday
A rambling letter to my fifteen-year-old twins “composed” (i.e., dictated to myself on my phone) during a morning walk on this the day of their birth.
I apologize if this seems overdramatic or sentimental or nauseating or whatever. It’s been fifteen years since we brought you two beautiful little creatures home from the hospital and a lot of weird things can happen to adults’ brains over the course of fifteen years, especially when they’ve been fundamentally altered by a love as irrational as that of the love that a parent has for a child. I hope you can indulge me a little.
You’ll hear all kinds of typical birthday wishes over the next few days, so why don’t I give you something a bit harder to chew on? On this your fifteenth birthday, I want you to ask some pretty big questions. Questions like, “What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person do I want to invest energy into becoming? What is the purpose of this life I’ve been given? Is it just to stumble around for a few decades on the planet, tramping toward the grave with as much pleasure and as little pain as possible or is there some higher purpose to it all?”
I want you to know that we humans tend to invest so much of our time and energy in things that are fading away. Money, stuff, entertainment, physical appearance. All around you, these things assume exalted places in our collective consciousness. But the truth is, they’re all just distractions from far bigger and more important pursuits. I want you to know this now, at fifteen, so that you can avoid the mistakes that so many of us older folks regularly make, which is failing to pay attention to the things that matter most.
What matters most? Well, a long time ago there was this guy named Paul that was trying to explain to a church what life looked like when it was given over completely to God and God’s purposes for human life. He came up with a list and he called it the fruit of the Spirit. He used words like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things, more than anything else, are what a human life is supposed to look like.
So no matter what you end up doing with your lives when it comes to occupation or vocation or whatever (and I know this is the question that many of your peers and teachers are constantly telling you is the most important one to answer), these virtues will be your best and most lasting contribution to this world. The world is full of people with a wide variety of practical skills and talents, all of which have their uses. It’s not as full of people who have devoted themselves to being people of character and substance.
I have bad news for you. As if you didn’t know it already, these fruits are not instinctual. Indeed, your instincts will often take you in the exact opposite direction of these things. You’ve probably observed this a time or two in your fifteen years on the planet. You’ve probably noticed it more than a time or two if you’ve been paying attention to your dad. Sorry about that.
Your dad is always going on and on about Jesus. I know this can probably be wearisome to you, at times, but it’s only because I think that Jesus matters deeply to the lives that you are called to live, the lives that we are all called to live. In one conversation with a bunch of religious know-it-alls (Mark 7, if you’re interested), Jesus talked about the things that come out of the human heart. He had another list and it wasn’t nearly as pretty as Paul’s. He talked about how the human heart was the source of all kinds of nasty and disordered stuff. Jesus, it seems, thought that bad selves came rather naturally to us.
This doesn’t really square with the narrative that you daily marinate in, I know. In the media you consume, in the films you watch and the music you listen to, you are constantly told some version or other of what is becoming a very predictable (and predictably inadequate) narrative about what it means to be human. You are constantly told that your heart is where you find the truest and best version of yourself—the self that you must be authentic to. Your highest aspiration, you are often told, is to be true to the self you find within and to externalize this self to the world which is then obligated to affirm and validate this self.
I regret to inform you that this is a lie. It is very subtle lie and embedded within it are a number of partial truths. It is a very attractive lie and it captures the imagination of many people far older than you. But it is a lie nonetheless.
If we’re honest—and it’s hard to be honest, I know—when we look inside ourselves, we see that Jesus is telling the truth about us. We find goodness of all kinds, certainly. But we also find the opposites of the “fruits” above. We find small and selfish selves. We find reactionary judgments and grudges and violence (physical or relational) and harshness and impatience. We find lust and acquisitiveness. We find fear and a suspicion of peace. We find stinginess and an utter lack of self-control. Not always, of course. But these things, along with more inspiring things, reside in the human heart. I know that you know this. I know that you know that in the deepest parts of who we are, we find things that are not worth being true to.
So, I hope you will increasingly come to realize that the goal of life, fundamentally, is not to be true to yourselves. I hope you will set your sights much higher than this because there are far deeper and truer and more beautiful things to be true to than this. Our selves are wonderful, glorious, unique treasures. They are gifts from God and they are among the ways in which God’s love is refracted and reflected out into a world in desperate need of it. But there are parts of our selves that, I am afraid to say, our only task is to die to so that better and more beautiful forms of life might be brought forth.
The goal of life is to be our best selves—to be summoned away from greedy attachments to ourselves and to follow God’s call in pursuing the flourishing of our neighbour, our world, and ourselves within it. So, be true to yourselves. But be truer to God. Because God is a much more reliable thing to be true to than a self.
I know that you know most of this already, incidentally, because I see it in you. I see you in the process of being and becoming wonderful humans who love brightly, who create joyfully, and who live honestly. This is among the highest privileges that I have—to participate in and witness such marvelous becomings. Every parent hopes that their children will become more than they have managed to; you two are already well on your way.
Oh, and one more thing, I hope you will never, ever forget that that the God who has summoned you and I beyond ourselves and has given us this holy task of becoming human is filled with mercy and loves you more than you can comprehend. This God’s love is big enough to hold all your triumphs and failures, all your right steps and missteps. This God’s love for you is the reason that you are invited beyond yourself but this love does not depend on your performance. God loves you at every stage of your being and becoming and always will. And the same goes for me.
I love you. Happy birthday.
As parents we can get over heavily involved in the teaching aspect of our children about the do’s & dont’s of life rather than placing some extra emphasis on our children to acquire the traits of faith, hope & love which will allow them to flourish both for today & tomorrow…
Also, appreciate very much that you shared with us this birthday letter to your daughter & son…May they have a great day celebrating their birthdays & a Happy Father’s Day to you.
Thank you very much for this wisdom and kind affirmation.
This made me cry, Ryan. Beautiful.
Thank you kindly, Denise.
Very well said. Hope you don’t mind if I pass it along to Camryn. Thanks Ryan
Not at all. Thanks, Tina.