On the Occasion of Your Sixteenth Birthday
Next week, incredibly, you will turn sixteen. This is the point at which you would expect me to roll out every known cliché about time flying, and about how hard it is to believe that the two delightful little creatures we brought home in 2001 are stampeding—with no apparent care or concern for their parents’ nostalgia—toward young adulthood, and about how old this makes me feel, and how with each passing year I experience ever more of the creeping dread of sentimentality and anxiety-stained hope for your futures, etc. But I won’t do any of those things. I’m sure you’re relieved. 😉
Instead, I will do the same thing I did last year around this time and write you a long letter that you will probably not even really want to read but you will anyway because you love your dad so much and because you are eager to bask in the fount of his wisdom. Er… Um… Well what if I said I’d buy you a blizzard if you read it? Anyway, hopefully some day you’ll look back on these letters that I write when I’m feeling all weirdly dad-ish with something more than eye-rolling embarrassment. Maybe you’ll even smile.
The first thing I want to say is that you’re in an interesting and sometimes difficult stage of life. High school is hard, I know. It can be the best of times but it can also be the very worst. This season of life that you’re going through right now can sometimes seem like a laboratory for the cultivation of the worst human impulses. Kids can be cruel. You know this as well as I do by now. You and your peers are constantly evaluating and being evaluated by one another, often based on pretty flimsy and superficial categories. And all this evaluation and counter-evaluation and reacting and emoting and praising and cursing and shaming is often broadcast instantly online through those lovely devices that you all carry around. It’s addictive and perversely satisfying, I know, but it can also be devastating. It can destroy fragile identities-in-formation. It can make human treasures retreat into timid and fearful shells to avoid the pain of endless scrutiny and rejection. It can lead to crippling battles with addiction and depression and self-harm. It can kill, figuratively and—Christ have mercy—literally.
I wish I could say that we consistently get this better in the adult world, but the truth is that we don’t. At least not as often as we should. You know this, too. You know that we who should know better by now still judge people based on their shape and size, on the colour of their skin, on who they’re dating and for how long, on how smart they are (or, more likely, on how smart they can make themselves appear), on what they post on social media, on whether or not they like the right things or show disapproval for the wrong things, on how much money they have or don’t have, on whether or not they can get it together and keep it together. Sometimes we grow up a bit and embrace better, more life-giving categories to shape our social interactions. But very often we don’t. We’re setting a pretty terrible example for you, I’m afraid.
So you have an opportunity—right now—to start developing habits of the heart and mind that resist all of this stupidity. Or at least push against it. You can become the kinds of people who don’t believe something about someone else just because you see it on a screen, who don’t assume the worst motives in others, who don’t go along with cruelty and petty hierarchy games just because the rest of the herd is doing it. You can refuse to believe the lie that just because you’re not a certain size, just because you’re not the star of the team, just because you’re not on the honour roll, just because you don’t slide into all of the socially approved categories, that you somehow have less value as a human being. You can stick up for the kid that everyone likes to step on. You can speak grace and truth in situations where someone uses you to prop up their fragile identities. You already do this, I know, and it makes my heart explode with pride when I see it. Keep doing it. Teach the rest of us a lesson about what’s supposed to matter and why.
I also hope that you will resist the easy victimhood that will often be presented to you. There’s plenty of cultural and social capital to be gained by curating a persona—on or offline—that does little more than gather a collection of grievances (real or imagined) to itself. This, too, can be addictive. People will often stroke and affirm you for this. We live in a world where every provocation must be responded to in kind, where every injustice, no matter how small, must be plastered online, where every wound requires the infliction of another. You will be praised for playing this game, but it is an exhauting, damaging, and futile cycle to perpetuate. Sometimes the best thing you can ever do in a situation where you’re tempted to vindicate yourself to the world is to offer the gift of your silence. Don’t send that nasty text. Don’t post that self-congratulatory, passive-aggressive update. Take a deep breath. Pray for wisdom. Remember that you’re not the center of the universe. Remember also that your self-worth is not tied up in someone’s opinion of you. This is something your dad can be uniquely terrible at. It takes real strength of character and courage to not project all of your insecurities and pain on to the screen for approval and admiration. So again, I’m giving you the mandate to do better than the example you often see all around you.
In sum, be people of reflexive grace, determined truth, sturdy hope, and unrelenting love. Your world—high school and beyond—needs each of these things so desperately. Be strong. Be honest, even when it’s inconvenient. Own your mistakes. Accept forgiveness and extend it willingly. Be kind (never underestimate the value of simple acts of unobserved kindness). Know that your value is not tied to the yo-yo-ing judgments of the high school world. Refuse the path of least resistance. God has given you gifts and expects you to steward them well. Be proud of who you are—the colour of your skin, the nature of your gifts, the contours of your story, the convictions and ambitions that beckon you onward. Be full of faith. Christ has called you, claimed you as his own, and loves you more deeply than your mother or I or anyone else ever could.
But of course I do love you both very much. No matter how much evidence I might present to the contrary in my petty responses and reactions at any given moment, my love for you is the strongest and strangest, most irrational and inspirational thing I have ever experienced. Someone once said that to be a parent is to forever have your heart go walking around outside your body. It sounds kinda cheesy, but it’s also true. Very often, when I act stupidly as a parent, it’s because, a) I don’t have much of a clue what I’m doing; and, b) my heart hurts with love and longing for your past, your, present, and your future. And, well, sometimes all of this just comes out in weird and embarrassing ways. For you, mostly. Sorry about that. 😉
Happy (early) birthday. And thanks, in advance, for not crashing the car.