On the Occasion of Your Nineteenth Birthday
Remember how last year I said I was done writing these rambling birthday letters to you now that you are adults? Well, I lied. You can add this latest transgression to the sad list that I’ve accumulated over nearly two decades as your father. Each year on this day I tend to dissolve into a puddle of sentimental nostalgia mixed in with a generous dose of neurotic longing for your futures and, naturally, this garbled mess has to find expression somewhere, right? You’ll thank me for this later, no doubt. Ahem.
So, on to the unsolicited advice. You’re beginning your twentieth year in a strange cultural moment. Perhaps you’ve noticed this. For starters, you’ve turned nineteen in the middle of a global pandemic which is weird and disorienting and mildly terrifying in all kinds of ways. What will higher education look like over the next few years? What job opportunities will survive all this chaos and uncertainty? How will meaningful relationships be formed and nurtured in the absence of physical proximity, not to mention all the fear and suspicion that dominates the streams of social media that I know you have a passing acquaintance with? You are negotiating the question of, “What am I going to do with my life?” at a truly unique and bewildering time.
I have little to say (here) when it comes to what you actually do—what you will study, where you will go, what career you might pursue, etc. I hope you try things and make mistakes and experience triumphs and take risks. I hope you avoid the disease of safety-ism that permeates the air these days. Life is not now and has never been an entirely safe proposition. I hope you step out into the world with confidence and have many adventures. I also hope that you will never forget that you are human beings not human doings. Your character matters far more to me than how you end up making money in the world. And so I pray that you will be people who tell the truth and who love courageously. I pray that you will continue to seek out those who are looked down on, whose experience of the world is complicated, who often find themselves on the outside looking in. You’ve done this your whole lives and it makes me so proud. Keep being kind and compassionate. The world needs these things do desperately.
You’re also beginning your twentieth year at a time when racial injustice is dominating public discourse. As members of an indigenous community that has undergone deep historical trauma, and for whom prejudice, misunderstanding, and mistreatment are commonplace, this affects you in personal ways that I cannot fully understand. I’m a white guy so my words here should probably be few, but, well, you know me well enough to know that my words are rarely few. Here, I simply want to affirm you. You are suspicious both of those who would encourage you to retreat into passive victimhood and those who demand that you weaponize your racial identity to score moral points. You both insist that who you are cannot be reduced to a racial category. You’re also not naïve. You’re very aware of the fact that indigenous people have suffered and continue to suffer, that the truth must be told, and that wrongs must be righted. In short, you’re doing something that many people are unwilling or unable to do these days which is to hold multiple hard truths together at the same time. This is not an easy road to walk, and you will not always be praised for walking this way. But keep going. The world needs more people who don’t resort to easy positions on complex issues.
Finally, you’re turning nineteen in an interesting context when it comes to faith. Christianity has fallen upon hard times in our corner of the world. Many people your age are walking away from the church in droves. Many are assembling for themselves a kind of personalized spirituality sprinkled with whatever bits of inspiration and thin, selective moralism are floating about. Others (fewer, I grant) are retrenching into severe forms of faith that double down on an imagined certainty that has never really existed. I don’t envy you sorting through all this. Faith seemed so much easier when I was your age.
I will simply say, as someone who’s a few decades further down the road, that you will need stronger stuff than either privatized consumer spirituality or imagined certainty to make it through the ups and downs of life. Both of these routes begin and end with the self and you will need something outside of yourself to continue become people of faith, hope, and love. You will need a community that, while decidedly imperfect, is anchored in convictions about the goodness of God and a hope beyond suffering. You will need a place to confess your sins and to receive forgiveness. You will need a place and a people that will provide space to wrestle with the truth and, occasionally, to hear things that you’d rather not hear. I know that you know all this because you’ve heard your dad blather on endlessly about it from the pulpit (and I know you’ve been carefully listening and taking notes all these years!). I just feel like I need to say it all again. Dads are weird that way.
I should wrap this up. The experts say that most people won’t read more than four hundred words online these days, so I probably lost you a few paragraphs ago. I will end by thanking you for loving me. Dads make mistakes, occasionally. You may have noticed. Thank you for forgiving me, for teaching me, for making me laugh, for making me cry, for occasionally bewildering me, and for generally dragging my heart around with you wherever you’ve been over these last nineteen years.
Go on an adventure. I’ll be cheering you on.
Much love. Always.