In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul admonishes his readers: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
One of the positive things about retirement is that it gives you time to have leisurely, polite conversations about interesting subjects, subjects that might never have arisen earlier in life. For example, my wife and I were talking to some nice people our own age recently, friends of ours whose children are also raised and on their own, and the question came up: Were you raised to be happy or to be good? And after a while a second question came trailing along: So how then did you raise your own children, to be happy or to be good?
Well, nothing important ever comes with proper instructions, beloved, and rising children is certainly no exception to the rule. None of us come to parenthood prepared. Our parents did not, and neither did we. We may seek expert advice—there is plenty of it out there, heaven knows. There are books and magazines and afternoon TV shows full of it. But the experts on parenting are divided on nearly every point. The instructions they give are well-intentioned, but the advice of each developmental guru is discredited and cast aside by the next generation as worthless. So we all pretty much wing it, depending mostly on what we learned—positively or negatively—from our own upbringing. And the result is—well, the result.
Even the Bible, that vast trust fund of wisdom and experience, has little practical guidance to give on how to raise children who are not selfish or miserably guilty or hopelessly unable to form relationships with other people. Lord knows there are plenty of excellent examples of how not to raise children in the Bible. Isaac and Rebekah played favorites with Jacob and Esau, and that turned out very badly. David spoiled Absalom rotten and that turned out even worse. Jesus’ parable called The Prodigal Son, so sublime on other levels, is certainly of very limited value as a guide on how to raise boys.
The advice offered by the Bible on parenting is general rather than concrete. The Old Testament book of Proverbs says–“Train children in the right way, and when they are old, they will not stray.” Wisdom affirms the lifelong importance of a sound training, but parents are left pretty much on their own when it comes to discerning exactly what “the right way” might be. In our text from Ephesians, St. Paul pauses to emphasize the importance of respect for parental authority and the need for firm parental discipline that stops short of being abusive. But Paul hurries on quickly to other matters more in line with his own concerns, leaving us to decide how best to apply his advice. So in this, as in so many other matters, the Bible leaves parents to decide, according to their own dim and flickering lights, whether to raise their children to be happy or to be good.
But must it be one or the other, you ask? Don’t we want our children to be both happy and good? Oh, yes, beloved! Indeed, we do! But no, alas, in the end one or the other—goodness or happiness–will be our paramount intention. One motive will always govern everything else, determining the thousands of smaller choices we make along the way.
Of course we know that there are parents who fail to raise their children to be either happy or good. They are not our present concern—although the results of that failure are a danger to the goodness and happiness of our whole society. They have glutted our prison system and transformed our schools into armed camps. But I am certain that those of you to whom I am writing were almost certainly raised to be either happy or good. And if you have children you have already decided one way or the other, and are living with the result of that choice. So which was it, beloved?
Everyone’s answer is going to be different. A woman once told me something to this effect: “My parents made a lot of mistakes raising us, but more than anything else they just wanted us to be happy. And that’s what I’m doing too. I want happy children. I love them too much to raise them any other way.” That was a long time ago, but her words made an impression on me because they reflect an experience so foreign to my own. Because for myself I can say without a nanosecond’s hesitation, that I was raised not to be happy but to be good.
Now there is some evidence out there to the contrary. For instance, there is a charming series of pictures taken of me when I was three years old on a visit to Yellowstone Park in which I am seen feeding chocolate-covered cherries to the bears through the open window of the car. Now based solely on the evidence of those photos, you might believe that my parents were raising me to be happy rather than good. Everyone in those pictures looks deliciously happy. The bears, of course, look happy. My young parents look happy, and I look happy too. Supremely happy. Any why not? What child wouldn’t be? But what kind of parents would permit—even encourage–their three-year-old to stuff chocolates into a bear’s mouth through a car window?
My own, it appears. And when I look back on them from the other side of a lifetime, I realize that they were in some ways more audacious than my wife and I ever were. They gave my brother and me all the freedom they could–more than we ever gave our children, that’s for certain. I got away with a lot—I know that now, looking back—and my brother even more. As children their lives had been rather narrow and pinched, and they gave us all the things they themselves would have wanted. They were often demanding, but they were not cautious. And some of the things they allowed us to do for fun take my breath away now, looking back from a safe distance. Feeding chocolates to the bears is an early, but by no means a unique example.
That does not change the fact, however, that their highest aim, as far as I was concerned, at least, never changed—to produce a person like themselves–unselfish, disciplined, well-mannered, conscientious, and devout. In short, good. Whether they succeeded is a matter of opinion. I sometimes like to pretend they did, but in my most lucid private moments I know otherwise. None of us is good—not all the time, at least—and certainly not in everyone’s opinion. There was even some disagreement on that score regarding Jesus himself. According to John’s gospel: “While some were saying, ‘He is a good man,’ others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd” (7:12). And since all of us depend to a large degree upon others to tell us how we are doing, and even the Lord’s own contemporaries sometimes called his goodness into question, what chance have any of us got? Zero.
Maybe it is enough to say that although we may not always be good, or even appear good to others, those of us who were raised to be good know what goodness is. And in a world where goodness and integrity are often remarkable by their absence, we feel responsible to make things better. We feel it is our duty to pick up the trash. To go the extra mile. To take up the slack. To keep the peace.
Those who were raised to be good are the constant gardeners, always pulling the weeds and covering the tender plants to protect them against the late frost. Now our sense of moral duty isn’t a bad thing, heaven knows. But the imperative to be good can and does often go haywire. And when it does, we good children of good parents end up struggling, and sometimes stumbling under the weight of responsibility for things that never were our fault and being crushed by the obligation to change things we can never change, never in a million years.
Gardening is a good, perhaps the best thing we mortals can do, but it is an enterprise doomed to futility. The weeds and the frost win out. Restoring a fallen Eden is God’s business, and he seems to have his hands full doing it. But good children go on trying to fix things anyway, and blaming themselves when things are beyond their strength to mend. I have heard it so many times by those who were raised to be good—I wish I didn’t feel as if it was up to me to make everything right. Why does always fall to me? Why for a change why can’t somebody else … fill in the blank? Take the blame? Clean up the mess? Be the unsung hero? I’ve asked myself all those questions numberless times, and never gotten a satisfactory answer.
People who were raised to be happy don’t seem to have that problem. They are usually willing enough to let someone else take the blame, clean up the mess, and be the unsung hero. They have problems, however, mostly because they were raised to believe that life is a comedy, and not a tragedy. They are always dumbfounded when, through no particular fault of their own, things stop being funny. And when things get really terrible, as things will, their astonishment turns to anger. If I should be happy, then why the hell am I not? Whose fault is it, if it isn’t my own? It’s all so goddamn unfair.
Well, blame the ones who said it was. Happiness is at best a seasonal fruit. We should enjoy it when it comes along, like strawberries, but we shouldn’t expect it to last beyond its time. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. In fact, it appears that the universe has little respect for our individual happiness. Those who were raised to be happy run into that hard truth again and again—head on and hard.
Those who were raised to be good, take it for granted. My own parents didn’t tell me so right out, but they made it transparently clear–the world we live in is a tragic place, at least in the short run. Someday things will be different, but right now there is little truth in the old saying: To be good is to be happy. Happiness may be a byproduct of goodness—or it should be at least, in the best of all possible worlds. But this is hardly that. In fact in this world happiness and goodness track separately, and often have very little to do with each other.
So which were you? It is no reflection on any of our parents that they chose one or the other. Love pulls us in both directions—toward goodness and toward happiness. But in the end you choose, and then do the best you can.
So I would be interested to know. Were you raised to be happy or good? Very young people are not in a position to answer that question, because for them it is complicated with too many other issues—getting and keeping their independence, carving a meaningful place for themselves in the world, losing and finding love. Besides when you are young there is no time to think about such things. But when life has given you the necessary perspective, when your own kids are raised and your parents are either gone or going, then you are able to consider the consequences of the decision that made you who you are, and in the light of what you learn to make some necessary corrections.
Because there is no point in knowing who you are, beloved, if adjustments are not possible. The Holy Spirit, who enlightens us with the truth, also gives us to power to change. For my own part I know that my parents did a good job, indeed too good. When I was playing football in high school, I came in for some ridicule for saying “excuse me” when I ran into people. I when I think back on it now. But that’s how I was raised. It is one thing to be good, but quite another to act as if everything is your fault. Some things are, no doubt about it. But not everything. And I do not have to fix everything. The mending of the world, like it’s making, is not my business. I have to keep reminding myself of that–once a day, at the very least. I only am to blame only for the things for which I am I to blame. Nothing else. It may not sound like much, for me it has been an important insight, made late—but not too late. I don’t blame my parents for raising me to be who I am. “All any of us can do is try,” my father was fond of saying. And as long as we try we make mistakes. We all have regrets, heaven knows. But regret like everything else has to have a limit, and it is up to each of us to set it.
As far as our own children are concerned I am not completely certain whether we raised them to be happy or to be good. And my wife and I did try—very hard. But now our children act as if they believe they raised themselves, and did a splendid job of it. Aren’t you lucky that we didn’t turn out like….here they fill in the blank? It this has been a frequent refrain for as long as I care to remember. It is the exact attitude of that nasty Pharisee in the temple who looked down his long nose at the tax collector—see Luke 18:11-12–but we won’t go there. Our children did not raise themselves, whatever they may think. And I am certain that we did raise them to be either happy or good, and someday it will be up to them to decide which. When they do, I’m sure they will grumble about the burdens our decision caused them. But as I said earlier, nothing important ever comes with proper instructions. And if we don’t give our children something to complain about, what good are we?