Image by cdd20 from Pixabay


20 April 2020

Dear Gus,

We are in the midst of a global pandemic.
So I let you eat cake.

Do you see the way I phrased that? “I let you…”? How does that feel when I use that phrase? Do you feel like I’ve restricted your freedom a little bit? Why do I have to be the one controlling what you eat and when you eat it? How old are you, anyway?

Conventional wisdom says that I’m the adult, so, in theory, I know what’s best. When it comes to this particular issue—eating—I have, at best, a spotty track record. I’ve battled my own less-than-stellar eating habits since I was a kid. I was a teenager when I went on a “diet” for the first time in an effort to lose weight. When your mom and I got married in 2002, I was seventy or eighty pounds heavier than I am right now.

Am I really the best person to be telling you how to eat?

There’s an old joke: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Maybe that’s the situation here. Maybe my historic inability to control myself around food gives me the necessary tools to look at you and see the bad patterns that you might fall into.

I can’t help but wonder, however, if taking cake away as a breakfast option means that I’m somehow making cake—a food rich in sugar and fat, the two things our bodies find most immediately satisfying and rewarding—a forbidden thing that then consumes your desires. This is one of the strange little things about being human. The more we’re told that we shouldn’t have a thing, the more we typically want it.

  • You shouldn’t eat that; you’ll spoil your dinner. (As if anyone’s pizza was “spoiled” by eating a cookie.)
  • You shouldn’t touch that; you might break it.
  • You shouldn’t say that; you might hurt someone’s feelings.

The world is full of should’s and I’m not 100% positive that any one of them makes a lick of sense. People are always telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. I’m nearly thirty years older than you and people are still telling me what I should do. Most of the should’s in my life revolve around subjects that are hotly contested. For example, what I should or shouldn’t do with my retirement account. If I search the internet long enough, however, I can always find someone else who can give me the exact opposite opinion, who can tell me that I shouldn’t do that with my retirement account, but I should do this-that-and-the-other instead.

This holds true for just about anything:

  • You should get out in the sun in order to increase your body’s vitamin D production. No, you shouldn’t! The sun will burn your skin and give you cancer.
  • You should eat a low-fat diet, high in fiber from whole grains. No, you shouldn’t! Our bodies were designed to thrive on fat and grains will cause unwanted inflammation.
  • You should buy a house so that you’re not throwing your rent money away every month. No, you shouldn’t! The hassle of owning a house far outweighs the financial benefits. Plus, it depends on where you live, what market you’re in!

There’s no shortage of people who think they know best and who feel like they can should-should-should you all day long.

How do we decide who to listen to?

Your grandmother, Lulu, said a truly wise thing to me a long time ago:

You can’t should all over yourself.

She’s right, ya know. I have no idea why she said it, I don’t know what we were talking about. Those details are unimportant. What’s important is the silliness of the idea that there is only one way to go, only one thing that we should do.

We have these stories that others will tell us, stories about how to be good or how to be successful or how to get what you really want in life. I’m not saying that we need to ignore these stories and all of this advice, nor am I saying that these stories aren’t full of wisdom and truth. Listening to the wise counsel of those who have gone before us is a smart plan! But simply because someone has given us some ideas about their path does not mean that we need to follow in their footsteps.

Their path doesn’t have to be my path.

Many years ago, I was talking with my friend and spiritual director, Stan. We were talking about parenting and this saying that’s in the Hebrew Bible:

Train up a child in the way that he should go (Proverbs 22:6).

As we were talking, I told him that I’ve always hated that proverb because it says that there’s only one path and that you should make sure that your children follow that path. I hate that idea! I like freedom! I’m a free spirit! We should do and think how we please (so long as we’re not hurting others or ourselves…). I told Stan how much I didn’t like that little piece of “wisdom.”

“Oh, no,” he said, “That’s not what it means at all. You’ve got it all wrong, Stephen.”

I didn’t have a mirror, so I couldn’t see myself in that moment, but I’m sure that I gave him a slack-jawed look of disbelief. What else could that sentence possibly mean? How else was I to understand, “Train up a child in the way that he should go”?

“You’ve gotten it all wrong,” he said. “You’re putting the emphasis in the wrong place. Read it like this,” he cleared his throat and then said, “‘Train up a child in the way that he should go.”

His emphasis on that word, he, did nothing for me. So, I continued my blank, confused stare.

“There’s not a single path that all people need to walk down,” he said. “No, no, no. Your son has his own path, ‘the way that he should go,’ and your job as a parent is to help him to find his way.”

Light bulb!

I don’t need to force you into some pre-determined path. No! That’s not what parenting is about. Do I have sage wisdom that can guide you through difficult times? Yes. Have I accumulated years of experience that can be passed on to you so that you won’t make the mistakes that I made? Of course! Would you be wise to listen to me and consider my advice and guidance from time to time? Undoubtedly!

But should you follow a pre-determined path that I created for you?

Well, I suppose you’ll have to decide for yourself, but you might also consider listening to your Lulu:

You can’t should all over yourself.

I love your free spirit and the way that you eat cake for breakfast, play ukulele in the hammock, and ride your scooter into ditches in the middle of the pouring rain in spite of our repeated warnings about poisonous snakes and the like. Those all seem to be important parts of your path that have nothing to do with mine. You’ll never catch me dancing in the ditch, drenched by April showers. That’s your path, kid. And that’s great!

Are you gonna eat that last slice of cake?

Love,

Dad.