I was flipping through a local magazine for moms last week when I came across an interview with the cover mom, a local business owner. One of the questions, thrown unceremoniously into the middle of the interview, was, "Your biggest wish for your kids is..." Can you guess the answer?
"To be happy and to be loved."
Easy, right? We all want our kids to be happy, and loved. I'd also add "healthy".
When I read it, though, something felt off. It seemed too flip, too easy, too obvious. Maybe I was just reading too quickly and didn't accord her answer the gravitas it deserved. (Though I'm totally on board with the "to be loved" part of her answer.)
But her answer bothered me that day, and I kept thinking about it. I was sitting with August, who was working his way through a much-too-large pain au chocolat, his treat for going to the doctor for vaccinations. (I was working my way through hash browns topped with chile rellenos from the market's hot bar.) Of course I want my kids to be happy, I thought. That's so obvious. But...what does that mean?
Not to get into a philosophical treatise on happiness, but as a concept it's sort of vague, right? I know I've dedicated a whole section of my blog to it so it might seem like I easily embrace it as a life goal for myself or my children. But when it comes to defining it as a life goal, it falters; it needs something else to underpin it.
That something, for me, is meaning. My biggest wish for my kids is that they live lives of meaning. That they believe that their lives matter, and the lives of the people around them matter, and what they do matters. I don't really care whether they pursue their passion for their careers or simply find jobs that pay the bills, but I do want them to feel that the work they do matters enough that it doesn't leave them feeling empty. Maybe they will find passion in their jobs, or maybe they'll find it in a hobby, or maybe they'll find it while being in service to their community, or maybe they'll find it in travel or faith or making music, but I do hope they find a confluence of meaning and passion that carries them through their lives, especially through the dark times.
In writing that, I realize that maybe that's why I don't wish them "happiness" as their greatest goal: because I know that they will go through dark times. I don't know a life that hasn't gone through a dark time (or two, or more). What gets us to the other side of these dark times, at least somewhat intact, is a sense of meaning, and often a sense of community or being loved. Happiness is such a small word, one that doesn't recognize the fullness of experience that comes from being human, being broken, and being mended.
Happiness doesn't carry us through the days. Happiness, we hope, alights upon us or we desperately seek it and grasp it at times, but either way it feels like an external object or experience, something glimmery and transient, a visitation rather than an abiding state. Whereas meaning does indeed carry us through our days and years, and is something we carry internally, whose locus rests somewhere amidst our heart and our brain and our gut and connects the often disparate threads of life.
For me, meaning has often come in community, by holding and being held by others; it has also come on trails and mountains and in dark valleys. I hope that my children feel themselves held in beloved community, and I hope that they find great solace and connection in the natural world.
I hope more than anything that they feel they are living meaningful lives.
What do you most wish for your children? How do you foster that, or equip them to achieve it?
Photos by James. At last—photos of me!
I agree with you about the happiness thing. I watched this awhile back (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOgsYATbV-s) and while I don't think it's the world's best TED talk, I thought that it made a lot of sense. Happiness is a very high bar to set for you or your children. It also feels a bit like something they don't have tremendous control over, which can cause anxiety (much like the modern thoughts on telling your children that they are "smart"). I think that I might disagree with you on the meaning piece, however, but maybe that's because I think that meaning can be very elusive and that most of the time for most people, life is just full of the everyday. The word meaning carries a ton of weight (kind of like happiness) and I think that it can feel at times like you're meant to live an extraordinary life. I'd love to raise kids who are perfectly happy living an ordinary life, but what I think I want most for my kids is for them to be kind and brave (not my phrasing - that's borrowed from Glennon Doyle Melton). I want them to be good kind people who treat others well and also to be brave enough to do hard things, to stand up for what they believe, to have difficult conversations when life calls for it, and to take risks in pursuit of their beliefs and dreams.
This is so thoughtful and beautiful, Dava, thanks for commenting. I love how specific you are about some of the things you want for your children, like the ability to have difficult conversations and treat others well. I want all of these things for my kids, too, of course, though I hadn't articulated it.
I do stick with my conviction about meaning, though. While what might give any individual a sense of meaning may differ, I think what "meaning" has in common across people is that it's a sense that who they are and what they do matters, and is important. This does not have to mean changing or saving the world or making a splash and being famous; as a mother, what I do is incredibly important and matters more than anything else I've done. Too, being a mother mostly means loads and loads of ordinary stuff, and often difficult or tedious ordinary stuff, but man that stuff is meaningful. I'm not famous for being a mother, or innovative in the ways that I'm a mother, or constantly happy or joyful in the ways that I'm a mother, and yet it's the most important, meaningful thing I've ever done. Some people might find that sense of personal meaning or importance by participating in a church community or curing polio or writing scientific papers; it's not for me to say what should bring someone else meaning, that's something that's defined internally. Whatever it is for my kids, I hope they find it. I also hope that they are brave and kind and have hard conversations and take risks in pursuit of their beliefs, of course. =)
Someone sent me this comic via email, and I thought it was on point: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/unhappy