Wednesday, May 6, 2009

When I Was A Child

The brightly colored plastic ball rolls between my 4 year old son, and me. It's a simple game. But it's done with purpose. Not only is it helping my son develop hand and eye coordination, and not only are we having a shared experience and thus developing interpersonal bonds, there is also another useful dynamic at play to help my son develop into a whole person.

It is inevitable that eventually the ball will get away from both of us. And when this happens a new game is enacted – the game of, “who can get to the ball first.” Sure, my two and a half foot tall son might be at a slight disadvantage to my almost six foot tall self, but that's not the point. The point is all about setting a goal, and achieving it. As my son and I race to the ball, making all sorts of noisy effort and claims to “I'm gonna get the ball first,” I purposely lay back and allow my son to grab the ball first, sometimes to within just a fraction of a second of my reaching the ball. As my son grabs up the ball, he looks at me and squeals with delight. He has experienced the exhilaration of success at achieving a goal. Such experiences are great for anyone, but in children such experiences are tantamount to raising a child who believes in himself and in his ability to succeed.

Such events did not take place in my own childhood. As was expressed by my father on many occasions, he was teaching me how to be a good loser. I think what he meant to say that was that he was attempting to teach me how to be a gracious loser. But that was not what he achieved. Instead, what he instilled in me was a belief that I could not succeed, at anything. I also recognized, even at a very early age, that my father was very competitive, and having the need to win at everything. So, as a dutiful and loving son, I took it upon myself to acquiesce to my fathers needs and desires. If ever there was a challenge between us, I felt obligated to allow him to win. Instead of teaching me to be a good loser, he taught me to be a loser.

My father was more of a physical competitor, he played a lot of sports. And although he had but an average physique, he excelled at most every event he attempted. Certainly, his desire to be a winner served him well enough. But at other games he was not so talented. He owned a chess set, and looking back at it now, his covetedness for this chess set was a bit beyond the norm. When I was little, my father brought out the set fairly often. But as I, and my old brother, grew older, he brought out the chess set less and less. Still, my father would play both my brother and myself at chess. At first he taught us the basic moves, and then we began playing actual games. And each and every time we played, he won, of course. The older I got, the less interested I was in playing the game. When you are 6 or 8 or 10 years of age, you tend to reject those challenges at which you never succeed. Still, it would happen that I'd get bored, and in the hopes of having some quality time with my ever increasingly distant father, I would challenge him to game of chess.

I was in my early teens when we played our final game together. It didn't last long. Perhaps 10 moves into the game I saw a miracle, a winning move to which there was no way he, with his fairly limited knowledge of the game, would see coming. And I did the unthinkable. I made that move. I won the game. My father was so surprised by the loss that he just stared at the board – at first trying to see a move out of checkmate, most of the pieces were still in play, and then trying to see just how I arrived at the win. The price for beating my father was steep. As much as I was thrilled at finally winning a chess game against an adult, and against my very competitive father, I had also managed to push my father away from me, even farther away than he already was.

The idea that to maintain relationships, or at least to keep other people happy, I had to sabotage my own attempts at success was not something I was conscientious of. But, as I survey my life, I can see it in play at every turn. Even, and especially, in my divorce with my wife of 6 years. I thought I was doing the right thing by letting her dictate the terms. But all I did was allow her to walk all over me.
As a father myself, I made a very conscious effort to not make the same mistakes my father did with me. I poured all the love I could muster on my children. Every moment with them was a learning or loving moment. I did everything I could to instill in my children a sense of happiness and self worth and ability.

The one thing though, that I did not expect was my ex-wife's efforts to completely eradicate me from my children's lives after the divorce. But, as a dutiful loser, especially to those I loved the most, I was consigned to the misery of losing everything and everyone most dear to me.