A friend who reads this column recently pointed out to me that I sometimes represent myself as possessing Buddha-like compassion. She expressed distress that she usually does not feel about her two sons the way I appear to feel about mine. A mother’s guilt can be profound enough every time she loses her temper or thinks, “I wish they would just act normally!” but add to this the idea that someone you know is doing it better, and so in this world of comparison your feelings of failure are now empirically justified, and you might wonder why you bother getting up in the morning.
I was both disappointed and relieved to hear this. Disappointed because I never want to misrepresent myself. I am, in fact, not Jesus. I have a temper, and no one in my life has been a greater recipient of that temper than my youngest son, Sawyer. Not my parents or my brother or sister; not my wife or my oldest son; not a coworker or neighbor or boss. Without question, I have never been angrier than I have been with Sawyer.
Sawyer’s greatest strength is that he does not want to do anything simply to please other people. I applaud this in theory, but in practice it makes the job of parenting stupendously challenging. How I want him to just stop or start doing something because I said so, because I’ve been on the planet longer than him, because I am certain that if he would just do what I told him his life and most importantly my life would go better. That would be the simplest thing. It is simple to know what I want; it is more or less impossible to know what other people want.
It has never, ever worked, this telling him what to do. It didn’t work when he was six and I was telling him to stop humming and flapping and talking to himself because normal people don’t do such things and how can I have a relationship with someone who is always humming and flapping and talking to himself; and it doesn’t work now when I tell him to stop playing video games and take a shower. After all these years I am still affronted when he tells me to leave him alone. After all these years this hot, violent thought still spikes in my mind: I cannot leave you alone because only I know what is right.
That’s usually when the yelling starts. I say horrible things to him, he says equally horrible things to me, until we exhaust ourselves of our respective horribleness and there we are. And where we are is where I actually wish to be. Which is why I was also relieved. The only thing that has ever worked with Sawyer is compassion. Not yelling or rewards, not therapies, really—only compassion. Everything else is just a tortured and complicated road back to compassion.
Compassion, however, is not a point on the map. I have only ever understood that what is mine is yours, that what I think of others I think of myself, that your good is my good and my good is your good as a feeling. Here at my desk, alone and away from the lights and circus of life, I can find and stay with that feeling more easily and so write from it. To feel it and to write it and to read it is to remember it, and to remember it is to practice it. There is no other way to unlearn the idea that someone is better than another one or that a person could possibly be born not knowing what is right for himself.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.