On Parenting, Love, and Surprise

“Love is not love,” famously wrote Shakespeare, “Which alters when it alteration finds.” Love’s high moral mark is its constancy, its unconditionality, its resistance to fickleness. “Love’s not Time’s fool,” he insists because it should remain unchanging in a changing temporal world.

Time, however, never stops its drumbeat, and if love is to mean anything, it seems to me, it must be timely. As I understand and have experienced God’s love—a love which is surely timeless—it is nevertheless meaningful precisely because it comes in a personal, particular, and timely way. It is not enough to know that God loves everyone. We want to know that He loves us in our particular circumstances. Every person, every neighborhood, even every life form moves through time, shifting and changing and adjusting to new circumstances and new challenges. So I wonder if I could amend Shakespeare’s formula. While it is certainly true that love must not falter, it must alter. I think that to love a living and changing person and to live in a dynamic world that does not cease to disclose itself in new ways, love must question itself. I say this because change in the beloved forces the lover to confront the possibility that he loves an object, or an idea of another, but not the living, breathing, unique and unpredictable individual that stands before him. Many of the changes that people go through are, of course, disappointing, which was Shakespeare’s theme. Spouses age, children grow up, neighborhoods and environments are degraded or grow mundane and boring, and we face the possibility of trying to love a diminished thing. And while a constancy of love is no doubt indispensable given the inevitability of time’s effects, it is not the commitment or the fierce passion behind love that guarantees the truth of love. Love is true when it knows what it cannot or does not yet understand about what it loves. It is true, in other words, when it makes adaptations to allow life to surprise us, when it does not feel betrayed or offended by differences and disappointments but instead finds new ways to comprehend and embrace what is evolving and developing before us. Sometimes disappointments are just gifts that we are not yet seeing.

I think this is true when it comes to loving and appreciating the physical world, which is surely as unpredictable and strange and marvelous and even sometimes disturbing as anything we could possibly love. But sometimes I think loving another person is as challenging and as exciting as loving the cosmos. Everyone has their own unique mysteries, their own complexities, and no one can be definitively known, except by an omniscient God. And it is in the intimate and long experience of family where we have the best opportunity to see the wisdom of an unfaltering love that is patient and humble and flexible enough to learn over and over again new reasons to love. These are people we think we know, better than most, and precisely because we know them so well, we are able to perceive how much they change—that is, if we have our eyes and our hearts open to time’s changes.

Loving as a parent, for me, has taught me these things and helped me to consider how this kind of love can be transferred to other people and to the all of the creation. Amy and I have know each other now for 25 years and we have certainly changed, disappointed, and thrilled each other in many ways. But nothing is quite like the experience of loving a being who begins as a helpless infant in your arms and turns into a remarkable adult. If that process teaches anything, it is that you are in a changing and dynamic relationship with a person, a person whose potential is as wide as the sea and whose choices, predilections, and insights are surprising. And since we are all brought into the world in this way, maybe this is how all relationships should be approached. As I have seen my oldest daughter, Eliza, reach adulthood and go through her struggles and make her own choices, I am more convinced than ever that love requires making adjustments. My love has never faltered, not one day, but it has altered many, many times. I have had to realize that I was loving my child for selfish and narcissistic reasons, or out of a desire to control the direction of her life. It is easy to be over-controlling precisely because the strength of love that a parent feels is so palpable we want to believe that it justifies all of our intentions and plans for our children and all of our communications with them. But that is simply not true. Sometimes it is the fiercest of loves that causes the greatest damage. A refusal to adjust to a changing, maturing, and increasingly self-possessed adult before us creates a mistaken image of the very person we thought we loved. Then we begin fighting with the flesh and blood person before us just so we can hold on to a person they never were or no longer are.

I love each of my children, but they teach me each day new reasons to rethink my reasons, to recalibrate who it is I think I am loving, and to not get in the way of who they are becoming. I try to teach what I think is right, as every parent should, and I hope whatever good Amy and I have made out of our lives will make a difference in theirs, but we can no more control the direction of their lives than we can objectively understand the night sky. This is very humbling, but I have found that it is rather exciting, to be honest. I pay particular tribute to Eliza, who has recently decided to serve a mission and has been called to a distant place: Vladivostok, Russia. Who knows what is in store for her? She will make her own alterations to her love of people, her love of the Lord, and her love of life, as she gains new understandings into the diversity of human experience. People do not always understand how immensely challenging a mission can be. I remember well the dark days of my own recalibrations about what life was all about and who people were. I had to find ways to make my growing love for people more open and less controlling. I have, of course, a parent’s natural worry about what is in store for Eliza and have an anxious desire to control her experience for her. But I know two things that have calmed my heart. One is that if I know Eliza, she is capable of more inner strength and growth than I can even imagine. She never ceases to surprise me. What time has revealed of her so far is as beautiful as any night sky. And I also know that I learned more from those crucibles of experience on my mission than from any amount of schooling. Those experiences helped me as a young man with feeble self-understanding to see that I too was a changing, dynamic person whose potential I could not afford to underestimate and who experienced in those very moments of struggle the timely love and grace of a personal God. I knew like I never knew before that I, along with everyone else, was worth loving and that life was worth spending in love.

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