Sunday, February 9, 2014

Everyone Envies Someone Else

Dear Ellie,

For the first week of your life, I was afraid to think very far into your future.  But now that you've made it through that first frightful week, I'm faced with uncomfortable questions.  I’m beginning to wonder what your life will be like once you’ve grown old enough to talk.  And what I will say to comfort you.

Someone born as tiny as you is certain to face considerable challenges later in life.  To use the word “challenges” seems like a euphemism.  You may face things like blindness or severe seizures or learning disabilities or autism or motor dysfunction or sensory integration problems or severe anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder or gastrointestinal problems or severe acid reflux or chronic pain or diminished social adaptations or a thousand other types of neuro-developmental impairments or motor problems.  If you have none of these problems, you’ll have won the micro-preemie lottery, but to win that lottery is the exception, not the rule. 

It is tempting to dwell too much on all of the positive stories about 24 weekers.  The “lucky” ones that enjoyed none of these issues.  What matters most to your mother and I, though, more than our own temporary psychological comfort, is your well being.  How can we prepare for all that might come if we choose only to see one bright color of a broad spectrum of darker possibilities? 

The truth is that your life probably won’t be like the life of other children.  By the time you read this, you will surely know that.  In a perverse stroke of fortune, though, I already know the things that I’m going to tell you.  I know, because I’ve been telling them to myself, for some time.  I know what it feels like to be disappointed.  To compare my life to the lives of others and feel abnormal.  To watch others take for granted or throw away the very thing I’d do anything for. 

You see, the only other thing I wanted most in life (other than your mother!) was to have a large family.  When we learned that this would not be easy--- that it would be very, very expensive--- your mother and I reserved every ounce of our resources to that end.  We never vacationed.  We never bought the expensive toys of adults: expensive cars and the like.  Yet despite our efforts, that family still never happened.  Whatever we did, nothing would work. 

It didn’t hurt to give up all of the things that money could buy.  It seemed like such a tiny sacrifice if we could have you in our arms.  In thought experiments, I even determined what I was willing to barter to have you.  What disabilities I would be willing to put on myself in trade, were I to come into custody of a sinister genie or a magical monkey’s paw.

All the while, I seethed at every dead beat dad that I saw.  The ones that bemoaned their parental responsibilities or worse, abandoned their children in exchange for some fickle perception of freedom.  How could my greatest joy be someone else’s tedious burden?  “Give them to me, if it’s such a problem,” I wanted to say. 

And so there has been countless moments this past decade where I’ve hated others for having the thing that thing which I didn't.  I allowed it to sedate every happy moment in my life.            

One day, though, I was talking to one of my older adult students after class.  The subject eventually shifted away from biology and toward family.  He told me about his wife and his five children.  He was a good man and by no means a bad father but boy, was I jealous of him anyway.  But then I started talking about your mother and I.  The common interests that she and I share.  The calm way that we resolve disagreements.  Our deep understanding of one another and the daily affection that we give to one another even after 15 years together.  How I can never wait to share a conversation with her.  About how life with each other was so incredibly easy.  While I told these things to my student, he was beaming all the while.  “Wow,” he said, eyebrows perked.  “I really wish I had that kind of marriage.” 

After he said that, it dawned on me.  All the while that I was jealous of him, he was jealous of me.  At that moment, I felt better, but in an unexpected way.  It was like my impulse to feel sorry for myself had been stolen away.  With my good fortune, what right did I have to feel sorry for myself?  

I understood then that regardless of how much or how little someone has, everyone believes that they are lacking something.  Everyone envies someone else for what they have.  There are billionaires and monarchs who enjoy great opulence, but are utterly depressed that they don’t live a simpler life.  There are scores of destitute who wish for quick wealth, but find themselves no happier when they gain it.  There are rock stars or actors who achieve the fame they always yearned for, then die of drug overdoses in an attempt to numb their new found misery.  There are the obscure who wish for fame and beauty.  And the famous who want ambiguity and privacy.  And what is it about all of these radically different people that leads them to their discontent?  Is it their actual circumstances?  No, it is what they choose to notice about their own lives.  And what they choose to ignore.

Yes, I envied others for the simplicity with which they had children, but I understand now all the things that other people could envy about me.  They could envy my marriage.  They could envy my gregarious personality or my effortlessly lean build or, yes, even my childlessness (the very thing for which I was jealous of others!)  In obsessing about the things that I lacked, I had forgotten about the things that I should be loving about myself.  The things that had been there, all along, but I had forgotten.

Maybe you will be blind.  Or frail in some way.  Or it might be hard for you to think in particular ways.  I don’t know what the future will be for you, but I do know that you’ll possess a thing that makes you exceptional in some way, and some person whom you envy will wish instead that they had the your unique quality for themselves.  They will wish that they were you.  So be grateful for that thing, whatever it is, and never forget it.

There will be many, many stubborn circumstances that you won’t be able to change about your life.  However, there is always one thing that you can always change.  How you choose to see them.

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