I’ve been a father now for 9 months. It was with great anticipation and excitement that I welcomed my son Jackson into my life. Years ago I decidedly rejected the popular notion that responsibility is a dish best served delayed. Rather I embraced the truth that marital and parental responsibilities bring out the best in a man, that they are primal forces that pull men out of the natural gravity of self-centeredness and usher them into the difficult but ultimately rewarding realities of selflessness and service. I have been living my life by those convictions for about seven years now.
What I am discovering about these convictions is that they are true but difficult. And since the difficulty was expected, then I guess my discovery is merely that they are true. Whereas at first I knew it to be true by conviction, now I am starting to know it by experience — to really know it. At first there was a testosterone-fueled excitement at embracing the challenge of it all. There was probably also a certain self-righteousness that felt good — I was not being one of those guys. But that is mighty thin gruel when the going gets grueling. The difficult aspects were very minor at first, and really the excitement at facing difficulties on the road of virtue was more than enough to overcome them. But now most of that has worn off, not surprisingly, and the reality of the matter is weighing more heavily on me. The clear coat sheen, the tinted romance, is wearing out quickly and I am left facing a truly daunting climb.
It’s okay though. This, and not the other, is actually what I signed up for. I don’t regret anything. And yet regret is not the same as a dawning realization of the magnitude and weight of a commitment. I am being sobered. Cold water on the face, wake up and smell the espresso kind of sobered. Loving sacrifice is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.
The first few months of parenthood in some ways feel like a practice session. I haven’t really felt like my heart, words, or attitudes could really affect or shape my son too significantly. But now his personality is really coming out. His stubbornness and strong will are on display every day. His heart is finding in his growing physical capacities the outlet for its desires and cravings, both good and bad. For the first time, it feels like we have a little heart on our hands that needs shepherding, not just a baby that needs feeding and clothing and changing. The complexity of his personhood is not only being revealed but also being fashioned in the process.
This has got me thinking about how a heart is shaped. What a marvelous, mysterious thing that needs pondering. Children can be taught to act in certain ways or to say certain things, but their hearts, their fundamental personhood, may remain unmoved. For example, you can teach a child manners, but that doesn’t make them a genuinely kind and caring person. And kindness is not intrinsic or hereditary, because we have all seen unkind adults raise children to be unkind, whether biological parents or not. Anyone can teach manners — a book or video can teach manners — but only a human heart can shape another human heart to be kind and caring or gentle and modest or courageous and bold. Virtues such as these are absorbed imperceptibly over time. What I want to aim at in raising Jackson is this deep shaping of the heart. But that is a scary thing.
A heart is shaped by another heart and, despite any additional exhortations on the matter, tends to mirror both the good and the bad in that heart. That means that Jackson’s heart will in large part reflect a mysterious cocktail of my heart and Kaitlyn’s. Anger, laziness, fear, selfishness; these are not our more subtle characteristics, but rather our crowning weaknesses which are displayed daily. We know Jackson will have faults, sins, and weaknesses like anyone else, but it is one thing for those to be chosen at random and quite another when they are directly inherited and modeled after your own image. What terrifying influence we have, what opportunity, what risk!
But there is no going back, and the practice session, if there ever was one, is certainly over. Onwards then, with God’s help, towards virtue. And for every countless failure, the gospel. And for every blessed victory, still the gospel.