I have a 4-year-old daughter named Esme whom I love more than anything else in this world. With this love comes a bond that’s difficult to describe. Her happiness is my happiness; her pain is my pain. I often think back on how I was before she was born. I did not want to have kids. When I got married and began to contemplate having a child with my wife, not only was I unaware of what was to come, but I only knew part of what life had to offer. There is no way to explain to my past self that life after having a child would be even more enriching and meaningful. Being a parent is something that has to be experienced to be understood, and the profundity of parenthood can’t possibly be conveyed in words. Nyogen Roshi told me before my daughter was born, “Your joys will be amplified and your pain will be amplified.” This has proven to be an accurate statement!
The other day it struck me how much Esme is a reflection of me. She started to repeat a not-so-desirable word that I had said several times over the previous day. My wife asked me, “Did she pick that up from you?” What could I say? All I could do was shamefully hide my face, reply “yes,” and realize yet again that my daughter learns how to be in this world by mimicking my words and actions—just as I and countless generations before me learned hard-wired, habitual patterns from their parents. The beauty in this, however, is that each new moment brings an opportunity to break the cycle.
The other night, Esme told me to relax while we were sitting on the couch listening to music together. As a 4-year-old, she didn’t do this by saying, “Hey daddy, relax.” She just got quiet and did not respond to me when I started chattering to her. I was stunned and didn’t know how to react. Then it hit me that I was talking too much and trying to push the situation to be “just right.”
Once I realized what I was doing, I literally just let the music play. I got silent and simply listened to song after song with her. Eventually, she lay her head on my chest; she was exhausted from playing with her friends earlier that day. I realized that I do this in every aspect of my life: I’m always trying to control the situation that I’m in, and I don’t want to just quiet down and let it be as it is. I’m scared to let things play out without my control mechanisms! What will happen if I don’t try to control the situation?
People have told me that I am a good father. From their perspective, I would agree. I have seen and heard many unsettling things about parent-child relationships, and I simply can’t understand why you would choose to treat a child in a negative way. I dote on Esme constantly and am very loving even when the going gets tough. I never yell at her, but instead try to explain why we have to enforce certain rules.
I am also aware, however, that sometimes I am not a good father—in more subtle and personal ways that are painful even to talk about. It’s not because of the way I treat my daughter, but because of my own shortcomings which I’m either too lazy or too fearful to face. These “messy rooms” in my own life end up affecting her and, in turn, I’m teaching her to be lazy and fearful, and to live with that laziness and fear as well.
This highlights one of the best gifts I can provide to Esme. Just as the Buddha showed us how life is suffering, he also showed us the pathway out of suffering. This pathway is the most valuable thing in the world. It’s here for each one of us and becomes apparent when we set our intention to wake up. Nyogen Roshi often asks us, “What is your aspiration?” The profound aspect of that question is sometimes difficult to hear. Ultimately, I want to die with no regrets, but am I willing to face my fears in order to overcome them?
Every day I strive to be better than I was the previous day. Being better does not necessarily mean being happier, nor does it mean that I’m chasing some abstract idea of what “being better” means. Rather, it means that I’m working to become more accepting of my life and to realize that the only power I actually have is the ability to choose how I deal with the situations that appear before me. Being better means that I handle these situations, whatever they are, in a more accepting and loving way. I try to move away from my fears and relax into the peace of how things truly are.
It is true that even as I make strides toward becoming better, I repeatedly return to the comfort zone that I retreat to because of fear. But when I manage not to retreat and just stand my ground, determined but relaxed, a warm breeze uplifts me. I know my daughter, family, and friends can feel it too.