The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

Q&A: Lean on me

(Here’s the first in my new occasional Q&A series. Click Ask a Question in the sidebar to submit your own question.)

Q: I saw a note on Pinterest recently that really grabbed me, and I’ve not been able to shake it. It was a list of suggestions for parents. One of the entries was “give your children something to believe in – because there will come a time when they are alone and scared or sad, and they’re going to need something to believe in.”

My husband and I are, at the least, agnostic….But I do want to know that if something really shakes the lives of my children, they will have some way of comforting themselves, some way of (eventually) coming to know that everything will be all right. How is this accomplished?

A: How I love this question. It cuts right to the core of the ultimate reprieve that religion offers from fear and vulnerability. Life may be incredibly hard and unfair at times, but believing that Someone Somewhere who is all-powerful and all-good has a handle on things and will see to it that justice prevails in the end… I can easily see how that idea can make life bearable, especially for those who are in much closer touch with the raw human condition than I am.

It brings to mind the Russell quote I’ve written about before: “Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking….When I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness.” And there’s the key to the question. If I can’t offer them the kindness of God to lean on, what can I give my kids to help them through the inevitable times they will feel the opposite of triumphant?

You may have heard the Christian acronym J-O-Y, which stands for “Jesus, then Others, then Yourself” — the supposed formula for true happiness. Take away Jesus and you have the real-world resources I hope to build in my kids: the support of other people, and a strong self-concept.

Kids need to develop the ability to connect emotionally and meaningfully with others, and that’s a skill that starts at home when they are young. You care for your child and encourage their natural empathy for others. They become the kind of people who attract others to them in mutually supportive relationships.

As they get older, peers overtake family as the leaning posts. It’s no coincidence that teenagers often become obsessively centered on their peer group for identity and support as they are pulled through a period of rapid change, and that they focus more on those who are going through the same transition than on the all-too-familiar family they are transitioning away from.

They’ll also make connections based on interests and passions. In addition to a really tight group of friends, my daughter Erin (15) is passionately involved in photography, volunteering, volleyball, animal rescue, and acting. She’s in specific clubs that connect her to others with the same interests, and if those interests continue, she can continue to be connected to those larger passion communities throughout her life.

Those interests won’t all continue, of course, nor will all of her current friendships. Some will fall away as she grows older and her circumstances change, but she’ll retain the ability to connect. It’s not a static belief she needs, but that ability, that skill. Those mutually supportive connections with other human beings, connections she has built herself, will get her through hard times, as well as the strong self-concept on which those relationships are based.

And, when she’s 21 or 31, if we’ve built the right kinds of connections between us and earned it ourselves, her family will be that ultimate connection she can always lean on. To paraphrase Tim Minchin, we are the people who’ll make her feel safe in this world.

But I’m not headed into White Wine in the Sun here. There’s another song that captures this humanistic idea of people caring for each other better than any other.

R&B legend Bill Withers wrote it after he moved to LA in the lates 1960s following a stint in the Navy. He was really alone for the first time in his life, feeling vulnerable, away from the personal connections that had made him feel safe growing up in a small coal mining town in West Virginia. He sat down and wrote one of the great songs of all time about what he was missing. Not a particular belief, not God, but somebody to lean on. And unlike God, that human relationship can be mutual — which to my mind is SO much more satisfying and meaningful.