© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

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.



This was written on Saturday, 02. February 2013 at 11:14 and was filed under Community, fear, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, Q&A. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I’m interested in your reference to “those who are in much closer touch with the raw human condition than I am.” I assume you mean people who have a much more difficult life than you. I think about these people often when I ponder religion’s role in society. Maybe I don’t need a god because I have a supportive network of friends and family. And sure, I want my children to develop the skills to be able to foster such support structures, too. But what about the people who don’t? People for whom that’s exactly the problem they need support from god for. Maybe they’ve lost a loved one, or several at once, or have been rejected from their families and friends for a crime they committed, or simply for their sexual orientation. It’s easy to imagine real-world situations where people might feel like they can’t find that support from people. Might god not be a useful belief for them when things go from bad to worse?

    Comment: Benedikt – 09. February 2013 @ 8:12 am

  2. Benedikt – I think it’s up to the individual really. I have known some people real down and out like you describe that got so sick of waiting for god to step up and do… SOMETHING!… or really ANYTHING! … and that total lack of any tangible help led to them abandoning their faith.
    And I have known some very well-off people that claim that “only by the grace of god” do they feel like they have anything when in reality they have lived a life of priviledge full of emotional support from a close-knit family. And those well-offs have told me they’ll never leave religion because otherwise “who could I turn to without god?”

    Comment: TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma – 15. February 2013 @ 2:32 pm

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