Fathers & Guns
Icons of Affection
Preface & Reader Response
There is fear. And there is love. Both serve practical ends. Both diminish the other.
HE SO LOVES THE WORLD
by Jerry Murley
There is fear. And there is love. Both serve practical ends. Both diminish the other.
While no standout athletic type, from an early age my son was a distance runner. He cuts a healthy figure, now as then. And he is competitive and strong willed, now as then. He is combative in a wholly different way. He stands amazed at a world that is both more varied and compatible than what one is likely to hear of in the daily media or in hardened provincial society.
Perhaps it started with a cloth globe he acquired in his very early years. Perhaps it was the little books about faraway places that my wife read to him over and over again. Perhaps it was fed by thirteen years of listening to two hours of National Public Radio every day. Perhaps it derived from conversing with and listening to well-traveled grown-up parents, friends, and relatives who lived in a loving rural community where there were few children and little television time. Perhaps it was fed by constant, self-motivated study aimed at grasping the mystery imbued in all the conditions to which he was exposed.
There is much pride but little claim to responsibility on the part of his parents. He was protected and encouraged by dozens of adults who instinctively teach children, especially those with aptitude, drive, and responsiveness – those open, exploring souls with the audacity to try, the modesty to seek help, and the capacity to absorb and remember.
This is a story without a conventional beginning. It is a growing story graciously without end. It is a story barely depicted in few pictures and words but essentially defined by love.
When my son was in the fifth or sixth grade he played on a basketball team. He did not play much, despite being tall and healthy. Though an eager bench-booster of the team, he was not expert in the game. But he could follow directions. He seemed an unlikely boy to pick for teammates with a relish, but his self-discipline set him to it. His coach was a gruff sports writer. During play with another but bigger, rougher Catholic-school team, his coach told him to hit the biggest player on the opposing team, the one who had been running all over my son's team. My son innocently asked with astonishment, "On purpose?" He knew the rules and respected them. He was faithful to his coach and his team. He went in and within minutes flattened his target on the gym floor, taking the forbidden foul and the laughing embrace of his coach, who repeated this story to me several times.
Early on, my son was a stickler for rules but found it wickedly funny when adults purposely committed infractions that were unharmful in intent and outcome – and slightly out of character. His persistent observation of organizational rules rattled some of the Catholic nuns at his elementary school. When his famously athletic and strict second-grade teacher pointed out the fact, as if everyone knew that rules were never meant to be so tightly held, I countered, tongue in cheek, that I suppose it was his pure Calvinist upbringing. There was no indication that my remark was received with any amusement. At any rate, once released from parochial school and cliquish high school, he took to Liberation Road with more swiftness and gusto than the nuns would have liked.
Though he started piano lessons, and daily practice, when he began formal schooling, participation in music did not hold focus with complete enthusiasm until he suddenly began singing as he played the piano. My son has a knack for transforming parental notions, such as the assumption he would pursue purely classical or jazz instrumental music, into something distinctly his own. When he embraced the internationally and inter-generationally beloved repertoire of Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Loesser, and Sinatra, his parents were surprised and thrilled rather than disappointed by his repurposing of parental designs. In his college years, he traveled widely singing bass in an a cappella group.
I will admit that I was and am protective of my son. I never failed to inform him of the pearls and perils of the world and of my opinion that he could take it on. Those are conflicting approaches: to urge and to hold back. Every good parent knows the dissonance and difficulty intimately. Every good parent will let the fledging fly free when he is ready, though pained by the prospects and their unpredictability.
My son studied French most of his school career. We traveled as a family to western Canada in 1996 and to England and France in 1999. But it was during a month-long experience at the Tennessee Governor's School in Memphis that he acquired a taste for the Middle East, internationalism, and independence. Before he was out of high school he spent six weeks one summer in Poland, a trip pursued and financed on his own initiative with an international education and service group. In college, with various groups and internships, but often on his own, he traveled to El Salvador, Guatemala, England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Holland, and Belgium. The year after college, after moving to New York City, he traveled again to London and Amsterdam. In law school, he went to London, Paris, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Right before graduating, he traveled to Jordan; after graduating, he went to Brazil. After joining the New York bar and a law firm, he spent a month in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates; he left Egypt two days before the revolution in 2011. Since then he spent over a month in Africa, in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, and has been to Thailand, Cambodia, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
As a parent, I might try to claim that most of this adventure was for service or profit. It was not, though both were involved. Apparently, the world is much more fun and accessible than doomsayers would have us think. Before he was thirty, my son helped run a successful Congressional campaign. And he served the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) administered by the World Health Organization; the Economic Section of the U.S. (Department of State) Mission to the European Union; the Office of General Counsel for New York University Abu Dhabi; and the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. All this he did for service, profit, and fun, but mostly to see and experience the world firsthand.
Each time he travels I see my sweet, intelligent, open, strong boy walking into the threatening images I hold in my mind of these places from 1972. Each time, he proves more than man enough to survey the dangers and opportunities and squeeze the most pleasant and enriching experience out of every one.
In an age when it seems a general birthright to whine and complain incessantly about the most trivial matters, I am reminded of a simpler approach in a purer time. My wife and I often laughingly – and in all earnestness – proclaim that God knew our particular limitations as human beings and parents when he presented us with our son. In all the thirteen years that my son and I commuted together for nearly two hours a day on weekdays, from kindergarten through high school – some of the hardest days of my life and that of my wife – I never once heard our son complain that he had a "bad" day. I know now that he did have several discouraging days and at least ten, that he has told us of, during college and law school and thereafter. Whether he didn't know exactly how to discuss his hidden disappointments, I do not know. But I suspect that he did not want to burden his parents and he truly found his world generally interesting and agreeable. Obviously we were rewarded, then as now, with a ubiquitous atmosphere of warmth, smiles, determination, and calm. We were also gratified that what we tried to do to help him be happy, and our frequent parental mistakes and overstepping, either aided or came to naught in the overall positive reckoning of his long-lasting view of the world.
The world is indeed a better place than we imagine. People are much better than we imagine. If we so loved the world, we would find that the world so loves us, too.
How much do we, as parents, love this world? We know so much more and so much less than our parents and their parents. It is not as though we can make it perfect or absolutely safe. But if we know that eating less fat will help our own bodies and using a little less ground water and non-renewable fuel will help our communities, we can do that much. Our parents vaccinated us against communicable disease; they supported science in the race to space and to cure sickness and poverty; they fought barbarity at home and around the world; they sent us to school at considerable expense to themselves and the state for personal and public good; they barely criticized our periodic folly, accepting it in the name of beneficial exploration and self-determination. They luxuriated at times in the growing bounty of our nation, but they seldom believed that it would continue without effort and stewardship.
Do we so love the world and our children? Are we so grateful for the benefits bestowed on us by our parents and providence that we will take the steps, even at small sacrifice, to ensure these beautiful images of a wondrous world continue for succeeding generations? Do we love more than we fear?