My feet felt like they were on fire. The stands were surprisingly full, and I was glad I’d arrived early enough to grab a seat that was mostly in the shade. My sandal-clad feet were in the sun, though, and I noticed that the skin on top was already turning red – I’d need to move soon, probably to a place where I’d have to stand. I decided to relax for a few more minutes as I looked out over the inner field of the high school track, looking for Sam, my 7th grade son, who was about to run in the first meet of the season.
I scanned the various clusters of boys in his team’s black t-shirts, and looked for his coach’s signature bright-orange hat. Where was he? Finally, I spotted a single figure sauntering along the perimeter, gazing off into the distance, hand tracing along the yellow tape separating the discus area from the rest of the field. There he was. My heart squeezed a little, taking my mind off my feet temporarily. I wasn’t surprised that he was off on the side by himself, alone in the crowd, but it panged me nonetheless. My sweetly earnest, creative, introverted son – how I wished he were part of the group.
This wasn’t the first time I’d watched from the sidelines as Sam separated himself from the others on the field. When he was four we signed him up for soccer, thinking it would be a good way for him to run off some of his little-boy energy and meet some kids his age. That was during his dinosaur phase, the years when he had memorized the names of every dinosaur in every picture book we had (more than most libraries), and would spend hours a day setting up elaborate scenes for his brightly-colored, hard plastic T-rexes and Stegosauruses. Soccer, it turned out, held little appeal for him – the ball and net were basically invisible. Instead, he ran up and down the field following the herd of other children who were chasing the ball, hunched over in a T-rex pose, elbows pressed in, ”claws” facing forward.
At the time my husband and I were both very frustrated – we wanted him to be part of the team and make friends with the other kids. We encouraged him to practice for the games, and spent many afternoons kicking the ball with him in the back yard, and running and dribbling it around the park. He always went along with us, and listened respectfully as we talked about his responsibility to the team, but it never “took” – at the first opportunity he was back to stomping and roaring. These days we laughed about those times, wishing we’d lightened up about the silly soccer game, but now I was feeling those familiar feelings of frustration again. I still wanted him to be part of the team, to make friends.
Finally, too hot to stay where I was, I walked up to the shaded area at the top of the stands where I could still see the track but, as I suspected, had to stand. I shifted my attention to the other shade-seeking people packed into the viewing area with me and noticed how increasingly noisy it was – the many animated conversations, the clapping and cheering, happy voices calling out to each other. And it was in that moment, as I stood there quietly in the middle of all that commotion, that I suddenly realized that I, like Sam, was also alone in the crowd.
Growing up as an introvert was hard for me, and I had hoped that neither of my boys would face this particular challenge. My younger son is more outgoing and social, like his dad, so navigating social situations comes easily for him. Sam, however, is like me and prefers to be alone most of the time, quietly reading or working on his own projects – this is how we recharge our batteries. In an extroverted culture like ours we are often misunderstood, and often feel separate and different. Watching Sam wander alone around the field that day, waiting for his track events to start, my heart ached. I didn’t know how to help him.
As we drove home after the meet, Sam told me how much he liked running, even though he was “really, really nervous” before each of his events. “Running is one of my things,” he happily declared. While pleased to hear this, I was still carrying the weight of the worry and anxiety that had begun earlier, still trying to figure out what I could do. I decided to ask about whether he was getting to know any of the other boys on the team, whether there were any he liked particularly. “Mom, I’m there to run. I talk to the other guys sometimes, but mostly I’m focusing on running.” His tone told me that he knew I was going somewhere with this. I pushed ahead anyway, insisting how nice it would be to make a friend on the team, how he could try to talk to the boys before practice or on the bus on the way to the meets. “They’re usually playing games on their phones, or horsing around. Stop worrying, Mom, I’m fine.” In other words: end of conversation.
So, I did what I do: I sat and felt all of my heavy emotions and noticed all of the roiling thoughts about it over the next few days. And as I sat, I began (slowly) to realize that Sam was teaching me something I needed to learn and, in truth, had needed to learn for quite a while: to allow him to be who he is. Instead of imposing my “stuff” on him, all of my worries and terrible visions of the future, I needed to trust and allow. In my desire for him to have a better life than mine, to avoid the particular suffering I have known, I was projecting my wishes onto him and inadvertently sending the message that something was wrong with him. My ego had gotten in the way (again).
Knowing this does not make letting go any easier, at least not yet. However, in the moments when I can observe my sons or listen to them without attachment or the need to control, I experience a deep and genuine sense of peace, and know that I am on the right path. In the moments when I just can’t achieve this, it helps to remember the words from Kahlil Gibran’s poem, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” This may be the hardest truth of parenting, but this is the job we signed up for – we need to be “the bow that is stable” so our children “may go swift and far.” And that’s what Sam was both showing and telling me that day as he ran around the track – he wants to go swift and far. All I need to worry about is getting there earlier – oh, and remembering to bring sun block.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.