To Nathan On His 10th Birthday

You don’t get to choose where you are born, nor the body you are born into. You get what you get and you don’t complain. Well, you can complain but there is no point. There are no returns and no refunds.

Another year is gone, and, as we celebrate another year together as pilgrims on life’s road, I once again offer my annual advice on how to go about finding some sort of inner peace in the midst of the challenges that the journey brings.

The pilgrimage metaphor is an important one, because my suspicion is that if you want to make peace with a tumultuous world, joy must be found in the journey. If you can learn to enjoy the company of your traveling companions each day, sustenance and warmth at one of the campfires that dot the roadside each night, you will know peace in the journey. The peace that passes understanding is not something we acquire when we reach our destination; it is something we nurture within and between us as we journey together.  

But how to make that peace is a challenge. Human character is formed through interactions with others, which means – unfortunately for you – that you are going to experience the same sorts of challenges that I do, given that I am a significant relationship in your life. It means you will wrestle all your life with feelings of loneliness, you will continually question your self-worth, you will often be compelled to wrestle with the spectre of despair, hope will always be hard-won. Being my son and journeying with me means that you must walk the darker parts of my journey, even though I wish you could not.

But it also means that I am in a unique position to support you. I have fought these demons a long time and I know much about how to quiet their howling. It really comes down to this: love. Jesus’s teachings located the Kingdom of God very squarely in our relationships with others: love God with everything you are and love other people in the same way you love yourself. In other words, loving God is the same thing as loving others, which is the same thing as loving yourself, and this is where God’s peace is found. What you do to one relationship affects each other one.

Now peace is rooted in knowledge. The unknown is threatening and induces anxiety, but as we grow in knowledge, we grow in confidence. Familiarity gives rise to acceptance and peace.  We are better able to love what we know.

So a helpful starting point for nurturing peace is cultivating a knowledge of yourself. It is trickier than you might think, but if you are honestly seeking self-understanding (as opposed to looking for evidence to confirm self-prejudices), then you will not go wrong.  

The key is to always be conscious of the fact that everything in life is part of a complex web of relationships. To cope with that complexity, people simplify and categorise. As a result, we think about people and things in individual terms, apart from the systems they inhabit, forgetting that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Nothing can ever be properly understood in isolation. We humans also tend to think in binary terms – a thing must be either good or bad. It makes it easier to categorise things and once we put things in their appropriate boxes, we know how to feel about them. In reality, though, things are neither good nor bad, just imperfect (which is not the same thing as “bad”).

Knowing yourself will require you to understand yourself as a complex and imperfect being in a complex and imperfect system, one small node in an intricate web of relationships. So resist the temptation to think of yourself – and, indeed, of other people – as “good” or “bad”. Such thinking is wildly inaccurate and terrible destructive. Seeing yourself as a complex being will make you kinder to yourself – it is harder to hate yourself when you can see that you are more than the sum of your imperfections, and it is easier to love yourself when you can see that your imperfections are not purely intrinsic, but birthed within social flaws far beyond your ability to control. We all just try to do the best we can with what we got.

People will try to simplify and reduce you, and will possibly even persuade you that you need to do the same. But don’t accept such reductive constructions of your identity, no matter how sensible thy may sound and no matter how popular they may be.

Let me give you an example of what that will look like: people will think that they are entitled to make inferences about your character based on your preferred mode of communication. They will categorise you as “English”. They will take it a step further: they will conflate language and (a hugely simplified and stereotyped version of) culture, so that – based on your having an Afrikaans-speaking mother and English-speaking father, to many your primary identity will be as a representative of peoples whose contributions to the world have been Apartheid and colonialism. Don’t own reductive identities. For example, Afrikaans culture (and I recognise the irony and inaccuracy in framing it as a monolithic entity – I use the term only for ease of reference) has a dark history, it is true, but it is so much more than that. Its legacy also includes a fierce sense of community, a deep love for the land, and tremendous courage and determination. Don’t let anyone – especially not you, yourself – frame you in a single story.  

People will always want to reduce and label you so that they can understand you – you are male, you are white, you are English, you are Christian, you have ADD… You might even begin to believe that some of those labels are sufficient. But they are not. They can never capture the complexities they attempt to describe. You are more than the sum of your labels. And when you begin to truly understand that, when you grasp just how fabulously complex you are, you will find the kind of inner peace that lets you face your failings and your triumphs with equanimity, and still treat yourself with kindness.

When I was younger we were taught that a helpful formula for prayer was the acronym JOY: Jesus, Others, Yourself. I don’t see prayer in the same way now, though. Prayer is more than a ritual utterance; it is a way of being and being-with in the world. There is no hierarchy of Jesus then Others then yourself. When you begin to see the marvelous complexity that is you, and you find ways to love yourself; when you begin to realise that others are equally complex and that you diminish them by labeling them, whether in “good” or “bad” ways, you will find ways to love them too. And then, my hope for you, you will see that by loving them you are manifesting the spirit of Christ and loving God too. To love yourself is to love others is to love God.

So when I say that my birthday wish for you is that you will find the courage to love yourself, I hope you can begin to see the enormity of what that wish entails. Happy birthday, my beautifully complex boy. I love you.  

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