Holding Our Gifts Lightly

While we love to see our children shine, and stardom is highly prized in our culture, the price can be high. Rootedness in a community might be a higher goal.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a couple of videos about musical stars of the sixties and seventies with my teenage boys. One was on Bob Marley, the first Jamaican reggae singer to gain a following outside his country. The second was on Jim Morrison and The Doors, a rock group that spoke to the hippie generation, pushing the bounds of convention.

Both Marley and Morrison could bring an audience to their feet, speak to their passion, invite them to a heady experience of unity. But Marley stayed simple, provided for 4000 people from his earnings, seemed the same man at the end as he was at the beginning. Morrison, in contrast, grew increasingly capricious, relied more and more heavily on drugs and alcohol and was dead at age 26.

I was struck by the contrast. A critical difference seemed to lie in their attitudes toward their gifts. Marley saw himself, and was seen by others, as a representative of his people. Morrison was seen by others, and increasingly saw himself as an individual who could meet a set of emotional needs--and was in a unique position to do so. Marley didn’t take his gifts personally. Morrison did--and it killed him.

All of which is a long preface to a parent’s thoughts about her children’s gifts. I wonder about proud and anxious parents who perceive a strength in their child and focus attention on it in a way that blurs that child’s commonality with the rest of the world, or the importance of other aspects of his or her identity as a member of a larger community.

How can we take our children’s gifts lightly--notice them, be proud of them, encourage them to blossom, without identifying our children with them. What if we took the position that those gifts don’t really belong to an individual--and certainly don’t define him--but that they are the common property of our human community. They just happen to show up at this time in our already wonderful child.

It may seem like a lowering thought. We are proud of our children--and rightly so. We want others to see how wonderful they are. We certainly want them to be confident in their abilities and in their goodness. But perhaps we try too hard. They already are wonderful without being stars. And certainly the world needs ordinary decent loving citizens more than it needs prodigies. Our pride and confidence really are enough.

Just as important, we may be protecting them from deep unhappiness as adults if we are clear that their performance gifts do not define them. They are thus freed from the enormous burden (and ultimate impossibility) of filling the needs of those who count on their performance to make their own lives whole.

It’s possible to be a star and a human being, but it’s not easy. To do so, a person has to be very strongly anchored as part of something positive and larger than himself. As parents we can do our best work nurturing the human being part and helping to anchor our children in a larger community; then the star part can take care of itself.