As a parent I’ve often prayed that Anna wouldn’t follow in my footsteps and be “real smart but real dumb,” as I was referred to in school. The honors student who cost his team the spelling bee, who became a hands-on adult unable to pound a nail without bending it. Better, I thought, to be solidly in the middle in abilities and aspirations, and be spared a lifetime of incredulity whenever behavior doesn’t meet expectations.
For the time being, though, my incense apparently is past the sell-by date, as behavioral contradictions have surfaced with her as well.
For example, Marsha and I joke about Anna sometimes being a throwback to the Red Guards of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution who went around snapping red flags and denouncing intellectuals. Especially when a note attached to a Starbucks Frappucino in the fridge reads, “You touch, you die.”
O-kay. Can anyone say, “Nascent Tiger Mom?” Will Anna’s kids one day be required to kung-fu-chop firewood before they’re allowed to sing around the campfire?
Such ruthless sentiments--- not to mention Anna’s stock rejoinder to our horror at them (“You raised me!”)--- would have Marsha and me concerned about our family’s portrayal in future history books as a breeding ground of war criminals were it not for the Mackinac Island fudge sweetness she can summon as well: volunteering at a humane shelter, driving miles unbidden to visit her grandmother, being chosen for her high school’s suicide prevention program. We’re immensely proud of such empathy. Yet we also can’t help being flummoxed by it coexisting with gruffness that would have cowed Steve Jobs.
Underdeveloped brain matter--- responsible for so much teen/ parent agony--- may be a factor. But some profound adults struggle with oxymoronic traits. A college English prof of mine often stressed unifying opposites in art and life, relating it to Yeats’s gyres and, on a lower cognitive plane, to my inability to finish projects. “Continue the process of integration,” he’d counsel, one eye focused on me, the other, “lazy” one to the left. Yet this “man of God beyond all god/ And beyond all deeps,” as he referred to Melville, had trouble making it to class on time and sticking to a syllabus. The eyes were a tipoff.
I once attended an author event in which Judith Viorst made a very pregnant statement: “Just because we contain evil,” she said, “doesn’t mean we are evil.” Likewise, having contrasting impulses doesn’t mean we’re a moral failure. The process of integration, ultimately, may mean less a blending of contraries than holding opposites in balance.
There’s only so much parents can do about their kids’ conflicts. Adoptive Moms and Dads, especially--- forgetting that just because our children didn’t inherit our leanings doesn’t mean they’re a blank slate--- often harbor unrealistic expectations this way. We yearn for their lives to be smooth sailing, when providing them with a storm jib would be more helpful.
We really need to encourage them to accept contradictions in themselves and others and in life, rather than feeling like a fraud when they occur; maybe, even, to see the beauty and necessity in them. “The light is greater, hence the shadow more,” wrote Melville in the epilogue to Clarel.
Which sounds way smarter than dumb.