For My Unambitious One

Dear Son,

I should probably explain my awkward laughter the other day. It really wasn’t because we were losing the soccer game 9-0. And it wasn’t because you had just asked about post-game snacks for the fourth time. Honestly, I think the laughter was directed at myself – for how slow I am in learning the lessons that matter most.

Let me explain as best I can. You’ve probably figured out by now that your mama and I are addicts of achievement. It started early in life for us – trying to make the best grades and obsessively wanting to win. It’s just how we’re composed, and, perhaps even, how we’ve been conditioned. We are ambitious by nature and by nurture.

And parents tend to pass this sort of trait to their children. Your older brother, for example, inherited a double portion of ambition. He’s something of a machine, really — competitive in that calculated and almost cold-blooded kind of way.

Your younger brother has it, too. But his ambition shows up differently. He’s aggressive and undeterred, passionate to the point of explosion about getting what he wants.

So that’s our family of five. A Sore Loser (me), A Classic High Achiever (your dear mother), A Productivity Machine (big brother), and A Stick of Dynamite (little brother). Oh, and then there’s you – the one who doesn’t fit the genetic mapping of our family system.

Ever notice my clumsy hesitation when you ask me to play? I know how to play with the Machine. It doesn’t take much – a ball, Frisbee, a box of wood chips or 10 mismatched socks. The only requirement is keeping score.

And I know how to play with the Dynamite. It’s all about confrontation and conquering – jumping higher, running faster, yelling louder.

But when I ask what you want to play, you answer, proudly, “Good guys and bad guys.” And I have no idea what that means. For you it means imagination and laughter, being together in a world of no discernable rules. But I never see the objective, and for most of my life, I’ve relied on objectives to get my bearings in the world.

Add to this the fact that I don’t know how to motivate you. I can’t bribe you. I can’t shame you. I can’t keep score because you’ll just draw all over the scorecard and turn it into a wild contraption with magical powers.

And yet, I’m still trying, still looking for a way to light a fire under you. See, that’s what I do. I see a problem, and I try to fix it. I inherit a riddle, and I can’t put it down until I’ve deciphered it.

But I think it’s time for me to stop. And that’s why I’m writing this letter. Only recently have I discovered that setting goals and measuring progress is a form of torture for your great big heart. I used to worry that you would spend your life lazily leeching off the contributors in society. My bigger worry now is that, in trying to make you more ambitious, I’ll crush the holy thing you are and shall be.

My hunch is that you have something the rest of us don’t. You seem to possess some inherent wisdom about the soul of the universe. You believe in kindness and mercy. You naturally operate in terms of “we” rather than “me.” Generosity is like a second-skin for you. All of this is so difficult for me to comprehend.

I’m still learning how to play games where no one keeps score. I’m still figuring out how to laugh at jokes without a punch line. I’m still adjusting to longer hugs. I’m still a beginner when it comes to being your dad.

But you’re a good teacher. You are slowly and surely showing me that love is not a reward. Joy is rooted far deeper than any trophy case of achievements. And ambition is not, nor has ever been, the native tongue of the soul.

I’m pretty sure you will outlive us all, and along the way, bless us beyond anything we could acquire on our own. So be patient with me about the good guys and bad guys. I’ll be patient with you about the soccer. We’ll figure it out together… over snacks, of course.

You are loved more than you’ll ever know or imagine.  — Daddy