I read the note on the nightstand in the dark silence of midnight. The list, punctuated by her open-mouthed snoring, went like this:
Try to be good
Listed like a simple to-do: “try to be good”, revealing that she had to work at it, her body’s ego reminding her childish id to sit still, be quiet, don’t hit. I smirked- “that’s my girl”, the fiery one who won’t ever be taken advantage of, who is too smart not to realize society’s constraints on her, our expectations, her responsibility. This girl, a test of wills, a match of won’ts, a struggle of if’s, is at the moment my most pressing concern and my most beloved task.
And as so often in parenting, I see the struggle with her as the struggle in me, and in more broad strokes, the struggle in humanity. We all truly suffer from much the same errors and intentions. We all start our days and years with lists that somehow end with “try to be good”, whether it is not eating that donut or not lying on the job application, not coveting his new car or whispering about her bad behavior. And we see the remnants left of so many whose checklist goes unmarked; those who simply could not “be good” in that instant or that era, that chose once or daily to skip that step. We are left amidst discarded daily lists, cut into a million tiny pieces by the sharp edges of the errors of others and ourselves.
How do I teach her this step? By example, certainly, but beyond that. My high schoolers just heard my talk about living “above reproach”, defined and described in our reading of Oedipus and our discussion of current celebrities and politicians, a Tragic Hall of Shame assignment that hits too close to home with its idea that we all struggle with a tragic flaw, one that threatens to bring us down, looms behind our good intentions with quiet ferocity, ready to devour our good name. So we talked, a “mom moment” between myself and 28 grown children on the precipice of adulthood, then I went home to that still small 8-year-old and tried to hack it down to one-syllable lists of advice on good behavior. And it felt trite, and uncertain, because really, what does it mean to be good anyway? Is it to be seen and not heard? Or to stand up for the bullied kid? Is it to accept what you are told? Or to question who is telling you? Is it to follow the crowd? Or to mark your own path? Is it dependent on situation, on person, on context, or is good always the same?
I suppose this is how we all got stuck in this thorny situation, from Oedipus in old greek text to Old Testament sins of the fathers to today’s news stories of the faltering and the fallen. I am not naive enough to see good as relative, but I am honest enough to see it as full of dichotomies that an 8-year-old can realize but not understand, just like the rest of us. I am also honest enough to know it should be on every day’s list, brought to the forefront of our discipline in every decision, mundane or monumental. And in an admission to her, and to me, that being good is so often beyond our human grasp, I tell the story of Israel, ending confidently with God’s promise in Isaiah, that “your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” It is when I remember that none of us are doing this alone that I feel more confident that I can guide her, if not through my voice, then through the voice of Almighty, and through her own tender heart that simply wants to be good.