In the midst of joy, I have dark thoughts

I look at my happy 4-year-old and foresee his troubles.

By Cary Tennis

Published July 2, 2007 10:42AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

In a nutshell: I can't untangle the train wreck of fears I have in my head for my son, and what his life may be like -- what the world will be like, could be like -- with us, and eventually without us.

He's just turned 4, and he is the center of our universe. He is healthy, happy and well-adjusted, and ahead of the pack when it comes to speaking, his genuinely twisted sense of humor, and his sensitivity to and curiosity about the world around him. My wife and I are happy professionals (both 36) who still get a kick out of each other after eight years of marriage, and the joy our son has brought to our lives has magnified our bliss beyond our wildest dreams. We live in a great small community equidistant from the glitz of the big city and the bliss of the country, and have wonderful friends and extended families. Our dog knows great tricks, we don't worry about paying the bills, and it's always sunny in our backyard. You get the idea.

I am a self-professed realist, though some call me a pessimist. My friends joke about my proclivity to pontificate on any number of political and social issues. I am fairly well read and always open to new perspectives. I am addicted to comparative studies of the news -- how various issues get picked up, turned about and distorted in the popular media and how they make us feel. And I know that the truth is an elusive ghost, and so I rely on what reliable statistics are out there to verify to myself that there are not terrorists around every corner, or pedophiles lurking near the playground. It is unlikely that I or a member of my family will be a victim of violent crime. It's even more unlikely that we will be infected with a horrible disease or hit by lightning.

I know all of that. So, why do I ache whenever I kiss the boy goodbye in the morning (my wife takes him to daycare more often than I do)? Why does it cross my mind that all the parents who have ever lost a child kissed them goodbye, too, fully expecting that they would see them at the end of the day, but never did? Why, in the middle of reading him a story (one of his favorite pastimes) does it suddenly occur to me that he will one day have to speak at my funeral, and that the idea of his ever experiencing loss and sadness makes me sad, here, today?

I drove by a schoolyard the other day, and it was filled with overjoyed children playing and shrieking in the sun. I pictured our boy a few years older in the same setting, but instead of enjoying the idea, it crossed my mind that kids can be cruel, and I wondered if he would ever be seriously bullied or chronically taunted for any reason.

Let me be clear: These negative thoughts are small notions drifting among the countless happier ones I have. I do not dwell on the negatives. They do not get in the way of our happiness, and they do not prevent me from enjoying life. I do not hold on too tightly to our son, though I am perhaps a little more cautious than my wife.

How can I just go about this life, enjoy what it has to offer, deal with what comes our way, and not even consider the outside chances at the worst that can happen? Or should I embrace it as an evolutionary advantage that somehow alerts me and prepares us for the worst lest it turn down our street?

I just want a kiss to be a kiss, while the boy still wants to kiss his dad, and I want to go about my day happily awaiting the moment he comes home and runs into my arms. Can I ever turn off the dark-o-meter in my brain?

Radar for Darker Possibilities

Dear Radar for Darker Possibilities,

Now and then, certain true things come into your mind unbidden. They do not accord with what you are doing or who you are with. Nonetheless, they are true. This troubles you. You would like, at these moments, to be free of the truth. You do not want to be always free of the truth, but you would like at certain moments not to think of certain true things because they introduce a note of dissonance.

The desire to be free of the truth, or to have control over when and how the truth comes into consciousness, is understandable. We want to manage our emotions. We want to prolong the good emotions. We want them stronger, purer, longer-lasting. I know this feeling well. I have tried various methods to prolong the good feelings and keep the bad feelings at bay.

Some methods work, to varying degrees, in varying situations. The experience of flow, for instance, in unifying physical action with mental concentration, seems to keep dark thoughts at bay. Running from angry dogs will also banish most random thoughts from the mind as one focuses on survival.

But we are faced with a philosophical problem if we wish to block true thoughts from consciousness. It would one thing if we were having distorted thoughts -- for instance, if it were to occur to you at odd moments that your son is the future king of France. But the thoughts you are having are mostly true and reasonable. They're just not happy thoughts. Yes, we will all molder in the grave one day. You son will face difficulties and pain. And yes, one day, he will likely speak at your funeral.

Why should all true, reasonable thoughts be happy ones? And why should a happy moment not be tempered by knowledge of its evanescence, and of all the circumstances that militate against its continuation? We are capable of being aware of many things at once. This multiple awareness has much to do with sophistication and maturity, with the capacity for irony and humor, and with adult emotion.

So I don't think it's such a bad thing that you have these thoughts. But the way you receive them may benefit from adjustment. I know you've taken pains to calculate the likelihood of being blown up, and that has given you a measure of comfort. But it also indicates that you are struggling rather hard to keep dark thoughts at bay when a better approach might be to allow the dark reality of the world to temper your whole being. This darker, heavier thing is, you might say, your dark soul. It is your awareness of all things mortal and earthly; it is your shadow, the distant barking of Cerberus.

I personally do not have much patience with the view that our lives ought to be uniformly sunny and untroubled. When I see a person whose life is sunny and untroubled, I cross the street. The only way your life can be uniformly sunny and untroubled is if you do not seriously consider the facts. Why should I admire your ability to ignore the truth?

Ah, to look at a happy 4-year-old and say to yourself, Son, one day you will be speaking at my funeral.

Now that's the true joy of life!

But seriously, my friend, what you are experiencing seems normal and rather poetic; it is the bittersweet awareness that makes us human.

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