Tony Woodlief | Author

More Light

They say that the insane and geniuses are alike in that their minds make unusual connections between ideas. The good news is that I may be a genius. The bad news is that insane people often imagine that they are brilliant. Regardless, I noticed what seemed to be a common thread running through three seemingly unrelated news items this weekend, and this annoying little thread got me thinking.

The items were in separate issues of The Wall Street Journal (which, with its snazzy new design, is not your Daddy Warbucks’s newspaper any more). The first detailed a rise in university “study abroad” programs which involve neither. Desperately needing a break from the terrible burden that is college, many students are opting for a semester skiing in Utah, or “studying” culture in New Orleans. This in itself is unsurprising — it’s clear that, given their overriding goal of revenue growth, most universities will do anything to keep the little princes and princesses happy, so long as an educational veneer can be slapped atop it.

What surprised me, instead, was the seeming helplessness of these students’ (paying) parents. Consider Pete Cordero, father, as the Journal explains, “of business major and ski enthusiast Michael,” who is spending a semester (as well as daddy’s money) on the slopes. “I did everything in my power to talk him out of it,” moaned the elder Cordero. Except, of course, withholding the money to pay for it. Perhaps this should not be surprising; “It’s for the children” is the modern-day equivalent of “Open, Sesame” when it comes to breaking into otherwise well-guarded wallets.

In some cases, it seems, the phrase is so powerful that it can cause money to materialize where it otherwise would be absent. Carol Powers took out a $6,000 loan, the Journal reports, so that her son Tom can spend a semester in L.A. Ostensibly, this is for him to study entertainment management, but as Tom divulges to the reporter, he’s spent most of the last month cruising Sunset Boulevard. Ms. Powers, meanwhile, is worried that the sun and fun of the west coast will seduce her boy. What is it that computer programmers remind us — garbage in, garbage out? A painfully useful concept, that.

The second news item was about entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone’s recent legal settlement with his own son, cashing the latter out of the family business. It seems that the younger Redstone was peeved that he wasn’t being allowed more say over the enterprise built by his father. Likewise in the third news item, which detailed press giant Rupert Murdoch’s legal wranglings with his own poisonous brood.

I wonder what it is about money that leads to the destruction of these most fundamental human bonds between parent and child. Perhaps it is not money, but the accumulating of it. Amassing fabulous wealth — or political power, for that matter — seems frequently to entail the wholesale neglect of one’s children. When one considers the biographies of powerful men, the accompanying codas of failed, broken, and spiteful children are, sadly, too commonly observed as well. If it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain heaven, then how much more so for his children?

I’m always impressed by extremely successful people whose children are happy and good. It seems such a rare thing that I want to hug them for not screwing it up. I’ve discovered that extremely successful people tend not to want hugs from far less successful acquaintances, so I just admire them quietly.

I think, too, about people I know and admire who are good, attentive parents, but whose older children have stumbled due to weaknesses of character, or self-discipline, or both. I don’t think I will become the parent who watches helpless while his pampered son skis away his money on the slopes of Utah, but what parent does set out to raise a less than perfect child? And yet that’s what they become, despite the efforts of we broken and flawed people assigned the task of raising them.

I wanted to write “best efforts” in that last sentence, but I know that too often my effort, such as it is, isn’t my best. Perhaps that’s the trick, I tell myself — I’ll just work harder and better than all the other parents I know, and then my children will walk humbly and in strength with their God. There is something valuable, I am sure, in weeding out, as parents, as much laziness and complacency in ourselves as we can bear to discern. Increasingly, though, I am coming to believe that no matter how hard and well we perform as parents, we just can’t guarantee that our children will be good and faithful and true.

This is why I get on my knees — because praying any other way any more just seems so double-minded, to me, and useless — more often these days, and pray for my children. I pray that they will be better than me, because I have been that selfish student, as well as his gutless father. I have been the narcissistic mogul and the ungrateful wretch of a child. I have always been that really stupid sheep, the one who has to get his legs broken by the shepherd and then be carried around for awhile, so he can learn dependence and obedience.

So I pray that my boys will be better than me, because the stubborn path is so rocky, and overgrown with regret, and I’d just as soon they never know it, except perhaps by reading a few of the old man’s words. Mostly, I pray that God will work some miracle whereby a man like me can raise far better men. God still works miracles, you know, so I like to believe that such a prayer is more about genius than insanity.

Or perhaps it’s mostly about hope, because that is, in the end, what we rely on — a hope that we can overcome the world as well as ourselves. I believe we can, and so that’s why I get on my knees in the cold dark hours. Something nice about praying in the dark morning is that, sometimes, when you open your eyes, there is more light in the world. In a way, I think that’s all any of us are asking for.

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