This is part two in a three part series on parenting tips from a low-energy father. Read part one on assertive communication.
After learning to communicate more openly and honestly with my son, it soon became apparent that most of what I communicated was actually pretty negative. It was all about feeling irritated, frustrated, annoyed, disappointed, and sometimes angry.
Sure, things flow more smoothly when I communicate assertively rather than using aggressive or passive-aggressive tactics. But smooth doesn’t necessarily mean “happy”.
Happiness can prove elusive for a low-energy person, let alone a parent.
In fact, parenting puts such demands on our limited reserves of enthusiasm and energy that we have no choice but to search for better ways of functioning just to survive. In this way the pressures of parenting can in fact be transformative for low-energy people!
As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared in Twilight of the Idols “The spirits increase, vigour grows through a wound.” He was referring to war, but it’s apt for many struggles, not least the war of attrition that parenting can sometimes resemble.
Maybe life would have worked out better for Nietzsche if he’d had to nurse a colicky baby every day, bouncing gently from foot to foot, unable to sit down because she can tell (somehow) and will wake up screaming if you try to rest.
Gazing into the abyss? Don’t make me laugh, Fred. I can’t even stand still long enough to check my email without a cry of protest.
How important is happiness?
Parenting is full of challenges, and learning to navigate those challenges smoothly is a great accomplishment that brings much-needed relief to the devoted parent.
But I can carry out the many tasks of parenting successfully, yet still be a miserable, sour, anxious, fretful, overbearing, stressful, and morose human being.
Parenting doesn’t end at getting things done. Parents aren’t machines. We model not only our behaviours and skills to our children, but our entire worldview and the moods and personality traits that accompany it.
We can, in a sense, “do everything right” but still inhabit a joyless existence, and our children are powerfully susceptible to the long-term influence of our attitude to life.
That’s why good communication is not enough, and why – for my own sake, and for the sake of my children – I set out learning how to change how I feel.
My children have thus far turned out to be relatively gentle, sensitive and considerate by temperament.
Maybe yours are different. Maybe yours are like St Augustine’s infants who are innocent only because they lack the means of committing evil: “[T]he feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind.”
Temperament is supposedly hereditary, so low-energy parents are more likely to have low-energy children. But even so, my children’s minds seem innocent of world-weary beliefs, and untarnished by the kinds of experiences that informed my own profound pessimism.
My son has much more energy than I do, and it looks as though it’s proportional to the innocence of his worldview. In other words, he doesn’t expect things to turn out badly, nor does he quell his enthusiasm for life out of bitter experience.
How to be happy
I’ve spent some time delving into a variety of material aimed at increasing happiness. There’s a lot of material out there, from a range of sources. As a philosopher I’m especially interested in all-encompassing theories. So while advice like “stand up straight” is valid, given the relationship between mood and posture, I wanted something a little deeper.
The best advice I’ve found to date is that we can be happy if we pay attention to things that make us feel happy, rather than things that make us feel unhappy.
Parsimonious, but not as easy as it sounds, because most of us have been trained from infancy to pay attention to things that don’t make us happy.
Why? A variety of reasons, many of them having to do with pleasing other people or conforming to other people’s worldview.
I’ve often thought about this in terms of the sin of Adam. Since Jordan Peterson has made it okay for us to make up symbolic interpretations of biblical motifs: imagine growing up as Adam’s son, with a father always lamenting how he could have lived forever in paradise if it wasn’t for…
Well, who would Adam blame? Himself, Eve, the serpent, God?
And who would Adam’s children blame? Do you think Cain might have carried a chip on his shoulder from the old man?
Theologically we’re all children of Adam, and it’s not hard to see the parallel in the curse we inherit through our ancestors. Life’s disappointments, troubles, and stresses, as well as triumphs, pride, and self-importance are passed on in some form to each subsequent generation.
Implicitly I’m teaching my son how to be in the world; but if I’m not happy, what value is there in the lessons?
If you want to be happy, focus on things that make you happy instead of things that make you unhappy.
In my case the beliefs and perspectives that made me unhappy included deep and nebulous convictions like “life is a struggle”, as well as more intellectually-informed themes like “the inevitable collapse of Western civilisation”.
In every instance there’s a fear that if we stop focusing on these supposed realities, we will succumb to them. We fear being naïve and ignorant of the “harsh realities” of life.
But even on the mundane level of modern psychology, confirmation bias ensures that we are more likely to look for evidence that supports our beliefs than evidence that contradicts them. If you believe that life is a struggle and Western civilisation is collapsing, you will find affirmative evidence and be blind to more positive perspectives.
On a spiritual level, focusing on struggle and doom is the very opposite of faith in providence and a wealth of injunctions suitable to more melancholic temperaments:
Consider the lily, don’t worry about tomorrow, be anxious for nothing, whatever you ask for in prayer, seek first the kingdom, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, remain in my love.
There’s so much of it, not to mention the more abstract theological reflections on God’s providence – His fore-seeing of all creation from the vantage point of eternity, with the promise that a benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient creator could allow the privation of good only for a far greater end.
Faith in providence does not allow that “life is a struggle” or that the collapse of Western civilisation is necessarily a bad thing, if it’s a thing at all.
The alternative to ignorance isn’t pessimism or realism, but the innocence of a child. We think, like the first humans, that if we have knowledge of good and evil we can be masters of our own fate. Yet the prelude to the fall was itself the doubt and fear that maybe God wasn’t really looking out for us.
Providence in everyday life
That being said, in everyday life it takes a little more determination to practice faith and trust and remain in love and joy and happiness when firmly held beliefs about evil in the world, or even just mediocre inconveniences and irritations impinge on us.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil for though art with me O Lord. But if we don’t hurry up we’ll be late for school and that is unacceptable.
This contrast between devout expressions of faith in the abstract, and deeply mundane attitudes to everyday life have always troubled me.
My attitudes to money, politics, society and culture, relationships, and civilisation itself have failed to express the wonder and joy I find in the more abstract considerations of faith and existence.
But it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. It just takes practice and reflection and countless and inexhaustible reiterations of our belief in providence.
What happens if you’re late to school? What is the dire consequence? Maybe if you’re late for school you have to sign your child in through the office, and people will think you are a slack parent.
Maybe you’ll be late for work and your boss will think you aren’t dedicated or organised enough.
What’s the ultimate consequence? Taking it to the absurd extreme: I can imagine you might lose your job, succumb to illness and financial ruin, and die in ignominy.
If you look at this from perspective, your fears about trivial matters are either unfounded (you won’t die if you’re late), or firmly within the bounds of faith in providence. Either you won’t really die so stop worrying over nothing, or you actually might die and then you should redouble your faith rather than investing in anxiety.
Communicating happiness as a parent
The intention to focus on happier things and communicate happiness to our children is a great commitment.
Prompting ourselves to cultivate a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the good things in life not only models that virtue for our children, it also improves the whole emotional environment for our family. Being happy influences others for the better in more ways than we know.
Just begin the simple practice of finding positive things to communicate, to at least bring some balance to the negative. “I feel so happy when I see you having fun”, “I feel so proud of your reading”, “I feel so grateful for all the good things in my life”.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.