“A Letter to My Daughter” – Delivered at NASA LGBT Symposium
July 12, 2012
As I write this we’ve recently returned from a trip to the emergency room, and while you’re doing better now, brushes with my own frailty and that of the people I love has a certain way of ratcheting up my awareness that I won’t always be around. To be honest, my sense of my own finitude is pretty acute – a fact I blame on your Lola naming me after her father who died on my birthday. I bear a strong physical resemblance to your Great Grandpa, and this, paired with our personal similarities and shared anniversary, combine to make me think about mortality more than most. Turns out, your Dad’s a little crazy (Sidenote: You’re probably a little crazy too as of the reading this letter. I apologize, sort of. More on that later.)
Sweetheart, I hope to live a long life. A life filled with daddy-daughter doughnut runs, softball coaching and awkward conversations with prom dates. But, nothing in life is guaranteed, and I wanted to take advantage of my current, poignant frame of mind to share with you a few truths I’ve observed about people and what it takes to live a life that is simultaneously joyful and meaningful. Volumes have been written on the topic, and while I may not have any special insights, it’s my hope that the intensity of my love for you will pick up where my limited intellect leaves off.
It’s my hope that as you read this letter the world is a better place than at the time of its’ writing. Not in a flying cars and robot maids sort of way, but as a result of greater introspection, humility and acceptance by the members of the human family. It’s in our nature to romanticize the past and to look back on the “good ole’ days” with greater affection than they deserve I’m probably doing a lot of this at this point. Sorry in advance for the repetitive tales of my former glory. The fact is, despite all the talk of the crumbling moral foundation of our society, a lot is right in the world. Crime, abuse, drug use and teen pregnancy are all on the decline and historically disadvantaged groups enjoy freedoms that would have been thought impossible a century ago.
This year, a person of color and a Mormon are vying for the highest political office in the land. One man represents a group that has been mistreated at every turn – from the enslavement that brought them to this country to the racist laws of your home state that kept them subordinated to their white peers, to the somewhat more latent, but pervasive prejudice that persists in employment situations. The other man represents the faith of your fathers, a religion birthed on American soil and the only to ever have an official extermination order issued by a state. As recently as 1976 it was legal to kill a Mormon in Missouri – a fact I hope will not stand in the way of your becoming a Cardinals fan like your Daddy.
In the lifetime of your grandparents, neither one of these men would have stood a chance at holding such an important role in our national government. Now, both have been given the unique opportunity of compromising their personal values and slandering one another as only presidential candidates can! It occurs to me that the idea that there should be a racial or religious test for office will seem absurd to you as you read this. This sort of progress is a testament to the words of a great civil rights leader who said that, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” And while Dr. King’s words have proven true over the years, this progress has been hard fought and will take continued effort from people like you in the years to come to ensure that there is no slippage in the ongoing fight for parity.
The first thing that I want you to remember is to embrace uncertainty. Charlotte, you have always been a bright child. You walked early, you talked early, and from a young age you have had the gift of lighting up a room by saying the cutest things. Notwithstanding all of your intellectual gifts, you, as a human being are still prone to some pretty significant errors in thinking.
Every day of your life you will be presented with myriad options – what to wear, what to eat, with whom to associate, in addition to more consequential decisions about where to take your life. In the midst of this maelstrom it’s easy to see why you, and everyone, would want some certainty. In an effort to simplify the process of living, we often foreclose on certain truths before they have been fully vetted and accept things as articles of faith that may not be.
At various points in history, the prevailing scientific doctrines have said that the Earth was the center of the universe, that personality could be measured by looking at bumps on the head, and that women’s reproductive systems would atrophy with excessive education. While it is certainly easy to have a laugh at the arcane beliefs of our forebears, it is much more difficult to look skeptically at our own sacred cows. I promise you that you will hold firmly to truths that subsequent generations will find to be out and out wrong, there’s no real way around it.
What I’m advocating here is not cynicism, pessimism or moral relativity. Instead, I’d encourage you to be circumspect about what you think you know, realizing the limits of reason and the biases that inform the way you view the world. Embracing paradox and uncertainty is the only way to authentically navigate something as complicated as life. You’re just never going to figure it out and acting like you have will lead you to sell yourself short and hurt others. Don’t worry though, not really “getting it” is what makes every day worth getting up for.
Much of the injustice that is perpetrated in the world is doled out by groups so certain of their own correctness that they feel justified in harming others. Throughout human history, faith (so-called) has been used as a stick to hit non-believers. The beauty of faith truly understood is that it is the simultaneous privileging of belief and doubt. By holding these two, seemingly conflicting emotions at one time, you are able to hope for grace even as you continue to search. Punitive faith is insecure. It mistrusts it’s own conclusions, but not being able to humbly express doubt, it punishes those who question. Real faith knows that doubt sows the seeds of further exploration, even as belief holds out the promise of things hoped for but not seen. My prayer for you is that by remaining humble and intellectually curious, you will embark on a lifetime of learning that is open to all possibilities.
My next admonition is that you surround yourself with diversity. The current conversation around diversity has become fairly insipid, largely limiting itself to observable differences in people. Diversity simply means difference, and what I wish for you is to experience diversity on the largest scale possible. In other words, surround yourself with people, places and ideas that deviate from your current ways of thinking; allowing yourself to thoughtfully consider these differences.
Recent studies show that our country is more ideologically divided than at any point in recorded history. I believe these divisions are a natural byproduct of our tendency to cluster in places and with people who view the world as we do. We make up our mind about something, and wanting to achieve peace of mind and our feelings of competence, we tend only to associate with people who think as we do. This comfortable cloistering creates an echo chamber wherein our mutual admiration society begins to advocate increasingly strident and radical positions.
But radicalization is not the only danger. It becomes easy for us to criticize and even demonize groups of people with whom we’ve had little contact. It’s easy to hate a creed independent of personal context, it being nothing more than an impersonal grouping of ideas. However, as we meet and become intimate with the people that comprise the groups we profess to oppose, our beliefs take on greater nuance. The simple fact is, hate feeds on lack of exposure. It has been my experience that no human behavior, no matter how seemingly strange or maladaptive is ever truly crazy with appropriate context. Many times I have scratched my head at the presenting concerns of a therapy client, only to deeply understand their rationale once it was couched within their larger life history.
As you embark on this journey of exploring differences, you might begin with the diversity that exists within yourself. Half of your family has strong cultural ties to Norway and the other half to the Deep South, which is why we call you our little Redneck Viking. These two geographies and their accompanying economic, social and political differences stand in stark contrast to one another and as you explore the reasons behind these differences you will be enriched. Standing at the crossroads of these and other cultures as you do, you are well positioned to serve as a bridge of understanding. Each one of us, perhaps Norwegian Mormons from Alabama in particular are a cultural mashup all our own. Sometimes the cultural appendages that form this Frankenstein’s Monster seem to be in opposition to each other, but as these seeming contradictions are worked through, they provide deepened understanding and increased empathy. What’s more, people like you are able to build bridges between disparate groups given your shared membership in and affinity for the various parties you represent.
As you immerse yourself in this diversity of ideas and opinions – you will find that not all are of equal merit. Some ideas will be unethical, immoral or downright dumb. That’s OK. You are an intelligent woman, capable of judging right from wrong and fact from fiction. What’s not OK is making hasty judgments independent of a sufficient understanding of all the variables. Worse still is not knowing what you don’t know.
You have been born into a home where you will be loved, taught, and nourished in body and mind. You are pretty. You speak English. You are white. You are the child of well-educated parents. All of these things are advantages that you have done nothing to earn. But yet your fluency in these roles makes you an “insider” in a culture that values these things. In other ways, some of which we may not fully realize now, you may find yourself in the role of “outsider.” These roles will shift as you move and grow, but there is value in spending time in both camps. Specifically, I want you to know that inside has its downside and that outside has its upside. Less cryptically, insider status carries with it a responsibility and outsider status can provide unique gifts.
Insider status comes with advantages, some of them obvious, others less so. It can be even more difficult to recognize these advantages when they come in the form of unchosen preferences like who you love or the color of your skin. But no matter what the source of your advantage, you have a duty to honor it. Before becoming a practicing psychologist, I was asked to commit to a set of principles akin to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians. Succinctly put, this oath requires that you first, “Do no harm” and second, “Do all the good within your power.” It is understood that doctors have power and should commit to principles that guide the use of that power; a principle that I feel applies nicely to the use of insider advantages as well.
If your youthful personality is any indication of the woman you will become, and I hope it is, you are not prone to malice nor would you ever intentionally hurt someone else. Even so, people in positions of power can work unjustly against the powerless in ways that may not even register given their limited exposure to the realities of the other half. Doing harm is doing harm whether you are cognizant of it or not.
When you do become aware of ways in which you can follow the scriptural injunction to “lift up the hands which hang down” I hope that you will exercise every bit of power you possess to succor those in need. It is one life’s cruel injustices that those who most need to advocate for themselves are least well positioned to do so. As you spend your social capital in the service of those without, I promise you that you will find meaning that you would never get from a more frivolous, self-centered exercise of your advantage.
We’ve already established that you are a cultural mutt – a confusing amalgamation of beliefs and heritages from which you will choose, modify and construct a self. Inevitably the process of self-construction will land you outside the realm of what is accepted by those in the majority (and alas, potentially even your parents) at times. I find that there is a great deal of confusion about what comprises meaningful rebellion, as opposed to the pedantic kind that is so much more prevalent. Pedantic nonconformity seeks difference for difference sake. Meaningful outsider status comes from a deep, if uncomfortable commitment to swimming upstream that is rooted in purpose. Don’t be fooled by appearances, a mohawk can be every bit as conformist as a suit and an atheist every bit as dogmatic as a fundamentalist. There are myriad advantages to “principled outsiderdom”; a view of the world unobstructed by vain tradition and a commitment to justice that transcends cheap cultural encapsulation, to name just a few.
Your mother and I began our marriage in a small town on the North Shore of Hawaii. We’re often told how lucky we were to begin our life together in such an idyllic place, and I never refute these well-intentioned conversation starters. But the fact is, we were miserable. Unfamiliar with the customs, diet and even concept of time of our neighbors, we felt off kilter for our four months on the island. It was unpleasant in some respects but immensely valuable in others. It was there that I came to a visceral understanding of what it meant to be different. Of the emotional impact of being an outsider, even in the absence of any conspicuous negative event. As a result of my time there, I try to be more considerate of other “fish out of water.” Whenever you do find yourself on the outside looking in, know that there is value in being there as long as you are deepening your understanding or standing on principled ground.
Finally little one, I want you to go through life realizing that everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. When your mother and I learned that she was pregnant with you, we were elated. You were planned for, prayed for and loved before you ever made your appearance in our family. About two years after you were born, your mother was pregnant again and we excitedly told our family that we would be expecting another little Crosby. Sadly, our first visit to the doctor revealed serious problems with the pregnancy and we eventually lost the baby.
Shocked and saddened, we retreated to the comfort of home, seldom leaving over the next few months. We told almost no one of our loss and did our best to go about our day-to-day lives, still reeling from the way life had detoured us from our most-cherished plans. Early the next year, we lost another child but took a much different approach to our grief. We told everyone.
In doing so, we found that many, perhaps even a majority, of our friends had suffered similarly. The private nature of the loss had kept most of them from speaking out, leading them to suffer in silence as we had the first time around. Once we had broached the topic, most of our friends couldn’t stop talking as they attempted to work through the emotional scars of their own losses., even as they helped us recover from ours. I hope that the future holds better things for our family and that you’ll be a big sister before you know it. But if loss should touch our family again, I know that I have an empathetic group of friends that love me and stand ready to comfort me when I mourn.
It is a strange paradox that we’re a country of mentally anguished people who are insensitive to those who are suffering. 46% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime but 70% of people say they would not marry a person with a mental illness. Do that math and let the hypocrisy wash over you for a minute. Psychology is the second most studied discipline in American universities, presumably owing to our efforts to figure ourselves (and our loved ones) out. We sense how tenuous happiness is, and in so doing, can tend to insulate ourselves from people who are struggling, as if sadness were catching.
I mentioned at the outset of this letter that I’d revisit the more unstable elements of your genetic heritage. If you’re anything like your old man, you’re probably a big worrier, prone to self-doubt and driven to perfectionism. If this is the case, you’re in good company, because every other person you meet is struggling too; if not with something internal then perhaps with a difficult life circumstance. Although life is full of happiness and wonder, on a long enough timeline, periods of neuroticism and struggle are the rule, not the exception. I’m not a big believer in absolutes or folky aphorisms you can cross-stitch and hang on the wall that will tell you how to lead a good life. This is one exception – kindness, love and generosity are always the right answer when dealing with your fellow travelers.
When you struggle, and you will, there will be people that will tell you that “everything happens for a reason.” Don’t listen to these people. They mean well and are searching for words to comfort you, but the idea that everything that happens was supposed to happen is cruel and unreasonable. What is true is that everything that happens can be an opportunity for growth, whether or not it was “meant to be” on some cosmic scale. Pain means that no one can sit on the sidelines of life. It brings you to a crossroads where you must choose a path. You can be debilitated, saddened or jaded by suffering or you can choose to learn, empathize more deeply, and speak on behalf of those without a voice.
I don’t wish you hard times out of some misguided Calvinist ideal. In fact, seeing you hurt this week has reinforced in my mind that I would act with swiftness and without fear of consequences if anyone ever hurt you. But in the final analysis, life has a way of providing transcendent moments of bliss and dark valleys of sadness, no matter what a father’s wishes may be.
At various points along your journey, you will meet people who are sullen, impatient or odd (some of whom will be family members). Your first impulse will be to turn away from them or make character judgments based on a small snapshot of their behavior. While you should never allow someone to mistreat you, I hope that you will be slow to judgment when you meet one of these walking wounded. All too often, what we perceive as externalized anger is only internalized hurt. Only a very few people wake in the morning with a desire to do intentional harm and destroy relationships. The rest of us are wrestling with unseen demons and praying that no one will “out us”, discovering how truly flawed we are. As you display your own war wounds and react with compassion to those of others, you will normalize the turmoil we all experience but are often too ashamed to admit.
In closing, let me say that no words I could ever communicate to you could ever have as lasting an impact on your life as your mere presence has had on mine. The guileless simplicity of your prayers, your natural acceptance of people from all walks of life and the earnestness with which you forgive are the only roadmaps a great society has ever needed. As you grow, I’m confident that you will accomplish a great deal in whatever disciplines you set your mind to. But I hope that as you mature in education, power and success, you will not lose sight of the light that lives inside of you today. A light that illuminates the ways in which we are all more alike than different and need each other so desperately. Wherever you are today, whoever you are and whoever you love, whatever you are doing, whatever you have done – I love you and always will.
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