The toughest lessons

May 16, 2009

There are some lessons that are universally necessary, and universally painful.  We all have to learn them, and it always hurts.  Why couldn’t we just be born knowing this stuff? 

My son learned one such lesson this week when his “pabloon” (balloon) blew up when he sat on it.  As if the initial shock of the explosion wasn’t enough, he then had to discover that it could not be repaired.

“Put it back together,” he said to me with tears in his eyes. 

He handed me the pieces with an expectant look on his face.  His heart wasn’t the only one breaking as I explained to him one of life’s ugliest lessons: There are certain things that, once broken, cannot be put back together.

He cried for half an hour.  I held him in my lap and fought back tears of my own.  As he sobbed in my arms, I thought of all the pain he had ahead of him. 

“I wish this was the most disappointment you will ever feel in your life,” I said. 

I wasn’t on the verge of tears over his broken balloon.  What I found so sad was the realization that no matter how hard I try, I cannot protect him from the pain of living life. 

We can drill into their heads all the lessons we’ve learned, all the mistakes we’ve made, all the disasters that could have been avoided had we only known the outcome when we first set out. 

It doesn’t matter.  They won’t believe us.  They will trod ahead with the vain self-confidence of youth, directly into the same painful lessons we all had to learn.

One of the most difficult lessons of childhood is the discovery that our parents are human.  We start out believing they know everything, can do anything, and can fix all that is broken. 

As we maneuver our way through childhood, we witness our parents’ mistakes.  We see them cry and fail and get angry.  We realize that broken balloons aren’t the only thing our parents can’t put back together.

Bit by bit, it dawns on us that maybe the adults are just as confused about life as the kids.  By the time we are ready to graduate from high school, we are convinced that we are smarter than all the adults around us.  And thus, the cycle of learning the hard way continues. 

What a depressing thought.  Except, I wonder what would happen if we actually learned from other’s mistakes?  What would happen if we never experienced a broken heart?  Never got into that fender bender, or got caught cheating on a test? 

Yes, we’d probably worry less.  We’d probably have lower blood pressure and car insurance deductibles.  But who would we be? 

What if my son had been born knowing that a balloon would break if he sat on it, and if it broke, it couldn’t be fixed? 

He could have been spared the heartbreak of the lesson.  But he’d also miss the lesson that, no, Mama can’t fix the balloon, but when I hurt, she’ll dry my tears. 

It is high school graduation time.  Parents all over the country are anxiously rubbing their temples, knowing that their babies are about to embark on a very exciting and often painful adventure called Adulthood. 

What kind of people would we be if we were spared the pain of learning the hard way?  I had a question written in my daybook when I was a young social worker: “The challenging times are when your character is tested.  Are you passing or failing?” 

I wonder, if we didn’t have any tests of character, what standard would we measure ourselves against? Maybe happiness is hidden there, somewhere beneath those hardest lessons, those we cannot protect our children from, those we must all learn for ourselves.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney (Mont.) Herald on May 16, 2009.