When I was a child, my father was asked the question, what do you want most for your children? I recall that he answered, “I want them to have an easier life than I had.”
It turns out that this was a typical answer given by working class parents who had never had opportunities to go to college and were always trying to make ends meet. He never wanted his children to worry about lack of food on their kitchen table or being evicted because there was not enough money for the rent. Indeed, the hard work of my parents kept their children safe from material impoverishment. I will be forever grateful for my upbringing filled with hard-working family and faith-filled values.
In more recent years, however, I have reflected about the answer given by my father, an almost “catchphrase” answer given by working class parents at the time. I wish he and they would have given a different answer. Oh, I know that my father, and probably most parents, never meant that I want my children to have an easier life “at all cost.” No, for Dad, if it meant having an easier life while pushing God and real family values out of the picture then he would have had none of it. He believed in the words of Jesus, “For what does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26) All the same, I wish they had given a different answer because many of my generation took it as “we need to do better ‘materially’ at all cost.”
As we can probably all attest to, our contemporary culture teaches everyone to seek the good life, at whatever the cost. More often than not, today “happiness” is defined in terms of that which in fact ultimately fades away: health, wealth and beauty, things which are fleeting and deified beyond their worth. We have all fallen at one time or another into the trap of putting these things as our road to happiness. My old parish priest, in his wisdom, used to tell the church congregation, “You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse”…meaning “You cannot take it with you when you die.” My old pastor understood that true happiness and true fulfillment comes when we let go of all, and let God take over entirely, without fear.
I believe that the antidote to our contemporary culture’s attitude will be teaching our children the family value called “Surrender.” Doing such doesn’t mean settling for inadequate food, shelter and clothing or despising our earthly existence. On the other hand, to make material things the sum total of life is to miss the boat on real life and happiness.
Surrender is a difficult word. For us, surrender equals defeat, failure and unhappiness if we don’t get it our way. We naturally feel we should have it all and be on top. If we are attuned at all to the spiritual life, there is a daily struggle in us between having it our way and letting God’s will be done. Maybe more often, we don’t even realize there is a battle in our hearts to surrender our wills to Christ.
It seems to be that those who are closest to God and trust in His will are the ones who thrive even through many difficult circumstances, including illness, the loss of loved ones, displacement, persecutions and personal failures. Little Christina, whose parents started this blog, created the nonprofit Build the Faith, and are members of the Holy Family Institute, had life-threatening cancer thrown at her at the tender age of six. Over the next five years this little girl taught us to continually surrender our lives to God. Her mantra became “Jesus, I Trust in You.” She taught us that surrender was not about defeat, failure and unhappiness; rather it is what leads us to victory, excellence and joy.
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. (Matthew 7:24)
May I offer another answer to the question, “What do I want most for my children?” How about…to be able to say, “Jesus I Trust in You.”
Fr. Michael Harrington, a native of Swampscott, MA, is a Catholic Priest for the Archdiocese of Boston, and Currently the Pastor of St. Mary’s of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Cambridge. In the past he served as The Director of the Office of Cultural Diversity for the Archidiocese of Boston and is currently a Consecrated member of the Institute of Jesus the Priest (the Pauline Family).