Monday, December 29, 2008

Principle

For better or worse, I am a person who is driven by principle. It probably comes from my childhood origins, growing up in a family where nothing was more important than integrity. Integrity, interpreted in my family of origin, meant to be who you said you were, no matter what. The archenemy of integrity is hypocrisy, to change one's face depending on one's current circumstances. I am making no claim to faultlessness or perfection, but I can tell you that when I find myself in a situation where I have been less than genuine I live to regret it. Even if no one else knows, I know. And that's an emotional killer. All that to say that I respect people who do things because of principle, although I am not foolhardy enough to believe in simplistic, moralistic ways that become more legalistic and enslaving than joyfully liberating.

Tonight three of my sons and I saw Valkyrie, the new movie in which Tom Cruise plays one of the key figures of an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the waning years of World War II. He is driven by principle, acts decisively and does what is, apparently, in the best interests of those beyond himself. His figure is contrasted by a weak-willed compatriot, an older general, who agrees philosophically with the need to depose Hitler but consistently crumbles in the face of difficult decisions. I hope it will be no spoiler (I'm assuming you know enough about history to know that the fifteen or more ill-fated attempts to assassinate the Fuhrer never were successful) to say something about one of the final scenes in the movie.

Cruise's character is talking with the older, halting general in the moments before their execution by firing squad. The pallid general is feebly looking at the ground, his lips quivering as he contemplates his imminent fate. Cruise calls to him and says, "Look them in the eye. That way they'll never forget you." As the general stumbles to his appointed place to die, his gaze is fixed upon his executioners. In the midst of his terror he makes what appears to be a brave last stand, even while trembling. Cruise's character is thrust to his death site and stands erect, brazen in the face of the death squad, unwilling to flinch, his strength of character and principle towering to the end. As the bullets pierce his body, dropping him to the ground, the camera focuses upon his impassive face, his one good eye (the other was lost in a previous battle for the Third Reich) reflecting his final goodbye with his family.

It is worth noting that not only is Cruise's character principled, but his spouse is as well. He is clear with her before setting out on his mission to depose Hitler that if it fails they will not again see each other. Without hesitation she affirms her understanding of the gravity of the situation and silently blesses his courage.

For whatever reason as I watched the final minutes of the movie and the closing credits, I recalled a conversation I had with our seventeen-year-old son Ben (or "Jimmy," his name changes day to day at his discretion) just yesterday. We were talking about some political situation in our troubled world, and I made mention that in many countries people are routinely rounded up and executed without provocation, or any kind of legal process. I went on to mention that in his country of origin, Guatemala, the record of human rights violations in the past thirty years has been horrific. And then he said, in his own inimitable way something like this:

"Yeah, dad. So Ricardo [also born in Guatemala and from the same orphanage from which we adopted Jimmy first] and me are really lucky, aren't we? Because if we were still in Guatemala we'd be living on the streets right now. And we might even have been killed by now." For him it was just that clear. Life in the United States with parents who love, provide and protect their children is superior to a culture in which an orphaned child is turned out the streets by the time they are fourteen. In Guatemala orphans who grow into adolescence have few choices. They might polish shoes at the airport, beg for quetzales (the basic currency) from strangers, prostitute themselves or participate in the drug trade.

As frustrated as I can become with my task as a parent, the brutal reality that Claudia and I have literally saved the lives of two children (hopefully others, too, but at least these two from a Guatemalan orphanage) pulls me back to one of my most basic principles in life: children matter and they need adults to care.

There are many times when I feel very disillusioned and dispirited in this adoptive parenting journey. It is harder than anything I have ever attempted in my life. But I am driven by principle, and I am either too stubborn or too far gone to quit. I can only hope that one day the principle that children matter and need adults who care will trump my frequent moments of despair.

Return From a Month's Absence

It has been more than a month since I have blogged. I would like to attribute my absence in the blogosphere to the stresses and strains of my vocational life. As a pastor the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is challenging. The expectations (largely self-imposed) to prepare and deliver thoughtful, meaningful messages in worship and to design services which reach beneath the surface of worshipers' lives preoccupy much of my attention during this time period. With the economic challenges afoot, this has also been a season of unusually high demand from folks living at the margins of life. Their telephone calls, drop-in visits and often-impossible requests are big stressors.

I'd like to say it is these vocational challenges that have distanced me from my blog. But I don't think that would be entirely honest. In the last month I have been plagued with other issues and questions, especially related to my life as a parent, and I haven't felt these moments of personal shadow would be very redemptive for those who are accustomed to reading my words.

Don't misread the previous paragraph for anything more than it is. Our kids are doing pretty well, all things considered. There are, to our knowledge, no new illegal activities occurring in the lives of some of our kids. We are not, unlike other adoptive families, under the scrutiny of social services auspices. We have, in fact, had many good interactions over the past few weeks.

The issues and questions to which I refer above are, rather, much deeper than that, and really reflections of who I am as a person. This whole parenting process has become so much more complicated than I ever thought it could be, with fewer clear answers than I had anticipated. I am realizing a couple of things about myself, and while I don't have the data set to know if this is more than only a personal meandering, I wonder if it sounds like anything other parents experience.

(1) Parenting is less about changing a child's life and more about shaping what is already present through genetics or past experience.

(2) It is easy for a parent to lose oneself in the parenting task, resulting in confusion for the child(ren) in question as well as for the parent.

(3) Being parent to an adult child, especially one with a history of attachment issues, is fraught with emptiness and loneliness.

It's always a little embarrassing when the very things I've been saying to adoptive parents over the years come "home to roost," to use an agrarian metaphor. I mean, how many times have I blathered that adoption is "about what's best for kids, not what's in it for parents." Or, "Parents need to remember who they are in the process." I even have spoken at national conference workshops on the spiritual dynamics of adoptive parenting. It's always so much easier to speak as an outsider than to face the reality of one's own situation.

And so, in the midst of the flurry of family activity and vocational responsibility of the past month, I have had these thoughts percolating in the background of my consciousness, but with little opportunity for resolution. Perhaps I will continue to elaborate in the days ahead with hope of finding some peace in the process.