“…the question that haunts me most, is what if he had been helped along the way by better friends who could have pulled him up, rather than leave him behind?”
“I can’t hang out with him,” the young man said as he sheepishly glanced at the ground.
“What? Why not?” I asked with a sense of confusion.
“His parents won’t let him hang out with me because they think I’m a bad influence on him,” he continued.
I immediately felt a knot form in my stomach.
“Are you?” I questioned out loud.
His answer didn’t matter to me. Whether he was a bad influence or not, wasn’t the point. For years I worked with him and many other of the world’s best young men. Some further ahead on the path of life, some slightly off the path, and others aimlessly wandering in dark paths leading to trouble.
This young man was one of my favorites. He was smart. He had charisma. He had a terrific sense of humor. In my mind’s eye, I could see him as an adult, perhaps arguing a case in front of a judge and jury. I could see him standing in front of a classroom, teaching the future generations. I envisioned him piloting a plan from the ever-reaching sky. His future held so many possibilities. A diamond for sure. Beneath the rough…absolutely.
His home life was not ideal. He had good parents who meant well, but they never provided him with structure. Their tainted view of the world—where anything unfortunate happened to them, was always someone else’s fault, not their own—permeated throughout their home and their children quickly grasped onto this paradigm. His mother worked full time while his father struggled to keep any employment for longer than a month or two. His career was littered with failed business ventures, and a great distain for any authoritative entity, especially the government. As one of the youngest children in the home, the familial education he received led to laziness and mistrust.
Most the community loved him. His charm and whit had people in stitches. His humor was a great defense to the underlying concerns and uncertainties of his life. But the love people felt for him was also guarded. His rough edges and questionable actions resulted in a buffer—people liked him, but they wouldn’t allow themselves to get too close or too involved.
“I don’t know if I’m a bad influence or not,” he replied to me. “I’m a good kid, don’t you think?”
“Yes, you are a good kid,” I replied. “But you could be better. You often times flirt with the line and sometimes even cross it,” I said bluntly.
Our relationship allowed me to share honest feelings and thoughts, knowing that instead of getting upset, he’d listen, knowing that I loved him, regardless of his imperfections.
We still remain in contact, though infrequent. It’s been many many years. Saying his path has been difficult in an understatement. He never graduated high school. He has jumped from one meaningless job to another. He barley stays in one location long enough to require changing his mailing address with the post office. My heart breaks.
Looking back at our conversation, I can’t help but wonder, “what if?” What if he were raised in a different situation, with different circumstances? What if he had structure while young? What if he had been taught that when life becomes difficult, you dig down deep and work harder. What if he had been taught that accountability solves life’s problems while blaming others only creates more?
But the question that haunts me most, is what if he had been helped along the way by better friends who could have pulled him up, rather than leave him behind? He sought the acceptance of the great achievers. He pined for the chance to be in their homes, to participate with their families, to feel that great sense of love and accountability. I know he wanted those things and to a great extent, still feels that way today.
. . .
My wonderful wife and I have four beautiful and wonderful children of our own. That wonderful journey has been extremely difficult but also so indescribably wonderful and magical. We are very fortunate. Most would look at our children and exclaim they are “perfect.” And even though they each have their own flaws and challenges, I would have to agree, that all-in-all, they are very good kids. They work hard in school. They work hard in the home. They are well-rounded and have great balance in life. All of which is because of the wonderful individuals they are and because they have the most incredible mother who never stops teaching them. My job, on the other hand, is primarily to do everything possible to not screw things up.
Not long ago my son and several of his close friends were playing in our yard when another boy their age stopped at our home and asked to participate in the levity. Trying to think fast on their feet, they boys quickly manufactured a tale that had them all leaving almost immediately for another location. The disheartened boy bowed his head and continued his homeward-bound trek.
My wife stepped outside and saw the boy slowly walking down the road and quickly gathered the other boys together. She didn’t tell them they were wrong. She didn’t demand they invite the boy back. She used the moment to teach.
“Don’t you think he could use some friends like all of you?” she asked the boys.
“Well, he got in a fight a school today,” one replied. “He is always causing trouble,” another blurted out.
“Did you boys know that he has struggles at home?” she continued to probe.
“He lashes out because of the challenging situations he experiences at home,” she explained. “He could really use some good friends, to help him and to teach him,” she said with a bit of sadness in her voice.
They boys stood quietly, realizing perhaps for the first time, why a fellow schoolmate acts the way he does, and feeling more sympathy for his circumstances.
“Maybe we should run down the street and ask him to come back,” one of the boys enthusiastically proclaimed.
Immediately, they all ran across the grassy yard and headed down the street. When they caught up to him, they all implored him to come back and to join them. His eyes lit up with excitement and gratitude.
“I just need to call my mom and make sure it’s okay,” he said.
The phone conversation was brief. He pleaded and bargained for the opportunity to stay. Then, he hung up.
“I have to go home,” he said with somberness. “I got in a fight today at school and my mom said as punishment, I have to go home.”
Later that same night, as my teenage daughters, my son, and many of their friends sat around our kitchen counter, I pleaded with them all, to realize there are other children their ages that need good friends. There are those who wander down difficult paths and need the help of others to help guide them back so they can find peace and joy and happiness.
As a parent, I pray for my children to have help along their journey. Good, strong friends who help lift them and champion their efforts to do good and to excel. I can understand why a parent would want their child to associate with good, uplifting friends. It is easy to want to wrap our children in bubble wrap to protect them from the vile things of the world. But is that really what helps them most? This attitude can certainly put a parent’s mind at ease, but is it what is best for a child?
We should do everything in our power to help teach our children to do good; to choose the right. But that is not enough. If we teach our children to avoid those who struggle, what are we really teaching them? That they are better than others? That those who struggle aren’t worthy enough to associate with?
Part of teaching our children to do good is to allow them the opportunity to practice those teachings. How can we expect our children to be trustworthy, without giving them opportunities to show they can be trusted?
If I have a child that struggles, I would pray someone would help them…help lift them up. But if those kids’ parents don’t allow them to associate with my struggling child, where will the help come from?
As we journey in this life, it is important to remember that this life is not a competition. When we die it will not matter what we’ve accumulated or acquired. It will not matter if we lived a life of kings and queens, or a life of a pauper. What will truly matter, is how we treated others. How we helped lift others who need lifting.
If I cannot say I trust my child will help lift another, while maintaining the morals, values, and standards I have taught them, then I have failed as a parent. If my child doesn’t reach out to include those that need to be included, then I have failed as a parent. If I cannot see the value in allowing my child the opportunity to experience diversity in all its different forms, and instead worry that such experiences could hinder my own child’s growth, then I have not succeeded to fulfill my role as a parent.
The world is full of people that need lifting. The path is difficult, and all of us, at some point in our life, will need help from those who can reach down and pull us up. While we sojourn in this life, if we never look behind us to help those who need help, and if we only focus on our own ascent and destination, we are missing the point of this life.