Friday, March 14, 2008

Emotional Learning

In a high school of some 1,800 students, I was among the great average masses. I wasn’t among the dregs, but I also was definitely not among the popular class either. I didn’t fit into any of the identity niche groups: jocks, top honors, student government, super geeks, cowboys, seminary board, burn outs, etc.

Like the average boy, I found the girls attractive. But I didn’t do much about it. If I had even a passing interest in a girl, I found myself somehow completely incapable of even speaking coherently to her. And since I didn’t turn 16 until I was into my junior year (and thus, didn’t get a driver license until halfway through that year), I didn’t date much.

During my senior year I developed a relationship with a beautiful young lady that seemed to appreciate the fact that I could play the piano. We dated some. Probably simply due to the fact that she showed some interest in me, I was soon completely smitten.

Learning to navigate the perilous channels of human relationships is an important part of growing up. But it can also be painful. It took me a while to understand that the young lady that I thought held my heartstrings viewed our relationship more as a friendship than a romance.

You often can’t see clearly the dynamics of a relationship from the inside. Fortunately, a friend that could see what I was experiencing calmly leveled with me one day about what he saw. It was immediately obvious to me that his observations were correct. I also realized that deep down I had already known what he revealed to me, but I had been resisting it.

Coming to this realization was painful. I had hoped for something more and had invested a lot of thought and energy in that hope. My young lady friend and I dated a couple more times after that. Treating her as just a friend on those dates while yearning for something more was heart rending. But I had been taught by good parents and mentors how to behave appropriately and respectfully.

Eventually the school year ended. I worked away from home for the summer. When I got back, I went to college full time and worked nearly full time. My friend was still in high school. We never saw each other that year. I saw no sense in pursuing it, and I definitely did not want to dredge up old emotions that I had been able to somewhat contain.

In retrospect I can see that I was incredibly self centered about the relationship. I had zero concept of what this girl was going through. She seemed like such a nice, normal girl. She was always pleasant and never discussed the demons she was battling, which I later realized were very cruel.

My friend’s biological father had abandoned the family when she was just tiny. Her mother had eventually married a man that was a long-haul trucker. He was gone sometimes for as long as two weeks at a shot. Then my friend’s mother had died of a cancer that had spread rapidly. Although the trucker tried to be somewhat of a father — he provided for the kids — my friend, her older brother and younger sister were basically raising themselves. Although I was not ignorant of these facts, I was nearly oblivious to the horrendous challenges they imposed.

Although our relationship had turned out not to be romantic — and I felt my heart had broken — our friendship had been somewhat special. Over the years, I have occasionally run into this lady. She married into a family I had long respected. From time to time I have seen my friend — sometimes with husband and kids in tow — in public places. Whenever this has happened, she has made a point of stopping to chat with me.

My oldest son will be going on his first date and attending the prom this weekend. My wife and I have done a lot to teach him proper manners and etiquette for such a formal event. Getting my son ready for this has brought back a lot of memories — not just memories of things and events, but emotional memories.

I still remember the marvelous feeling I experienced when my friend asked me to the girl’s choice dance. And I still remember how I felt months later when I realized that she didn’t feel quite the same way about me that I felt about her. Oddly, there’s still poignancy even decades later. But strangely enough, I cherish having gone through that experience. I learned much from it, and the years since have only enhanced that learning.

Before too long I will have to watch my children endure similar experiences. I regularly pray for the Lord to keep their hearts safe and to protect their emotions. What I mean by this is not that I hope that their hearts are never broken, but that they will be careful about to whom they entrust their hearts, and that the Lord will keep their hearts from breaking any more than is absolutely necessary for them to eventually develop into emotionally healthy adults.


That One Guy said...

GREAT post. Funny how we try to protect our kids from this - especially if we have been through the teenage heartache ourselves. We are currently in the process of helping a daughter pick up the pieces from a relationship she was more invested in than the other participant. I told her mother I wouldn't say I told her so, but I did in fact tell her she was headed for a little bit of pain.

It hasn't been easy to watch her walk the road, and we've been able to soften the edges a bit for her. But in the end, she's learned some things about life that are best learned first hand, unfortunately.

Bradley Ross said...

Another fine post. I struggle a lot as a parent trying to find the right balance between forcing my kids to do the right things and allowing them to learn from doing wrong things. My kids are very young, and I imagine this will only get harder as they get into school age.

I don't want anything bad to happen to them, but I also wouldn't want to rob them of opportunities for growth. Your post reminded me of the very powerful lesson from the Spencer Kimball manual, Tragedy or Destiny.

One of the things Kimball said in that lesson was this:

I may develop priesthood power as I perfect my life, yet I am grateful that even through the priesthood I cannot heal all the sick. I might heal people who should die. I might relieve people of suffering who should suffer. I fear I would frustrate the purposes of God.

Had I limitless power, and yet limited vision and understanding, I might have saved Abinadi from the flames of fire when he was burned at the stake, and in doing so I might have irreparably damaged him. He died a martyr and went to a martyr’s reward--exaltation....

I fear that had I been in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844, I might have deflected the bullets that pierced the body of the Prophet and the Patriarch. I might have saved them from the sufferings and agony, but lost to them the martyr’s death and reward. I am glad I did not have to make that decision.

With such uncontrolled power, I surely would have felt to protect Christ from the agony in Gethsemane, the insults, the thorny crown, the indignities in the court, the physical injuries. I would have administered to his wounds and healed them, giving him cooling water instead of vinegar. I might have saved him from suffering and death, and lost to the world his atoning sacrifice.