Sage… you’re getting so close to being three years old. It’s hard to categorize the way you’re changing on a month-to-month basis, because it can be so minor and so huge all at the same time.
You’ve successfully told a couple of jokes, even though I’m sure you don’t know why they’re funny — you’re just proud of remembering how to say them. Although you recently put a new spin on one that you like me to tell you.
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?
…what about da udda banana?
What? How many bananas do you WANT?
I do it. Knock knock.
BANANA YOU GWAD I DINT SAY OWANGE?
When you’re doing “imaginative play” these days, you’re combining stories and memories and TV shows and books all into new versions of stories, and it’s fun to watch.
You’re also very, very emotional lately, and not all of it is real. You sometimes cry when you don’t get your way, and you sometimes pretend to cry. We’re trying to explain to you that there’s a difference. You’re also getting kind of bossy, which I understand comes along with imagination; you get upset when you direct us to do something while playing and we don’t do it exactly the way that you imagined it. Once you yelled at me, I think truly upset, because I sat down where you had left your imaginary alligator half an hour earlier. I repeat: your imaginary alligator. I destroyed the reality of your improv.
Because of your emotions, lately (and please understand that this is normal, and while it can be frustrating it’s also a typical part of parenting so we’re all doing fine), I’ve been thinking about these letters. I missed writing this one on time because I spent a lot of yesterday evening preparing for a business trip — only the second one I’ve ever been sent on. Tonight, I’m sitting in a hotel writing this to you. Anyway, to get back on track, I’ve been thinking about these letters because I want to leave something for you for when you’re older. Sometimes, I pull some punches in these letters because I keep them public, and I know a lot of people who read them would be upset by things that I could write. I know people with very strong beliefs in completely opposing directions, and so I hesitate to alienate them by publicly discussing my views on religion or politics or world events or a number of other things that are “hot-button” issues… but on the other hand, I want to be honest and open with you about these things, and sometimes writing things out is the only way I know how to communicate.
So here goes. Sage, this letter isn’t going to be like anything else I’ve written so far. I don’t know how old you’ll be when you read this, but it’s going to be a letter that has some dark, sad things in it. If you read this and you don’t understand it, I encourage you to wait a few years and read it again. I mean, I’m 37, and I’ve been thinking hard about these things, and I’m not sure I understand everything I’m about to write to you.
I usually don’t watch the news. In the past several years, I have become convinced that there is no readily-accessible media source that does not have a significant bias. Also, I find the news terribly saddening. I don’t know what the news will be like in your adulthood, but right now we get half-hour television shows that focus a little bit on the weather, a little bit on sports, and then mostly on terrible things happening in the world — disease, murder, war, assault, unemployment, poverty, corruption. I do think it’s valid to know many of these things, but it’s much harder to find the positive things happening in the world – charity, love, kindness, patience, respect, understanding, success.
These days, much of the news works its way onto social media sites. I learn a lot about what’s going on in the world through Facebook. I know it’s not the best way to stay “informed,” but I do find that it narrows down the overwhelming flood of information to things that are at least relevant to my friends.
I know there are lots of international events going on these days, but there have been three things lately that have really dominated the social media I follow.
First, the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.” The summary version is this: people are dumping buckets of ice water over their heads to raise awareness of ALS, a terrible degenerative disease that is usually fatal within 5 years of diagnosis. In doing so, they are also blatantly asking for (sometimes demanding) donations to a charity that helps fight ALS. It has raised literally millions of dollars, and the internet has been flooded with videos of people dumping frigid water on themselves, and parody videos, and jokes about the videos — and, to my surprise, complaints about the videos. Mostly, really dumb complaints. Complaints that people are just in it for the attention, or that they’re wasting water, or that this is “taking money away from other worthy charities” — as if doing something to help stop a fatal disease is an act of evil.
I choose to see this as a very positive thing. This is the first time I am aware of that a social media campaign has been so effective in helping to combat a BAD THING. Yes, it has been distorted by misunderstandings or commercialism here and there. Yes, there is some uncertainty about how the money will be used. Yes, there is exploitation involved. But to focus on that, Sage, is to lose the fight against the prevalent cynicism of this age. I don’t know who first said it, but there’s a phrase: “Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good.” To extrapolate to this: just because this “movement” isn’t perfect doesn’t mean that it should be stopped.
Fighting any deadly disease is a good thing. In fact, there are several that concern me. The one that I worry about the most is depression.
Depression runs in our family, Sage. (“It practically gallops.” And if you can’t cite the movie that’s from by the time you’re sixteen, I will have failed.) My depression is primarily seasonal, but not entirely. Other people in the family have struggled with it even harder than I have. And one of my biggest fears upon learning that I was going to be a father was that this trait would genetically pass on to you. I think it’s probable that it will. My hope, my fervent hope, is that by the time it really starts to become noticeable to you that modern medicine and science will have found better ways to combat it.
Depression is a deadly disease. It often affects people who are creative, such as me, and I believe you are and will be creative. In fact, depression recently killed one of my favorite performers — a man named Robin Williams. This has also dominated social media lately, and with loud, conflicting opinions.
Robin Williams committed suicide. I don’t know when you’ll read this, so I don’t know if that will be a shocking idea to you, something too abstract to really contemplate, or what. But make no mistake about it — the suicide was the method, but the depression was the killer.
Before you start to worry in the wrong direction: my depression is fairly well controlled. Also, because I am willing to talk about it and address it, I have a very, very strong chance of keeping it controlled. I can already tell that I’m a hundred times better than I was even just five years ago, and that was better than five years before that.
I did consider suicide when I was a teenager. I never quite got to the point where I actually attempted it, although there were a few nights where the thought of it was very, very real.
Sage, whenever I stop to think about this, I become terrified that one day you will have those thoughts.
It’s hard to even imagine, now, when your biggest emotion is sadness when we put you in time out for being rude or disobedient.
My goal is to make sure that this is an open topic for discussion. I don’t think depression was exactly a taboo topic for me, growing up, but there was just a severe lack of understanding on my part. Especially because a great many people in my life at that time wanted to suggest that depression was simply a failure on my part to be close enough to God.
I learned, later, that depression is a disease. It’s one with physical symptoms. It can be treated. It can be dealt with. It does not mean you are a weak person, or a lost cause, and it especially does not mean that you are being punished by God for your sins.
Some of the people I know that understood that depression was a disease only ever gave me the advice that I should pray for God to heal me.
(Recently, a doctor who contracted the deadly disease Ebola was treated and apparently healed, and he said, “Through the care of the Samaritan’s Purse and SIM missionary team in Liberia, the use of an experimental drug, and the expertise and resources of the health care team at Emory University Hospital, God saved my life — a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.” Even though he credits medical science, he also credits God, and this is bothering both the people who believe that God heals and the people who don’t. My problem with it is that even though I have no objection to the idea that God heals, it leads to the question — So why didn’t God heal all the people dying elsewhere? Were there not “enough” prayers for them? I’ll let you in on a secret that may scandalize many people I know. Unless my emotions overrule my logic — which they sometimes do — I don’t tend to spend my time praying for miraculous healing, for the same reason I don’t tend to spend my money playing the lottery. I know it happens, but it happens so randomly and so comparatively seldom that I think my resources would be better used elsewhere.)
When Robin Williams died, many, many people I know wrote about their feelings on the issue. He affected so many lives that it’s hard to comprehend his actions. I don’t have good, clear answers. I think I understand some of what he went through, but obviously I’ll never have the full story. I never met the man; I can’t speak for him. But I want to be clear that if you ever, ever, start to struggle with depression, know that you are not alone, and as much as depression will lie to you and tell you that it’s hopeless, it’s not hopeless.
It’s never hopeless.
The third thing that has dominated social media has been a situation in Ferguson, Missouri. I won’t get into all the details here, but a police officer shot and killed an unarmed man. The officer was white; the unarmed man was black. Since then, there have been protests and violence and allegations of police misconduct that, frankly, seem pretty conclusive.
I’m sitting in a hotel room half an hour from where this happened. It’s an incredibly upsetting situation, for a multitude of reasons that I don’t intend to get into here, but the most overwhelming is this: the incident appears to be representative of many problems plaguing the United States, mostly stemming around race but also related to economic imbalances and the ongoing militarization of civil authorities. In short, it paints a bleak picture of the state of the country. It leads to the same sort of despair that comes with depression — a sense of hopelessness in the face of something clearly bigger than our ability to address.
Here’s my answer. It’s not a perfect one, but it’s a good one, and I don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good, and in addition to the inevitable “Be who you are,” this is my advice to you.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
What I mean is this: maybe — maybe — you’ll be the person who changes the world. Maybe. It’s possible that you, later in life, will be instrumental in solving ALS, or depression, or race relations. It’s possible that you, later in life, will cure Alzheimer’s or end homelessness or forge lasting peace in the Middle East. It’s possible that you, later in life, will do any number of amazing things that alter the landscape of the entire world and improves the lives of every individual on it. And if that’s what you want to do, I’m all for it. We could use some heroes like that.
But it’s also possible that you, like me, will have a more normal life. I have a family in the suburbs and a job I’ve been doing for nearly ten years. I have a dog and a fence and a mortgage. I run sometimes. I indulge in hobbies like writing and performing improv. I worry about the healthiness of the food I’m eating, but in a moment I’m opening a bag of Doritos. I have a pretty normal life, on the surface. I’m not going to be the one who cures or solves anything massive like that. That’s beyond me.
But what I can do: I can demonstrate love. I can take the time to get to know people, so that ultimately we all know that we’re not alone.
I don’t know that I can fully explain why, but I think that might be the most important thing I can ever do. I can make sure people know they’re not alone. I may not be able to fully understand what someone with ALS is going through, but I can donate to the cause to help fight the disease. I may not be able to reach everyone with depression, but I am part of an online support group for ComedySportz players with depression. I may not have anything at all to do with the things that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, but I can take the time to be nice to everyone I meet in the hopes that it somehow helps spread goodwill. It’s small, I know, but sometimes in the fight to try to change the world with new laws and new rules and new movements, I think we forget to look at the people around us. It’s easier to push for a new law; it’s a lot harder to get involved in a local life. It’s also a lot more rewarding.
I hope this hasn’t been too much. I feel like I’ve left out a million thoughts on these things. It’s dark and sad and even grim, but ultimately, as odd as it may sound, all of this gives me hope. I hope that by my being open about these things, you’ll maybe gain a little more understanding of who I am and why I have tried to raise you a certain way. I hope that you will be better than I am at doing the things I think are important, even when they’re uncomfortable and scary. I hope that some day you’ll read this and you’ll decide to find a way to love your neighbor as yourself.
I also hope that you’ll understand how much I love you, Sage. I love you so hard that it hurts to think of you facing this world, and I love you so hard because I already see in you the ability to face it and win.
Your mother and I both love you so very much!!!