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The Night George Saunders Ruined My Life
parenting while selfish: a guide
Lauren and I are in bed and we’re reading out loud to one another, a rare treat for us these days as The Parents of a One Year Old.
We are reading Congratulations By The Way, a short George Saunders essay based on his 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse University1.
Saunders’ thesis is simple: what he regrets most, now that he’s an old guy, are failures of kindness, and so he instructs us youth to be more kind. The good news, he says, is that this happens naturally as you get older: "One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really."
So far so good, Georgie boy. We love your books - Lincoln in the Bardo and especially the book you wrote for kids - Fox 8. We printed a little poster of the Fox 8 cover and put it up on our wall. Thank you, for all that and more. Take us home, would ya?
I keep reading, like a lamb waltzing his way to the slaughter (bolding done by me for emphasis):
…a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
Congratulations, by the way.
Congratulations for what, George? Having an existential crisis because of what you said about kids? Cool cool. Thanks a mill, my guy.
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Lauren Has A Story
We finish reading, turn the lights off and get ready to snooze when Lauren says “Hey Al. I have a story and I just want to say it out loud.”
The “I have a story” trick is something we stole from the Holy Mother of Vulnerability herself, Brene Brown, who once said on a podcast, “Thou shalt share your fears as ‘Stories’ so they aren’t taken so personally”. It works, like super well, which has the negative side effect of me now tensing up whenever I hear Lauren say she has a story to tell.
I say “uh oh,” and Lauren says, "What he said about kids, about how you don't care what happens to you anymore…I feel like that’s happened to me but, I don’t know, do you feel like it’s happened to you?"
I feel my stomach sink, which is weird cuz we’re laying down, so it sinks long ways, hot dog style, toward my chest hair and belly button.
My mind races like that scene at the end of The Usual Suspects when the coffee cup falls and the detective hears and sees all of the seemingly innocuous little moments throughout the film add up to this big reveal about who the bad guy - Kaiser Soze - really is, except in this case Kaiser Soze is me, a real selfish piece of shit dad, and all of the moments are instances where I have failed and/or not been good enough of a dad on account of said selfishness.
I was having a great night too. I’d just returned from a bachelor’s party weekend - not the stripper kind, more the ‘let’s all talk about our feelings and insecurities’ kind, so I’m in feeling refreshed, both emotionally and, because I’ve finally slept in a house without our one year old baby, physically too.
And now, one of the best authors of our present day was collaborating with the person I love the most in the world to put into words a fear so spooky that I truly would have rather never let it see the light of day. Cool cool cool.
Congratulations, George, you fucked me.
A Montage of Failures
You’re probably thinking ‘no, Alex, you’re just being hard on yourself,’ to which I must say NO. You don’t get it, my dude, I truly am not good at being dad.
Want proof? Okay fine - let’s do a freeze frame on Lauren and I’s conversation and montage through a random assortment of my failings:
When I’m cooking for Wilder, I will put in headphones to listen to a podcast. I’ll even do this sometimes when I’m rocking him to sleep. There I am, holding this bundle of joy in my hands and listening to Michael Barbaro explain ‘The Mar-a-Lago Miderms.”
One time he woke up and he seemed very “sad” and I thought it was because he was mad at me. Yes, I was taking the feelings of a seven month old baby personally. But like, it did hurt! He always laughs when I make funny faces while changing him but that day? Stone cold glum. AND he refused to dance to Polo y Pan which he always dances to, so I spent the rest of the day in my head panicked about what I could have done to upset him.
I tried to cut his tiny ass fingernails and accidentally clipped into his little snausage finger and blood got everywhere and I felt like I was in that Reservoir Dogs scene where they cut Michael Madsen's ear off.
Every time I hear him crying as he wakes up from a nap, I say “fuck” out loud to myself. Like literally every time.
Sometimes I even let him stay in his crib and cry for a few minutes so I can keep working on the computer and by working I mean doing something very dumb like creating a new keyboard shortcut to save me half a second of time when doing a repetitive task or, even worse, “writing” about my “feelings”.
I take him to the playground so I can do pull ups in the children's jungle gym.
Often when we're playing with his blocks, or reading, or doing anything really, I get distracted and start looking at my phone. Sometimes I notice I am doing this and stop but other times I notice and do not stop.
It often feels like my favorite parts about having him are when he's asleep and me and Lauren can look at photos of him.
I find him to be very annoying sometimes. And boring.
If me and Lauren are both hanging with him, he will always crawl toward Lauren. Like he knows I suck. Our dog Robert is this way too. I am also this way. I think all three of us - me, Wilder, and Robert would choose Lauren over the others. This is probably okay unless we find ourselves on different tanker ships and have to choose which of them to blow up a la the Joker that wacky lil guy.
This last bit happens with our babysitter too. She will hand him off to me and he’ll cry and beg for her to hold him again because, of course, he likes her more than me. Which all makes me spiral even more like: look at me, selfish dad who is putting his work before his kid. He will never forgive me for this.
The Second Arrow
There’s this idea I keep hearing in the many Buddhist podcasts I listen to while hanging out with Wilder - “the second arrow.” Basically you have a bad feeling itself - that’s the first arrow - and then you have the feeling about the feeling - that’s the second arrow - and that’s the one that really fucks you.
My second arrow after feeling inadequate or like a failure as a dad is always the same: shame. And shame? That’s the worst. Because it invalidates your entire existence. Unlike guilt, which you feel about a specific thing you did, shame is about you as a person. The core is rotten. Big ups, once again, to Mother Brene Brown for teaching me this.
So there I am, lying in bed with Lauren, having just chugged a big ol glass of second arrows aka The Shame Slurpie (™).
If this was a movie, Lauren would repeat her question so we all remember it:
"What he (Saunders) said about kids, about how you don't care what happens to you anymore…I feel like that’s happened to me but, I don’t know, do you feel like it’s happened to you?"
I respond, sheepishly, like a god damn sheep, “…I don't think so? Not like you."
And we are too tired to talk more about it so we go to sleep, except I sleep like shit, the furious lawyer in my brain - Ron Barkins, esq - waking up every hour to build his case against Lauren as to why what she asked wasn't fair, was out of order, was OBJECTION, etc.
The Next Morning
We wake up in that haze of “dang, we are sorta still in an argument, aren’t we?” except we’re both too tired to talk about it, so we walk to the playground and put Wilder in the swing. He loves the swing. Goes absolutely nuts in it when I pretend to have a superpower that can push him without actually touching him. It’s fun, but deep down I’m still steamed.
Lauren says "okay let's keep walking" and I start to pout but with my whole body and she’s like "what, what's wrong?" and I say "nothing" and she says "no what?" and I say "well, don't you think that walking is selfish? Like wouldn't it be better to stay at the playground for him?"
Let them say at my funeral, “hey, if nothing else, the guy sure could be passive agressive. An absolute artist.”
Luckily Lauren knows that snarky move by heart and side steps it, not engaging, and we keep walking and I sort of break down. I’m half crying half raging, much like a 1 year old baby, actually, and blubber through saying “We can't, like, be selfless and eliminate ourselves so that we’re just 100% his parents, right? Those people would suck. BUT we also can’t obviously act like he doesn't exist and just continue on with our lives. Wilder would hate us either way, and we would hate ourselves. Right? Right??
Lauren agrees, maybe because she actually agrees or, more likely, she - being the far wiser one of the two of us - knows that part of love is accepting each other even and especially the bad parts.
Advice from George
Later in his speech, Saunders - the man who tried to ruin my life and is on thin fucking ice - says:
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf--seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things--travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop)--but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality--your soul, if you will--is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
Err in the direction of kindness! Ok that’s actually good.
That’s what I needed! Except in my case, and probably for all parents, I would humbly add one small clause: “err in the direction of kindness, including and especially toward yourself.”
Because as a parent, I am so hard on myself. And maybe I shouldn’t be.
So if I had to give advice to other dads aka give myself some advice, erring in the direction of kindness, I would say:
You are not a failure, but what you’re failing to see (nice), is how hard this shit is. Give yourself a break. Let yourself off the hook. No one is grading this. And if they were, they’d grade on such an insane curve like they do on those crazy chemistry tests. Like just by showing up, you get a B+. Congrats.
Just be there with your kid but know that even when you do everything you can, you'll still probably fail. That's the nature of the beast. And throughout it all, I guess, be kind to yourself. Grace etc. Which reminds me of another quote I love:
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Ugh. This all sounds so saccharine, so self helpy, but I can’t help it! (nice)
No way I’m gonna stay here though, self help makes me too uncomfortable, so let’s head on back to reality (ope, there does go the gravity).
The truth is that I probably won't change. I'll stay largely the same piece of shit who tries to be a great dad and, even though he is by all external accounts, still hates himself for not being good enough. But at the very least I am getting it out. Bringing it out into the sunlight where it can't run the show. Inviting it for tea as my Buddhist bros would say. Which, in the case of the depressive thoughts that rummage through my mind, might be the best I can do.
Who knows, maybe one day my son will read this and go 'huh, dad's a real fuck up,' and never think about it again until he's a teenager and realizes that he too is very hard on himself and now he will have a language to name it, to call it out into the sun while his entire psyche and soul is still moldable clay and can be shaped to believe that he is enough. Cuz he is.
And so am I, even if I don't believe it.
I’d like to wrap up with a slightly edited line from a poetic contemporary of Saunders and Vonnegut - the great DJ Khaled:
All I do is fail fail fail no matter what. And that’s, my friends, is okay.
A Response from Lauren
I shared this piece with Lauren and she asked to include a response from her which is very nice and made me tear up even though it absolutely ruins my whole “I’m a bad dad” thesis, however I will share it, unedited even though I would love to edit it because its way too nice, because if I don’t Lauren will make me sleep at an Airbnb.
Hello. sorry for the small interruption in your reading. It’s me, Lauren, and I just had a couple quick things to say after reading the draft of Alex’s beautifully vulnerable piece.
Al, you are not a failure. You could never be a failure. You care about everything in your life so passionately, to the point where it can sometimes pain you. Your passion is massive. You prioritize so many wonderful things in your life- friends, family, bits that never die, crossword puzzles, I Think You Should Leave, writing, me your wife, and now there is Wilder. None of the things you are passionate about feel neglected or failed, which is wildly impressive how you have the ability and heart space to nurture so many wonderful parts of your life. Wilder thinks you are the best dada, and you are uniquely his dada which makes it even better.
So like you phrased it above- I would like to take this opportunity to montage through a random assortment of the ways you shine as a dad in this wild, disorienting first year we’ve had being new parents, but one where we’ve stayed true to each other as a team:
You are so good and strong with sleep training. Which is the best bc I am so weak with it. Like last night where he protested and fell asleep standing up and you took over in the middle of the night so I could get some sleep before work.
You look up constipation smoothies to make for Wilder when he can’t poop
You always trust and have faith that Wilder will figure out whatever obstacle he faces when I’m being anxious about it, and you are always right.
Every morning you cook him scrambled eggs (and for me!)
You planted veggie seedlings to grow with Wilder together so he could pick his own veggies someday soon from our garden.
You always change the diaper trash can bag.
You make creative worlds around Wilder for when he’s playing- like how he’s a mail delivery man when he pushes the laundry basket around and you give him specific things to deliver to me.
You like to introduce new foods to him and help us figure out his latest favorites like blueberries and cottage cheese, and what he might not love like creamed buckwheat (editor’s note: he did, in fact, like the buckwheat this morning)
You always find the right times to take over and take Wilder to the park to give me a few minutes to myself to relax. That’s incredible dad instinct :)
You aren’t scared to let him get dirty- you let him live and feel and explore and be a real earth baby and I love it.
you coined his new key phrase “reeeeally?” And now I also hear you say it all the time, so you two are just alike :)
You make him laugh laugh laugh. He actively seeks you out in every room just to look at your face bc he knows you will make a funny face for him.
You are the one who introduced Wilder to his favorite band Polo y Pan, and how cool is it that we can tell him his first favorite song was Nanã instead of something dumb like Mary had a Little Lamb.