Honest Parenting: Tell Children the “Dreadful Beauty” of Painful Truths
No one knew that she was a woman, let alone expecting a child, except her husband. They were Chinese indentured servants, clearing terrain and shoveling tunnels through the California mountains for the coming railroads. She had disguised herself so that she could be with him whom she loved. There, side by side, they worked, she growing weaker as her time drew near. The labor pangs came early, when she was surrounded by men—gangs of men who had not even seen a woman, much less been with a woman, in months. Her husband, his leg recently broken in an accident, shattered the bone again running to her, trying to get to her before the men did. By the time he drug himself up the slope of shale to where she lay, his wife was able only to mutter a few last words. From the tattered body of his dying wife, he clawed out their living child with his fingernails.
That child, Lee, told this story of his mother and father, and his own nightmarish entrance into this world of evil and lust and redemption, to Adam, in John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. Even when he was a little boy, his father had not hidden the truth from him. As he told Lee the story, he would say, “There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar,” (Chapter 28).
I read that passage years ago, and for some reason it remained lodged deep in my memory. Never did I dream then that I would think of it when it came time to talk to my own child, to my daughter, about a chapter from our common past that is punctuated with pain. Unlike Lee, it has nothing to do with my child’s entrance into this world, but rather with the entrance of rebellion into my own life—a rebellion that left her world, my world, and the world of my whole family shattered. It was a personal war, of me against God, but such fights are never merely personal. They always result in collateral damage, as the carnage of destroyed innocence and shredded families tearfully attests.
My daughter’s honest, pointed question of “Why?” not only desired an answer; it deserved and demanded the “dreadful beauty” of an honest response. There is always the temptation to “twist life”, especially when the truth unveils the monster of egocentricity whose filthy lair is in the human heart. The temptation is doubled because it is so easy to tell ourselves that we withhold the truth to protect the innocent, all the while knowing it is only ourselves we strive to protect. To plumb the unfathomable depths of human selfishness is perhaps the most frightening exploration possible for man. It is, and will ever remain, the “last frontier”, into which we rarely, and barely, set foot, for none of us truly wants to discover what is there.
There is, of course, room for debate about what is appropriate to tell children, and at what age. I recognize the need for wisdom and prudence, even when it comes to honesty. Certainly not everyone would have chosen the way of Lee’s father. Nor, perhaps, would they have chosen the way of my daughter’s father. I can tell you, however, that I am intimately acquainted with the world of half-truths, and full-blown lies, and it is not a world I will live in again.
The storytellers at the city gate, who teach nothing, cure nothing, nor let the heart soar, may make life look sweet, but they sugar-coat poison. The truth will always emerge, and when it is does, the liar is not only made to look the fool; he is often despised for fooling others. The way of truth is always the way of the wise. It is the way of our Father above, and so it is the way of fathers here, even when the truth is dreadful.
I would rather rear a child in the desert of truth, then raise a fool in the paradise of a lie.
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