The other night my son, Clyde, and I sat down to watch a movie together. We do this about once a week, and as long as I provide the snacks he is willing to put up with whatever I want him to watch. In exchange, I try to make the movie we watch semi-relevant to whatever’s going on in his life, or in the world, or sometimes even both. When he started to get more interested in dance we watched all of the Step Up movies. When Alan Rickman died we watched Galaxy Quest. And when he started to read poetry we watched Dead Poet’s Society.
I felt a little guilty about Dead Poet’s Society, because I didn’t really tell him anything about the movie before we watched it other than that even though it had Robin Williams in it it wasn’t really a comedy. So he was totally blind-sided when we got to the scene where Neil kills himself.
“Did that—did that really happen?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I replied, although I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was asking me if a main character had really just killed himself, or if I had really tricked him into watching it happen. Sometimes, when the movies resonate a little too closely with what’s going on in his life at the moment things can get a bit meta, but in this case my answer worked just as well for both questions.
Later that evening, long after the popcorn had been eaten and the movie was over, I was still feeling kind of bad about tricking Clyde into watching that scene when I realized something disturbing: watching our kids watch the heartbreaking scenes in movies can pretty much sum up the entirety of our parenting experience. In other words: watching the people you love the most experience all of the worst parts of life firsthand is kind of the essence of parenting.
That, and being entirely unable to stop any of it at the same time.
Sure, if you’re lucky you get to avoid watching them experience the absolutely worst of the the worst first experiences: first time they get a life-threatening injury, first time they watch a friend die, first time the world falls out from beneath their feet and they lose absolutely everything. But the other terrible firsts, the ones that feels just as bad as an amputation—first heartbreak, first failure when they really, really tried, first betrayal—those we get to be front and center for.
Of course, we also get to be front and center for the best kind of firsts as well—first loves and first successes included—but as usual those moments don’t resonate with us for quite as long as the negative ones. And besides, for moments like those there are always their real friends.
Some cultures believe that all of our existence is a great karmic wheel, and that we are doomed (or privileged) to come back over and over again until we finally understand enough of what’s going on to get things right. Other cultures think that’s nonsense. As for my culture, I think I am doomed (or privileged) to get to watch the people who look a little bit like me (but are exponentially better), have a go at every single aspect of this life thing—the good, the bad, and the ugly—for the very first time.
And then, to top it all off, you guys get to watch me watch them.
Talk about meta.