I Am a Small Man

Our boy is three years old. It’s a big deal to him. A couple months before his birthday, we started hyping it to him, planting all sorts of ideas in his head about what a three-year-old boy might be capable of. The big one (I still can’t believe we pulled this off) was convincing him that after his birthday, he would do away with diapers once and for all and forevermore be a toilet guy. He made the switch on his birthday, on his own. Unbelievable.

So from where I’m standing, it’s all about what he can do. He can do amazing things. He can ride his balance bike in all sorts of crazy ways and somehow, miraculously, not fall down. He uses the toilet by himself. He dances, he sings, he tells us weird, weird, made-up stories with a hundred characters and no ending. And none of what we see at home compares to what he does at daycare, which is run with military precision — there, he is a model of putting-away-the-toys, quietly-listening-to-the-story, waiting-in-line-for-the-toilet behavior. He can drive me crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not always bursting with pride.

But there are these little moments when it’s clear that for him, it’s a different story. He’s proud of what he can do, and he’s happy to rub it all in the face of our little girl, who is just now starting to walk and still thinks meals are all about dropping things from great heights. But he’s painfully aware, in everything he does, that he can’t yet do everything he wants to do.

There are lots of times when he talks to us and we just don’t understand. Sometimes it’s because it’s a mix of Japanese and English; sometimes, if it’s a word we haven’t heard him use before, we’re not even sure which language he’s using. In the strange little narrative he keeps of his own life, the orange collar on the dog we saw three weeks ago at the park is vitally important, and relevant, and immediate, so he references it the way I might reference something like “the car.” But it can take forever to figure out how we got there, and the frustration he feels in those moments is palpable, even when it doesn’t lead to a total breakdown (which it sometimes does). He knows enough to know that this whole language thing should be a lot easier than it is, but he can’t yet make it so. All the frustration and isolation I felt when I first came to Japan and tried to speak to shopkeepers, he feels when he speaks to his own parents.

With his body, too, there’s just so much that doesn’t yet come naturally. Big buttons are OK, but little ones taunt him. He gets trapped taking off his own shirt. And it keeps happening–Why, his eyes say, does this keep happening? He tears paper he doesn’t mean to tear, drops things he doesn’t mean to drop. He fully inhabits his body, but his body is not yet entirely his.

We see these things, and we feel for him, but we forget, over and over, to try to see it through his eyes. It’s cute when he gets trapped in his shirt. And we have the privilege of knowing that it will all get better — six months from now will be another world, again.

A couple months ago, we got him a little paddle toy — two big foam paddles with duck faces on them, and a sponge ball to knock back and forth. For a while, he used the paddles kind of like golf clubs, just pushing the ball around on the floor. He’d ask me to play, and I’d lob him the ball with the paddle, and he’d get angry and throw the paddle and walk away. It happened a few times. Then one morning, after lobbing it to him again, his eyes filled up with tears, and his face went red, and he shouted at me, “Papa, I’m a small man!” And through the sobs, with some little gestures and a combination of two languages that really don’t fit together at all, he explained that he can’t do what I do, dropping the ball on the paddle and hitting it underhand like that. It’s just beyond him right now. He’s tried and tried, but for today, it’s a no-go. But when I do it (it’s such an unconscious way of handling a ball and paddle, I hadn’t even given it a second thought), it just crushes him. It’s too much.

So much of teaching is putting oneself in the place of the student, anticipating that person’s difficulties and addressing them. That’s the start of skillful means, and it’s hard to remember it sometimes, much less to get it right. For some reason, I have the hardest time standing in my little guy’s shoes. I’m so busy celebrating for him (and congratulating myself) that I lose sight of what he sees, which is a world made of high walls, impossible dexterity tests, and cruel oral exams.

A Tibetan teacher startled me once with her simple description of animals (I still think about this every time I see a cat or dog). Buddhism sometimes includes talk of six realms, which we can imagine stacked vertically, from top to bottom: heavenly beings, asuras, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, hell beings. Perhaps I’ll try to describe the purpose behind all of that in a different post — the important point here is that animals are listed below humans, a point that always bothered me a little. I, like many people, tended to think of animals in very romantic terms. A deer, for example, has such dignity, such apparent clarity of purpose, such a beautiful quiet expression. It’s easy to think, “I want to be that.” But the Tibetan teacher had a very clear reason why one should not want to be in the animal realm: animals live in constant fear. They are always on the lookout, even when seemingly at rest. Humans can transcend their fears, but other animals cannot. Now it seems obvious, but the lens I carried made me unable to see it.

One day my little boy couldn’t hop on one foot; the next day, he could. I watched him eat ice cream for the first time, saw how his face practically gave off light. Who wouldn’t like to eat ice cream again for the first time? It’s beautiful, his life. But right now, at three years old, he has no way of really seeing that. Most adults I know don’t see the beauty of their own lives — what chance does a preschooler have?  I’m grateful to be a witness to his life, to see it with my eyes, to be able to tell his story. But, as with each one of us and each person we know, that story is just a story. What I see as an unending photo opportunity is, for him, a sea of confusion; he is the embodiment of dukkha (dissatisfaction). He suffers, and the fact that he’s three doesn’t make that any less true.

I need to remind myself of this constantly. I need to learn to see with those eyes, to run with those legs, to crawl inside the mind of the Small Man.

14 comments on “I Am a Small Man

  1. Mike Haitch says:

    Forget and remember more than learn.

    Your son is learning to edit life to fit in with epectations of others. He’s learning to control and maybe deny his naturalness.

    He’s learning that some responses and eperiences are inappropriate – he may then deny, repress or maybe inhibit.

    Toilet training is not a natural thing. If youn spend any time in wilderness you remember how unnatural it is.

    So we remember who we are and forget to edit our experiences and learn when it’s OK to be uninhibited and when it’s not.

    We remember how to experience raw life, forget to watch for an authority figure for approval but remember to selectively inhibit our raw naturalness.

    “Daddy, why is that man so fat” may be arise as a thought without guilt but may not then be expressed.

    With each action we take and each thought we chase or release we are choosing “Who do I want to be?”

    Sometimes life seems to be just answering that one question!

  2. adam fisher says:

    Lovely post and thank you for it.

  3. Paul Merrison says:

    As a father of a one year old little girl (with a strong mind of her own) I can really relate to this post, thank you for writing it.

  4. Stephen says:

    This post made my heart hurt in the best possible way. We are all still that “small man.” I was handed a stick of incense to offer at the alter. In receiving it, I broke it. Twice.

    About seeing the beauty of our own lives, of course we do. All of us. But there’s a lyric that shows how we appreciate it. “We don’t know what we’ve got ’till it’s gone.”

    Gassho with sigh

  5. James says:

    “animals live in constant fear”

    With all due respect, this is anthropomorphic nonsense. The Tibetan teacher’s commentary on the emotional lives of animals says much about the emotional lives of human primates and nothing whatsoever about the experience of non-human animals and the more than human world. Why are romantic notions about human moral and spiritual superiority so popular with us humans?

    • Koun says:


      Thank you for your comment. I knew, when I decided to mention what the Tibetan teacher said, that some people would not be too happy about it. As I said, maybe I’ll try to flesh out the “realms” at some point. In the meantime, though, I’ll just mention that, to my understanding, it’s not about superiority but about choices. The human realm is placed above the animal realm because, according to that teaching, the human realm is the one where we recognize that we can make choices about our lives–the other five realms are all about various ways of being either blind or trapped. I’ll also add that the teaching of the six realms is often understood metaphorically–we all, at different moments in our lives (or in the day) occupy different realms and experience those freedoms and limitations. For the Tibetan teacher, we are in the animal realm when we are reflexively making decisions based primarily on fear (another interpretation I’ve heard describes the animal realm as the realm of focusing on satisfying base needs). I’ve found it to be a useful and compelling narrative, but it is just a narrative, after all.


      • Peter says:

        Koun another lovely post. The Heart Sutra says “without hindrance there is no fear”. I have seen this translated by the Dalai Lama as “Without elaboration there is no fear”. We certainly seem to elaborate more than animals and are thus much more fearful. Yesterday, I watched swallows swinging fearlessly swooping down and across our lawn enjoying the breezy afternoon. I wished I were so fearless and guileless; as guileless as a serpent. Guileless as a little man.

        Gassho Peter

      • Koun says:


        Thank you. Indeed, one of the reasons I find I can take so much pleasure in our boy’s company is that he has no poker face at all. He’s tried lying, but he’s terrible at it — so terrible that he always thinks it’s funny as he’s doing it. To be around someone so straightforwardly honest and vulnerable is to be reminded that it’s a rare, rare thing.


  6. Tom B says:

    Beautiful. My boy is 10 and I remember when he was like that.

    Now, he Skypes…

  7. fran shalom says:

    thank you for such a thoughtful post. My son is 18 and transitioning to college and I dukkha is there as well, just in a different configuration…..bows, Fran

  8. Mike Haitch says:

    There’s a very good TED talk on Vulnerability as an essential healthy approach to life. I listened to it again today and found it to be a timely reminder…

  9. mitaky says:

    Koun, while reading your blog I felt like coming full circle, “Enso” as I recall some similar moments while raising our only daughter in early 90s. I learned so much from just simply watching her grow especially in her first two years, before going to my full-time job.

    I almost reconnected with my own childhood. As if through her I experienced all the feelings of a “small woman” and “a mother” without any filters. I actually captured some of those precious child-rearing moments in a story in the book ‘Pearls of wisdom: The second strand’. Not only I felt intense gratitude for my parents far away but what it means to be innocent, curious and open like a child. I could see firsthand how she used her innate or natural intelligence to learn a new skill and make sense of the phenomenal world. I never had formal zen training, but looking back I would say I got my first sense of ‘beginner’s mind’ from spending significant time alone with my daughter.

    About the fear factor of animals, I am not so sure animals experience the kind of survival pain we humans experience because of the concepts of time, love and death. Plus the heavy psychological and existential pain of ‘not knowing’ our own mind, its confused projections, attachments, apathy and aversion. Animals do not have the fear of death as much because they live in the present and their mind-body is attuned with nature. We have the freedom of choice. This choice is not easy. It comes with the inner responsibility to master the challenges of all these realms. If we are willing to learn and grow from all situations then we can have some fun gatheing wisdom along the way…

    Happy fathering~

  10. Bogdan Gheorghiu says:

    Wouldn’t it perhaps be better not to hold any limiting view of him, not even that “he’s suffering” (aka bound to some extent to the nature of dukkha)? After all, to convince oneself so deeply and lovingly of a fault in another, even based on one’s understanding of the dharma, seems to me personally to reveal or give a certain more subtle meaning to the sixth precept which is expressed outwardly as not criticizing others, not speaking of other’s faults, and which to me more deeply means making an effort to naturally and constantly affirm and support on every level the perfect and absolute freedom of all beings – basically by no longer creating or holding on to any limiting mind-formations in any of the six realms. Since (again of course just my personal ramblings) the only thing which can count as a “fault” in the eyes of the Buddha is any thing by which beings hold themselves or each other in various types and degress of suffering, however subtle.
    Of course I have no idea if there’s any relevance to what I’m saying since I’m only reacting, quite emotionally, to the way I felt reading your post and feeling all the unconditional, ever-adapting, ever-increasing support in the first part get almost constricted by a much-too-certain personal interpretation, rationalization in terms of what is understood as the dharma.

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