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.