(Or “What’s in a Name?”)
We felt like this week’s post should be written together. We’ve used font colors for clarity. (A-M is green. B is orange).
We named our oldest son “Knox.” We loved the way it sounded, the way it felt in our mouths as we said it, the way it is spelled. And we loved that the meaning is “from the hills” or “hilltop.” We are surrounded by Ozark hills, and Seoul is a mountainous city, so we loved the tie there, plus, everything about this little boy had been a mountaintop experience. And parenting him? Everything about him has been like standing at the top of a mountain. He is light and fun and sharp. He’s an old soul, who just seems to understand life at a deep level.
For our youngest, we were really having a hard time agreeing on a name. Anna-Marie had our friend Amie, who really likes names, come up with some names for us. We told her that the meaning was extra important. From the moment we got the list, we knew “Tobin” was the name for our boy. Tobin means “God is good,” and that carried us through the long wait to bring him home.
For our boys’ middle names, we did two parts and hyphenated them: one part is part of our family name and the other is part of their given Korean name. Part of Tobin’s middle name means “valley.” And as we walked through an incredibly challenging transition home with Tobin, I kept finding myself thinking of the meaning of his name: “God is good in the valley.” It became a mantra to help me through the hard.
But I still didn’t get the significance.
I, meanwhile, was still going further down in a valley of my own.
During the first year of my commute to Tobin’s school, I began listening to podcasts. I listen to several of them, but one January morning, I listened to one that changed my life. It’s called Good vs. Perfect. (The actual talk begins about 10 minutes in.)
He talks about how the Hebrew language gave us the word “Tov/Tob” and that it means “Good.” And how in the creation story, there is life and death, sunset and sunrise, burial and new life and it’s all Good. You have to bury a seed before it can grow. There is winter when everything dies out before spring comes and brings new life.
And he defines “perfect” as that which cannot be changed. That which is static, unchanging, fixed and cannot be improved. Something unattainable.
He describes all the ways that real life is found in the Good. “Tob.” The root of my son’s name. The Good I was finding in this precious gift I was entrusted to care for.
“Good is sweaty and dirty and dark and light and death and birth. And it’s sexy, and it’s wine, and it’s food, and it’s friends. It’s embraces. Tov (Tob) is of the earth. Tov isn’t interested in nice, neat right angles. Tov isn’t really interested in everything being spotless and shining and polished and glossed. Tov is about life and all of its bristling authenticity.”
And it resonated with me on a deep level.
I was in the middle of a year of healing. Of pulling myself out of the depths of frustration and sadness and disappointment that I couldn’t get this “Autism Momming” thing down. I kept failing: Losing my cool. Crying. Not explaining things ahead of time. Forgetting to use pictures to communicate. Not remembering to give him advanced notice when a transition was happening. Giving big theatrical reactions, when I knew I was supposed to be chill and act like certain behaviors were no big deal. I just couldn’t get it together. And everyone seemed to suffer from my failing: Tobin would go into long-lasting meltdowns, the tension level of our house would increase, and I would fall back down into sadness, feeling like I would never get this right.
I had one child who seemed to bring out the best in me. And I felt like the worst version of myself with the other.
And I loved them both so much my heart felt like it was going to explode.
But I just kept stumble stepping my way through. And when I would hit the ground, I would stay down for a long time. Because I wanted to be the parent my boys needed me to be. I wanted to get it right. I wanted both my boys to thrive. I wanted my boys to know how much I love them.
And when I would fail, I couldn’t stand myself.
This desire to “get it right” isn’t just in parenting. I always tend to get all bound up in “what ifs”:
“What if I say something to hurt someone’s feelings?” (That’s a big one.) “What if I look stupid? What if everyone realizes I don’t have things together? What if people associate my child’s behavior with my parenting skills? What if I say something to hurt someone’s feelings?” (That one comes up enough it’s worth listing twice.)
But my perspective began to shift and new “what ifs” began to sink in:
“What if the point of it all isn’t in getting it right… it’s in the trying? What if life is in the dynamic, falling down and getting up, death and resurrection? What if it’s actually a Good thing to fail and learn and not get things right the first or fourth times? And what if this idea of Good is where the real life is?”
And this idea of “Tob” began to transform me.
Anna-Marie shared the talk with me when she first heard it. I listened. I thought, “Yeah that is okay… I like it…” I think… I mean, I think I paid attention.
I was at a different place. I was still going down into my valley. I hadn’t gotten to the bottom yet. And I had been hiding my own struggles with disappointment and sadness.
In my last post, I talked about my struggle with pursuing perfect. It’s been a constant struggle for me throughout my life. The first time I listened to this message, I didn’t really want to hear it. But I listened to the message again about five months later.
And I heard it.
And it hit me.
And it changed me.
I learned a different view of “life” than what I had understood before:
“Perfect often doesn’t know what to do with our humanity. Perfect endlessly flogs itself for its imperfections, for all the ways that it sees itself as falling short of the ideal. But Good sees that it’s all part of the bloody, difficult, strange, exotic, beautiful thing that we know to be life.”
I thought the only way something could be Good was if it worked out exactly as I had planned. I realized I was wrong.
“Tob” has been the realization that failure is inevitable. Stumbling is a part of it. Everyone is a teacher. We are all students of life. The idea that “No one has ever been you before, so why should you expect to get it right the first time?”
And the more I’ve embraced the inevitability of failure, it seems the “better” my trying feels, the easier it is to get back up and the more I find myself becoming who I need to be.
“You have to be able to make a mess of things. If you don’t have the kind of power that can really make a mess of things, then how can we ever have the kind of power and freedom and choice to make something really beautiful. “
Parenting is a tough gig. So is marriage. So is friending and family-ing. Giving yourself Grace and learning to love the knee scrapes for what they teach you, seeing each moment as an opportunity to learn? That’s where the life is.
Because we only get one life. So why spend the whole time beating ourselves up for not getting it right the first or thirty-sixth time?
I’ve learned that those mountaintops I love so much? You have to climb to reach those summits.
And the valleys? Sometimes they provide the perspective you need to make the climb.
Because it all goes together.
And it’s all Good. The holy, sacred kind with a capital “G.”