Letter to my son: Live a principled life

I’ve endeavored to raise you in such a way that someday a hero can look at you and say, “That kid’s not a shithead.”

Many years ago, I was grieving some significant setbacks relating to our attempts to have children. Out of that grief came the first many entries in what was a long letter to my future son. I have my son now. And I look forward to raising him to answer these fundamental questions and follow these foundational rules. Each individual part can be found here.  

Son,

I once had a Special Forces Vietnam vet pay me a tremendous compliment. He said, “You know, you’re not a shithead.” It may not sound like the greatest compliment, but here was a guy who did dangerous things in a dangerous place, did them well and with honor, and lived to tell about it. When a man like that offers a compliment, you treasure it and try to live up to it.  

I’ve endeavored to raise you in such a way that someday a hero can look at you and say, “That kid’s not a shithead.” You’re old enough to start deciding how you’re going to live. Until now I’ve done a lot of your deciding for you. It wasn’t to be cruel or controlling. It was to show you how to make good choices. I worked hard to demonstrate manhood to you. If you’ve been paying attention – and I think you have – then you’ve gotten a good example. I’m far from perfect, but being perfect isn’t a lesson you need to bother learning. You’ll fail. I’m not ashamed to have failed. In fact, my failures gave me a chance to teach you how to recover well.

But through all my failures and recoveries and all the lessons I tried to teach you, I gave it my all. You’re too important for anything less.

As you chart your course towards manhood, I want to give you some rules to live by. These are the kind of rules that, if followed, give you a leg up on all the shitheads just skating by thoughtlessly and carelessly. If you’ll be deliberate and thoughtful now, you’ll have a far better life later. The first decision you have to make as a man is am I going to live a principled life?

Everything is bigger than it seems. No decision or action happens independently of who a person is. Your whole life you’ll hear people make excuses for their behavior by saying, “it was so out of character” or “I don’t know what I was thinking; it just happened” or “this is so unlike me” or my personal favorite, “I never meant to do that.” Every one of those excuses is worthless and dishonest. Everything a person does is motivated by who they are.

People do exactly what they want to do. That goes for you too. I hope you’ll want to live a God-honoring and honorable life and, when you inevitably fail, that you’ll have the courage and discipline to get back up.

But you must understand that everything means something. When you’re willing to be honest and dig down deep you’ll realize that nothing is really unpredictable. Out of character either means well-hidden or the rare emergence of an undesirable trait. It’s important to remember that we’re all sinners. We’re all going to battle our whole lives with our natural desire to serve ourselves rather than God. So, while it’s entirely true that a man’s actions tell you who the man is, it could just be that the man is telling you he’s human and struggling like the rest of us. So, be better than me in this: be slow to finalize your opinion of a man. Trust your instincts, but remember how much grace you require daily.

Living a principled life means deciding what’s important – what’s valuable – and then living that way regardless of the fallout. You will be surrounded by people who are convinced you’re either crazy or a complete asshole. Let them have their convictions about you, but don’t ever abandon your principles for the sake of pleasing another man. The minute you start living to please people, you become their slave. We’re not slaves.

For a while I tried to adopt a new mantra, “People over principles.” It was a well-intentioned reminder that people matter. But implicit in that mantra is the idea that principles are nothing more than personal playthings, that they’re an obstruction to healthy relationships. You’re likely to encounter this mindset as well.

Let me free you of this silly notion before it takes hold. People need principles. And if you’re developing your principles with open eyes and a clear mind, then it’s likely they could benefit from your principles. Abandoning them does not help anyone. It creates a power-vacuum and leads to unhealthy relationships, and it renders you incapable of offering anything worthwhile to anyone. When you shelve your principles for the sake of a relationship, you commit to tickling the ears of people you’d otherwise challenge and inspire to grow. You enable their weaknesses and flaws. That’s cowardly.

Living a principled life hurts. You will lose relationships; you will alienate friends; you will spend a lot of time feeling out of place and alone. But what hurts worse is the pain you feel when you lock yourself away, when you’re ashamed of your beliefs and when you’re too ashamed to do the things you ought to do.

I want for you, son, the lesser pain.