I love Mexican food.
And Saturday in the middle of the day, with most of the family gone one direction or the other, 16-year-old Ellie and 10-year-old Sam and I were alone and with our freedom in our hands. And when the errand to Walmart was done and a fatherly promise of lunch yet unfulfilled, we quickly conferred and agreed on Mexican.
Rancho Viejo, next to the bowling alley, in the orange building that has variously been a Del Taco, a Starbucks, and a gay bar, and now, gloriously, the best Mexican food in the valley.
We wedged into the crowd in the lobby, waited our turn, and happily plopped down with the menus and some chips and salsa.
Ellie and I went for the Number 10 – an enchilada and a burrito and some rice and beans – and Sam said he wanted chicken fingers and fries.
Chicken fingers and fries. At the Rancho Viejo. Yes, they serve them. But this is Mexican, and when in Rome, order the taco. Or the chimichanga. Or any number of other things you can’t get anyplace else. And I teased Sam to that end. I feigned surprise, and I said that he should try something Mexican, to broaden his horizon.
When the lady came, Ellie and I each ordered, and then Sam, to my delight, ordered a quesadilla and some fries. When she asked about drinks, Sam hesitated as he looked at the menu and I blurted out horchata, a small, for him to try.
And then we visited and laughed and the food came and I happily disappeared into my enchilada and burrito, wishing I had some corn tortillas to wrap the rice and beans up in. When I eventually pushed back, my plate wiped clean, I noticed that Sam had eaten his fries, barely sipped his horchata and taken only the smallest single bite out of his quesadilla.
And I was briefly disappointed.
If you weren’t going to eat it, I thought to myself, you shouldn’t have ordered it.
And then I had a moment of clarity. Not about him, but about me. And about a little boy who, out on a rare lunch with his father and sister, didn’t get to order what he wanted, but was inadvertently pressured to order something he didn’t like.
And I say “inadvertently” giving myself perhaps more benefit of the doubt than I deserve. Being overbearing, substituting my own will for the will of others by pressuring them in one way or another, is probably not an accident. It is probably one more manifestation of the shortcomings I need God to help me remove.
And I say “help me remove” because the responsibility is mine. To see where I am wrong, and change.
Being overbearing, manipulating people to do what we want them to do, comes from weakness, fear, selfishness and pride. We unconsciously recognize our weakness and fear, and seek to stage manage the world to shield ourselves from its hurts and uncertainties. That’s where it begins. And then selfishness takes the wheel and we push or trick people to serve our will. It may not be something we consciously realize, but it can become something pervasive in our relationships with people.
Pride manifests itself in the subtle presumption that we are justified in our manipulations, because we are superior to others, that our will is better than theirs, that we are smarter and know better and we need to direct them, sometimes for their own good, sometimes for our personal benefit. The more we do it, the more entitled to do it we believe we become.
That’s what I realized looking at that uneaten quesadilla.
Sam wanted chicken fingers. I wanted something else. And I got my way, to his hurt.
And that’s not the kind of father or brother I want to be, though I clearly recognize it is the kind of person I am.
I apologized to him later. I’m not sure how to apologize to the world for a life that has already been lived in this fashion.
But I can remember what is true and right. That we are each free, and that we are to nurture one another, not herd or harass one another. We may coax, but we may not compel. And we should encourage others, especially our children, to be and guide themselves, to be who they were born to be, not the person we want to mold them into.
Certainly, as parents or bosses we have responsibilities, but you can’t do the right thing the wrong way, and you don’t build a strong child or a strong workplace by dictating. You don’t demonstrate strength by being domineering, you demonstrate weakness. The truly strong individual is secure enough to allow others, even subordinates and children, to grow and bloom and be themselves, without being threatened.
I’m not here to help you do what I want done. I’m here to help you be you.
That’s the way I would want to be treated, but that’s not the way I treated little Sam.
Like I said, I apologized to him for it. In a couple of days, after I think on this some more, I’m going to thank him.