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Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D. Headshot

Life Lessons We Learn from Our Children

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My 10-year-old grandson Sam is like most grandchildren -- the most beautiful, kind, intelligent and wonderful child in the world. In addition to all of those things, my Sam is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, so his view of the world is a bit different from ours. But I think sometimes he sees things more accurately because his vision is not contaminated by assumptions and distractions.

When he was about five-years-old, he loved running around in the bamboo shoots that grew near his home. One day when he was running through the bamboo with his father, he stopped short and -- looking at his father and with eyes as wide as saucers -- he said almost in a whisper, "Daddy, look at how little we are."

The emotion Sam was experiencing is awe. Think about it, theologians pray for awe and it's quite possible that the act of prayer itself is a search for awe. Don't most of us work hard all year so that we can take a vacation to a beautiful place just so we can see nature's beauty? We search for awe.

And why? Awe is more than just wonder; it is about knowing how small we are in the broad scheme of things. And there is something about experiencing our smallness that helps us feel peaceful and secure knowing that the world is functioning out there and not just inside our heads! Awe is an emotion that quiets the ego. It can help us feel more generous of spirit and compassion towards our fellow humans. We search for awe because our body/mind needs this healing potion.

And this is what makes Sam and most other kids a teacher. It's about his ability to experience these pure wide open emotions that we long for. I describe in "The Wisdom of Sam" how he has great insight into forgiveness, grace, companionship and love. Not just love for one another, but love for the world and love for life itself. Some think we all felt once upon a time.

In my first book about Sam, "Letters to Sam" I referred to an old Jewish parable that makes this point beautifully. It is said that before a child is born, God infuses that child with all of the wisdom they need in life. But over time, we forget what we once knew. Buddhists call it a "Buddha nature" that is in all of us. And whether you interpret these things literally or not, if you look into the eyes of a small child, you will see something divine. You see, like Sam, all children know they are small and powerless, and they are okay with that. But when we feel small and powerless, we get anxious and feel impotent or invisible, and we do whatever we can to reclaim the illusion that we are really not that small.

So our children can teach us about awe. And anyone who has ever had a child knows that they have so much to teach us about happiness. They experience it easily, and often, if not constantly. (That is, until we get busy with them!) But what about us? So many people I've interviewed have told me they will relax and have fun when the kids go to college or get married or when we finish this project or pay off the mortgage or... I recently saw a bumper sticker that said "Don't postpone joy." Kids don't need bumper stickers.

I have a new buddy and his name is Jacob. He is two-years-old and like most, he is filled with awe and delight. Sometimes when we are playing in my driveway, he will stop what we are doing and point silently to the sky. Five seconds later I will hear an airplane. It's not just that his hearing is better than mine, it's that his listening is better. He's not lost in his thoughts about his schedule for the day or what to do for dinner or various other unimportant things that can hijack one's ability to experience their lives. We know how our children live in the moment, and despite the fact that it gets on our nerves, they have something to teach us. Something we have long since forgotten.

Several months ago, Jake ran into my office to play with me. He climbed up on the chair and pointed to a statue of the Buddha I have on my lawn. Then he looked from the statue to me and babbled something. Since he was just learning language, I said: "Jacob, that's Buddha." I watched as he seemed to take my word in, and he repeated, "Doodie." "No, no, honey, I said Booo Dah." To which he responded, "Dooo Dee."

So that's it. Jacob, Sam and I are starting a new religion called Doodism. (Stick with me here.) There are no membership dues or building funds. Our houses of worship are parks and playgrounds. Our prayers are about noticing. Noticing the color of the sky as it changes during a sunset, or actually tasting our food during a meal and thinking about how that food arrived at the table. And when we can experience awe every day, we will know Doodism is the real thing.

By the way, we address each other as "dood." And as I said, the go-to dood is Sam, with Jake being the apprentice. I figure Jake takes over when Sam hits puberty and he is finding awe in things other than sunsets. And by then, Jake will be speaking well enough to give us the guidance we need.

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