We watched The Three Idiots last Sunday (June 16, 2013), Father’s Day. We were at our church camp and our usual practice is to view one movie together and comment on what we learned from it. In a nutshell, The Three Idiots is, in spirit, an Indian version of The Dead Poets Society. The movie is a bit long but it presses all the right buttons to keep you emotionally engaged all the way. One scene brought back memories especially since it was Father’s Day.
The movie takes place in a prestigious engineering school in India. One of the characters, Farhan, does not want to be an engineer. It is what his parents want. And his parents had sacrificed a lot to see him through engineering school. But Farhan’s passion is wildlife photography. There is a powerful scene that takes place close to the final engineering exam. Farhan tells his parents he wants to drop out of engineering school, skip the final exam, and pursue his passion. Every single one of us watching the movie that evening understood the dynamics of this scene. We understood the tension in Farhan as he grappled with wanting to make his parents happy and wanting to pursue his dream at the same time. We felt for the parents who wanted the best for their son and had sacrificed so much to help him achieve that goal. Parent or child, all who were watching understood.
It reminded me of the time I told my parents I wanted to give up dentistry to pursue a church-related vocation. I felt called to be a Bible teacher, not in a lay capacity (which I believe to be totally valid), but in a full-time capacity. I will never forget the pain in my parent’s eyes. I thought I understood what they were going through then. I think I better understand it now. My parents had gone through World War 2. They experienced a level of suffering and deprivation I could and would not understand. No loving parent would want his or her child to undergo such pain. A pastor’s pay in Malaysia in the ’70s was low.
Besides, I come from a small family. I have a younger sister but it looked like I was the only one in our immediate family that had the potential of having a career in one of the preferred professions of the families of diaspora Chinese. (My sister and her husband are successful chefs and part owners of a Thai restaurant.) My parents came from families that had paid a heavy price to leave China so that their descendants could achieve more. They weren’t rich. My dad was a school clerk. My mum, more ambitious, had worked hard and had become a lecturer in a teacher’s college. It helped that our family wasn’t big. Still, like Farhan’s parents in the movie, my parents had sacrificed much to put me through dental school. And now their dream was dying. I had no idea how painful and difficult it was for them. All I knew was that I believed God had called me to teach the Word full time.
The Three Idiots is a story with a happy ending. It seems a postmodern world unsure of anything still craves happy endings. In the end, Farhan’s father relents. For a moment we think he doesn’t. He had bought an expensive notebook computer to give to the son as a fitting gift for a young engineer beginning his career. After his son’s plea, the father asks if the notebook can be returned. The viewer thinks he has given up on his son. Then he clarifies—can the computer be exchanged for a professional-level camera? Not only does he allow his son to give up engineering, he supports his calling with the purchase of a camera. There is relief and cheering all round. At my stage of life, I wonder how much the father had to go through to make that shift.
After I told my parents I wanted to be a pastor, I worked for a number of years as a dentist, for various reasons. I wanted to get a taste of work in the world so that I could better understand the struggles of parishioners who worked in the marketplace. I wanted to give dad and mum some degree of closure—to at least see their son making use of the dental training that they had sacrificed so much to make happen. I wanted to save up some money. And it gave me time to pray for my parents.
About two years later, this happened: We were going for an after-dinner drive along Gurney Drive, a common family practice. Mum and dad were sitting in front. I was in the back seat. I can only guess how tough it must have been for dad and mum to find the right time and the right words. They said that if I truly believed that God had called me to the pastorate, I could proceed, with their blessings. But they had no money for my theological studies. (Was this one of the reasons they hesitated to bless my calling?) I was stunned and overjoyed at the same time. I told them that all I wanted was their blessings. If God had truly called, He would have to provide. (And He did.)
It is not easy to be a parent. I am very frustrated that so much of parenting is learned after the fact. There have been so many times I think of how I could have been a better father when my boys were growing up, if I knew then what I know now. But we can’t go back. We do what we can now and try to share whatever we now know about parenting to young parents. Still, we know there are some lessons they can only learn through experience.
But one thing we did. We did not force our children to pursue any of the usual professions of diaspora Chinese. None of our four boys is a doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, or even a dentist. But we think they are all doing interesting, meaningful, important work; work that they chose. (One is still in university, hoping to pursue a vocation in photography and film-making.)
Here is Paul articulating what he tries to do as a father and that is what we try to do.
For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12 NIV)
As parents our duty is not to make our children do what we want them to do. We are to help them discover what God wants them to do and to help them go for it.