An open letter to my daughter
As I write these words, you’re four years old. Last week, you went to your first ice skating lesson. You’d been looking forward to it all month, and you excitedly told all of your friends that you were going, but when you came home that afternoon, you were almost in tears. When I asked you what was wrong, you said that it was harder than you thought it would be, and that you kept falling down. I responded as I suppose most decent fathers would. It takes a while, I told you, to get the hang of a new skill; it’s normal to fall down a lot at the beginning; and you should keep trying until you get better. After you’ve practiced enough, I concluded, you won’t even remember how difficult it used to be. You asked: “But what if it’s still in my head?” And I wasn’t quite sure what to tell you. As you’ve probably figured out by now, adults aren’t always great at following their own advice. They’re haunted by their failures, and they often resist pushing themselves or trying new things. I know I do. But you know better. You’ve been to free skate twice now, and every time you’ve gone out on the ice, you’ve gotten further without falling than ever before. Whenever you fall down, your pick yourself up. It’s more than I could do at my age. And I won’t pretend that the courage that you’ve shown is thanks to anything that I’ve taught you. You did it yourself. My one piece of advice, in fact, is that you hold onto as much of it as you can. You can judge grownups by how much they show of that kind of bravery, and it can take us decades to rediscover what we knew as children. So I hope that you hang onto it—it’ll save you time and wasted effort later on.
When you finally read this letter, you’ll be a little older—maybe eight or so. That’s hard for me to believe. I remember being eight. It’s one of the earliest ages at which I have a clear sense of what I was thinking at the time: not just events, but my inner life of dreams, fantasies, impressions. I don’t remember much from before that. It tells me that the years of your life that we’ve shared together so far might end up as a blur, much as they sometimes are to me already, and that only a few isolated flashes will survive for when you’re older. If I’m honest, the thought of this is slightly painful: you and I have been through so much, but I don’t know how much of it will persist for you in ways that you can consciously recall. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. For all I know, it may matter more than anything else. I hope that your mother and I have shown you sufficient love and patience that you can take it for granted, and that the memories that you keep are good ones. And I also hope that you can remember President Obama. It’s a small thing, but I’d like him to be the first memory you have of the presidency. You seem drawn to him, as a lot of kids are, even if you’re usually more interested in Michelle. Maybe one day it will all seem like a dream, as it does to me even now. For all the ups and downs of the last eight years, I still believe that Obama was a far better man than we deserved, or at least that a series of unlikely developments meant that we got him before we were collectively ready. I used to think that was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure. But I’m glad that you were around for some of it.
Now we’re about to get a president who, by any measure, is worse than any of us deserve, thanks to a series of equally implausible events. (Which is just to say that they seem improbable by historical standards, which is probably an illusion in itself. If the stars could align to give us Obama eight years too soon, it stands to reason that they could also combine, on the downside, to give us a President Trump. Volatility on the whole seems to be rising, and past performance is not indicative of future returns.) By the time you read this, maybe we’ll have another president. I don’t know if we will. Frankly, I’m not even sure I’ll have completely figured out this last election by then. Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable. Which doesn’t rule out the possibility that it was both. I think it’s fair to say that the fundamentals were closer than most progressives believed or that the numbers seemed to indicate, which meant that a few small factors—some from home, some from abroad—were enough to affect the results in three states just enough to make a difference. If fifty thousand voters had changed their minds, I’d be writing you a very different letter. Perhaps, in some other timeline, I am. But the fact that it was close enough for a few nudges in the right place to affect the result implies that there was something larger at play. Periods of progress are always followed by periods of reaction, and it’s clear, looking around the world, that we’re in the middle of a particularly severe one. That isn’t much consolation. But it was bound to happen eventually. It’s just sooner and far worse than anyone could have expected.
I wish I could tell you that everything will be fine, but I can’t. It emphatically won’t be fine for a lot of people, at least if the incoming administration keeps the least of its promises, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t. Our family is luckier than most, and I don’t know how our lives—or the ones of those we love—will change. I also don’t know what the psychological consequences will be. You’re about to spend some of the crucial years of your childhood in an atmosphere that can only affect your feelings about the presidency, this country, and your place in the world. And I’m not going to lie to you: a lot of things that we care about are about to be destroyed. They’ll be rolled back at once or in pieces, openly or in secret, for no better reason than it’s easier to destroy than to create. It’s enough to make me wonder whether any of it was worth it, and I’m afraid that you’ll grow up asking the same thing. But it made a difference. History alternates between eras of advancement and regression, the latter of which can last for centuries, but the trend over the longest possible timeline is clear. We take two steps forward and one step back, and we can only hope that we’ve planted the standard of humanity far enough forward into chaos that we end up slightly ahead of where we started, in defiance of all the forces that want to turn back the clock. Many of those who voted to enable it were motivated by the same feelings that I’ve described here: they looked into the faces of their daughters and sons and worried about the lives they would have. I’m sorry that a minority of my generation decided that this was what was best for yours. We screwed up, and I don’t know if we can fix things by the time you’re old enough to understand this. Maybe it will be up to you. All I can do is try to learn from your example. I need to get back on the ice and skate.