Triggered By Greatness: What to Do When Your Kid Knocks It out of the Park

“Your son just got accepted to Oxford’s Law School.”

This was the text that my ex-wife sent me about ten days ago. My first thought was, are there two Oxford Universities? But no, she meant the one in England. The one J.R.R. Tolkien attended. C.S. Lewis. Aldous Huxley. And now, my kid.


I texted my son Alex for clarification. As I was typing, I was thinking, OK. He’s related to me and thereby prone to exaggeration from time to time. Maybe he was invited to apply or something. He’s done well, and studied hard. An A- average at Brigham Young University isn’t just handed out. I’m sure that’s it.

I’m sorry if it seems I have no faith in my own progeny, but we Marleys don’t exactly spring from the gleaming halls of generational academia. My dad, who could get a doctorate in common sense, was expelled from BYU. After a less-than-auspicious start at BYU, where I was also nearly expelled, I was the first to graduate from college in the history of our family (Seattle University, 1991.) It’s true that my mother became a nurse later in life, and my sister as well, but all three of my brothers found better things to do when they were college-aged. Our family can read, but no one ever said we were a particularly scholarly bunch. In our noisome family gatherings, we quote the revered philosopher Seinfeld more than Socrates, believe me.

To my amazement, Alex confirmed the news I received from his mother via a return text. It was snowing hard, so I pulled my work truck to the side of the road so I could call him to congratulate him. He was almost as incredulous as I had been.

“I didn’t even study for the LSAT,” he told me. “I just kind of took it to see how I did and I placed in the 92nd percentile. So, I applied all over the place, with a few “safety schools’ just in case.”

He listed off a few more top 20 schools in the US that had accepted him and added the University of Edinburgh to boot. We talked about the pros and cons of many of his options. I congratulated him again and offered any support I could give. We caught up on life outside of school, expressed our love, and hung up.

I sat on the side of the road and considered this news. It’s been a tough road for me and my son. I’d been his hero in many ways, maybe most ways, until eight years ago when I felt it necessary to leave the church that had been the spiritual and social center of our lives. A divorce followed immediately, far more my doing than my ex-wife’s. Our three children were hurt and confused. I seemed like a completely different person to all of them. And to be sure, in many ways I was. But of the three, I think the hardest hit was my son.

Don’t ever tell me that kids are resilient regarding such emotional trauma. They are, but that’s far too dismissive of the extent of pain that… some divorce? Most divorces? Our divorce, anyway, caused. Suffice it to say that his trust in me was severely damaged. It’s been a long road to get to where we are at this point. Maybe some of you can relate.

As I sat in my truck, I felt some interesting emotions arise within me. Pride, certainly. That was understandable, I guessed and easily traced from emotion back to the “trigger,” the news I’d received. Pride for him, pride in myself as a parent, and pride in my ex-wife who weathered some indescribable storms to remain the rock for him that he needed her to be. All this pride is fine, particularly when it’s identified and not allowed to become embedded in my own story and self-worth, or those applied to Alex.

But what were these other emotions?

I felt something akin to increased love. This wasn’t very clear to me. I thought I loved him unconditionally. If so, how could I feel an increase because of something so transitory? And what was this, a sense of relief? I’d known by observing Alex for the past several years—in his choice of a partner, in the careful planning and execution of his studies, and in excellent performance during an internship—that he would do fine in this world. I sat by the side of the road in sideways blowing snow, considering a storm of emotion that seemed to dwarf the one blowing outside.

In many ways, I don’t have the answers to these questions. None can be fleshed out in this essay, anyway.

What was interesting to me was the idea that good news can be a trigger as much as the less welcome. Like most of us, I’m familiar with rage that can boil up when I see what looks like injustice. I know all too well the feeling of discouragement when I get “bad news” and can root it out to its source and its self-centered meaning almost automatically. I’ve found it generally has less to do with the news itself than what my mind does with it, spinning it into stories of unworthiness and abandonment.

But this had a different flavor. The opposite flavor, actually.

I concluded that it was still ego. That meant that some inner part(s) of me was clamoring to make sense of the news that anyone would take as a true achievement. It was as if each egoic self, seated at typewriters in various dark offices, had been handed a news flash. “Stop the presses!” Each yelled in his own tongue. “This changes everything!” And then they got to work rewriting their own stories; stories of who they are, why they’re that way, and how my son’s performance proves it.

In the end, the lesson I learned was that a trigger is a trigger. What the moment brings is unique to that moment. It’s never happened before and never will again, not like that. The emotion that arises is a breadcrumb trail leading from event to ego. In my case, this time, more than one ego was involved.

So, what do we do when a triggering event of a positive nature happens, whether caused by ourselves, a family member, or an individual with whom we’re somehow connected?

We do the same thing we do when triggered by less-welcome news. We return to the breath. We see what we own and what we don’t. We let some go and retain what seems healthy and helpful. We feel our feet on the ground and look to the sky. In the end, it’s all practice. It’s all meditation. It’s life.

I don’t know what my son is going to do. He’s created more options than I was able to create at his young age. His future looks to be very bright. The trick is to not take it personally. It’s not about me. It has no effect on my own worth, or on who I am. Or who Alex is, really.

So, I smiled, started my truck, and continued my day, feeling my breath come and go like the tide; like a fortune. I was able, this time, to see the ego in the good news. I felt grounded. I felt peaceful.

But wow… Oxford!

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