A River Runs Through It (1992), directed by Robert Redford

None of our children are alike. Over the years, I have understood more and more the wisdom of King Solomon who instructs parents to “educate a child according to his way,” which implies that parenting is not a cookie-cutter skill. Rather, effective parenting involves understanding the uniqueness of each child and recognizing that success in life can be measured in many different ways. For one, it might be getting an advanced degree; for another, it might be being a very skilled plumber. All we can do is teach children how to navigate life, give them freedom to choose their own path, and pray for the best results.

But, life, like a river, is constantly moving and we can’t always see what is at the bottom. There is a mystery that we cannot penetrate and unpredictable things can happen after the best parenting efforts. You can do everything right, and your child may still make bad decisions. Your hopes and dreams for that child may never be realized. How do you relate to that child and how do you integrate that outcome into your own life?

A River Runs Through It offers suggestions. It is the autobiography of Norman and Paul, brothers who grow up in 1920s Missoula, Montana. Their father, a Presbyterian minister, does his best to parent them while at the same time recognizing their need to follow their own hearts. Fly fishing is the activity that bonds the generations, and is the film’s lyrical metaphor for achieving perfection in life.

Norman and his father have an affinity for poetry. When Norman discovers his dad reciting a Wordsworth poem, Norman chimes in and reads alternate verses; thus they achieve a perfect synchronicity of souls. They truly are on the same wave length.

While Norman achieves academic success, Paul achieves success as a newspaper reporter and fly fisherman, who demonstrates a level of artistic perfection as he catches fish in Blackfoot River. Catching a huge fish in the midst of being pulled by a powerful current is a special moment for Paul and his father, who is unaware of Paul’s addiction to gambling and carousing. We sense that this brief moment of perfection in the life of father and son will not last. As Norman narrates the story of his family as an old man, he observes that “life is not a work of art.” He recognizes that in spite of our best efforts, outcomes are beyond our control.

A classic phrase in Jewish prayer is “Our Father, Our King.” When we ask God for help, we appeal to two aspects of the Divine persona. He is our King, the one who makes the rules, and He is also our Father, always there with unconditional love in spite of our shortcomings. This is the Jewish paradigm for parenting.

Reverend Maclean, father of Norm and Paul, says it eloquently in a sermon: “Each one of you will at one time in your lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the question: we are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is that those we live with and should know, they still elude us. But we can still love them; we can love completely without complete understanding.”

This is a Jewish sensibility, to be present always in the lives of those we love most, both when they make us proud and when they encounter uncertainty or failure.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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