“If we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.” — Abraham Lincoln, speaking about his father in 1851
Ever since my son got his computer, he’s been obsessed with a video game called Minecraft, the object of which seems to be the building of Lego-like settlements while fending off marauders.
I’m not happy about my son’s love of video games, although I’m aware that as these things go, it can get a lot worse than Minecraft. Still, my son’s obsession has me worried. As I argue about screen time limits with Nick, I can’t help turning over in my mind what his obsession will mean for him and whether it will always be so.
And I can’t help thinking of Thomas Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, was born in Virginia during the Revolutionary War. The family migrated to Kentucky a few years later, where Thomas’s father, whose name was also Abraham Lincoln, was murdered by Indians while planting the new farm. Eight-year-old Thomas witnessed the attack.
Through what remained of his childhood, Thomas Lincoln was handed from relative to relative. Eventually he learned the carpentry trade, and supplemented his livelihood by farming, although he preferred to hunt. He was a poor businessman, and never learned to write.
Thomas married Nancy Hanks in 1806; they had three children: Sarah, Abraham (the future president), and Thomas Jr., who died in infancy in 1812. In 1816, Thomas moved his young family to a sparsely settled corner of Indiana, where he and his son Abraham cleared a small farm out of the primeval forest. Two years later Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham’s mother, died of milk poisoning.
Thomas left Abraham, ten, and his twelve-year-old sister, Sarah, and went back to Kentucky. Six months later he returned with a new wife, Sarah Bush Lincoln. She was a good woman, who cared for the children as if they were her own.
Thomas discouraged Abraham’s habit of reading, which he considered worthless on the frontier. Eventually, Thomas’s new wife Sarah prevailed on him to allow Abraham to read and study at home.
Thomas apparently didn’t think much of his son, hired him out to local farmers as a day laborer, and was known to beat him on occasion. Abraham left home when he was 22 and never returned. When business brought him back to the area, he stayed with his cousin, Dennis Hanks.
Five years after Lincoln went off on his own, Thomas remarked:
I suppose that Abe is still fooling hisself with eddication. I tried to stop it, but he had got that fool idea in his head, and it can’t be got out. Now I hain’t got no eddication, but I get along far better than ef I had . . . . if Abe don’t fool away all his time on his books, he may make something yet.
Lincoln never invited his father to Springfield, the town where he made his name and lived until elected president in 1860. Thomas Lincoln never met any of his grandchildren. When Thomas was on his deathbed in 1851 and made it known he would like to see his son, Lincoln refused to come. Neither did he attend the funeral or have a tombstone put on Thomas’s grave.
Lincoln’s aversion to Thomas is well known, and I tell the story not to make the obvious point that Lincoln’s rise came about in spite of his father. Rather, I want to consider briefly what it must have been like to walk in the shoes of Thomas Lincoln.
Here was a man of a primitive world, who watched his father slain, lived hand to mouth from a boy, then lost a child and a wife. Knowing his surviving children needed a mother, he went to fetch one. Incapable of appreciating his son’s genius, which he saw as an impediment and a threat to the only way of life he’d known, he tried to suppress it.
Now I ask myself, what do Thomas Lincoln and I have in common? Five things overall, as far as I can tell:
1.) Thomas Lincoln and I were the same age when we lost our fathers.
2.) We both lived in eras of change, although his was a time of nation-building while currently that nation slides into senescence.
3.) Both of us did the best we could growing up with what we had.
4.) Neither Thomas had, nor do I have, a clue about our sons’ obsessions.
5.) Thomas feared for his son, as do I for mine.
It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. — Yogi Berra
As Thomas looked down on “eddication,” so I look down on video games. Of course, education is a good thing, and video games are bad. Perhaps. But maybe, like all mind-bending technologies such as writing, alphabets, papyrus scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, moveable type, the telephone, radio, television, computers and the Internet, they just are.
Prospects seem so dim for employment after college these days that many people are asking themselves why bother with college at all. It’s also becoming more and more difficult to separate ourselves from screens, which can now be worn as glasses.
When I was Nick’s age, my mother forbade me to buy comic books. Prevailing wisdom held they would corrupt my tender mind. As I see it now, they loosed my imagination and encouraged a kind of anti-intellectual freedom it’s taken me decades to recover.
So I continue to turn things over in my mind, wondering if my son has capacities I’m not capable of appreciating or even apprehending. Wondering if Nick’s rise, when it comes, will come about in spite of me.
The other day, Nick and I were driving with Nick’s friend Indar and Indar’s dad, Avi.
“You know,” Avi said, “It really amazes me sometimes how these video games can teach my sons some new things. For example, Indar actually has more patience for drawing now.”
“I wish my dad realized things like that,” said Nick.
I shared Thomas Lincoln’s opinion of reading with Nick and showed him the quotation above, the one about Abe not fooling away all his time on books.
“What do you think of that?” I said.
Nick, who knows of my admiration for Abraham Lincoln, idly picked up my iPhone and looked at the screen.
“There’s new versions of your apps,” he said. “Do you want me to update them for you?”
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