My daughter is graduating from eighth grade today. I bought her a card and gift, both which reflect a few of my fundamental wishes for her. Despite spending $6.00 for the card (why are cards so expensive?!), and despite Shakespeare's counsel that "brevity is the soul of wit," I realized there isn't remotely enough room to communicate my wishes, no matter how small the font.
It's not merely my verbosity. (Well, maybe partially.) Thinking of her, I'm filled with great emotion and thoughts that are desperate to flow like the Mississippi River. The only self-imposed barrier to regulate the velocity is an understanding that it must be age- (or, rather, ability-) appropriate.
She might find some of my suggestions difficult to understand. That's OK. As her father, my responsibilities include providing and engaging her in meaningful challenges that help her develop the skills for self-sustainment. (Besides, I have little patience for the trite and inconsequential.) It is my hope she will return to re-read these words often as she matures and her capacity for comprehension increases. After all, even as adults, we don't always understand what we read, appreciate the wisdom within, and integrate it with other knowledge in our repertoire. As the joke goes, knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
Anything worth anything requires some struggle. Although she might find some of my wishes for her uninteresting, tedious or, perhaps, even undesirable, I have complete confidence that my daughter, at some point, will understand all that is written below. She's a very capable girl, which a few of my anecdotes below prove, and has the ability to rise to a challenge. As for what she decides to internalize and integrate into her being, well... because wishing doesn't make it so...
Those choices are up to her.
My gift to you
May this necklace inspire and remind you of your own identity and the greatness of that spirit. The text is from an 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley called Invictus. It represents one of my many wishes for you not only to learn but also to internalize and integrate as part of your approach to life. Albeit morose, the full poem is as follows:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The basic idea is this: ultimately, it is you who decides what to value, what to think, how to live your life, how hard to work at it, and who you want in it. Although your choices and actions influence events, you don't get to decide what life throws at you. Sometimes you get lucky; sometimes you don't.
For example, and as you know, my sister - your aunt, whom you knew only briefly - grew up terribly ill with cancer. As a result, and although I wasn't the one who was sick, my childhood and teenage years were anything but what many consider happy and "normal." Chance drives so much in our lives, but it is you who chooses your character. It is your character that provides a framework for guiding your decisions. The character you choose is based on your ability to reason. (More on this later.)
As your father, your character development is one of the most important aspects of my life.
As the card says, I wish you the "courage to be who you want to be, do what you want to do, and live your life true to you." No matter your journey, your inner-brightness and strength will help guide your choices. But, more than anything else, to stay "true" to yourself (i.e., to live with integrity), always rely on your own intellectual judgment. It is your intellect - your knowledge and ability to reason - on which your self-esteem and conviction are based (your "unconquerable soul" in Henley's words). Learn from others, but be intellectually independent by forming your own principles with your own mind and thoughts. And, as the magnet with the card suggests, never be content with someone else's definition of you.
My dearest daughter and graduate, I hope you will heed this advice. It will better prepare you for the circumstance and chance of life to which Henley refers.
Master your most important tool
Teenage graduation gifts have come a long way since I was a kid. The only gift I remember receiving at graduation was a disposable razor given to each of the fourteen-year old boys with the advice to begin practicing; for, very soon, we'd need to start using it. I didn't realize it at the time but, looking back, I think the advice is more useful than the razor, especially if applied both broadly and specifically to Henley's poem. Learn to master the tools before you need them.
What's the most important tool sweetheart? Unquestionably, your brain.
As we can't stop the hands of time, the opportunities we miss in life because we didn't have the proper tools or knowledge might be lost forever. The harder and more diligently you work to improve your mind, the more opportunities you'll be able to recognize and go after. As a singer, I know you can appreciate this. To sing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall as a teenager is such a rare opportunity. You accomplished this because you achieved the necessary mastery of voice and music knowledge before the opportunity presented itself. You were ready for it. (And I still listen to that concert at least once a week. It's so beautiful, just like you.)
But not all of life will be a happy tune. Remember what you sang at Carnegie Hall on opening night? Of course you do: the famous and infamous Carmina Burana. Absolutely gorgeous music, but what's it about? "O Fortuna velut luna statu variabilis..." Oh fortune. Like the moon, you are always changing. In other words, always expect change (except from a vending machine). As Henley also described so beautifully, life is filled with pain and sorrow. Regrettably, it's unavoidable. I know too well you've already experienced more than a taste, and I am in despair about it on a daily basis. Your mastery of the intellect prepares you to face such black nights with strength and without fear. So prepare yourself sunshine girl.
It's true: sometimes, the more you open your eyes with knowledge, the greater your suffering. Snidely, it's often said that ignorance is bliss. I still find it beyond astounding how many people intentionally maintain ignorance or outright lie about what they know to be untrue for the purposes of keeping their false sense of happiness and self-esteem. My advice to you is never do this, but you will have to make your own decision. Another famous poet who wrote about the soul, Alfred Tennyson, put it this way: "Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all." It's usually quoted philosophically as a question, like this: "Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?"
In other words, and in the same vein as Tennyson, opening your eyes with knowledge to important truths leads to a critical question that you, alone, must ultimately answer for yourself: is it better to feel pain from the truths that knowledge brings than to feel a false sense of happiness (or nothing at all) from ignorance? It's often said "the truth hurts," but they also say "the truth sets you free." Which is it? Both.
What's at risk when you ignore knowledge and the associated truths? Well, what would happen if you ignored the knowledge that you can't fly and jumped off a house? Obviously, the truth is you'd get hurt. When people are ignorant to knowledge and truth, the horrors created - especially for children - are beyond traumatic. Perish the thought you ever have your life turned upside-down like this young girl in the video, a dramatized innocent victim of other people's ignorance.
But, there are more than physical dangers associated with "faking reality" (which is what we call it when someone ignores knowledge and truth) - you risk destroying your self-esteem (i.e., the way you judge yourself). A low sense of self can be just as devastating, if not more, than physical pain. Ask any alcoholic, drug addict, bulimic, et al. A lack of self-esteem is solely the result of a lack of genuine (by you), meaningful (to you) accomplishment. Please don't ever try to make yourself believe you're happy with yourself when, deep down, you know you're not. Please don't ever put on an act to make others believe you're happy when you're not. Come to me. Let me help you. Whenever you choose, I can, and I will. I promise.
My dearest daughter, as you grow and if you're interested, I'd be excited and honored to help you understand the significance of these questions and ideas. I wish someone had offered to challenge and help me with this when I was your age. I didn't start asking the questions or learn about these ideas until my early thirties. That was far too late and the consequences were devastating. But, as I implied, although I can prompt you, I can't answer these questions for you. You, alone, must do that. Most all of your life, as well as the lives of others, will be based on how much importance and priority you give to knowledge and truth.
The philosophy of music
It's mused that we never grow up; we only learn how to act in public. Being young comes with so many wonderful attributes - purity, innocence, playfulness, genuineness, and curiosity, to name but a few - that are often lost as we put on our act. (I sometimes wonder if this contributed to the origin of the joke "you're never too old to learn something stupid.") Fundamentally critical for mastering the intellect is to remain eternally curious. How does this work? Why does it work like this? What would happen if it worked differently? How could it work better? What does it imply about how other things work? What does this suggest about the fundamentals of life? What are the fundamentals of life?
In other words, my beautiful girl, to stay curious, study philosophy (a Greek term which literally means "love of wisdom"). I hadn't any idea how critical this was when I was young. No one told me or taught me. I wish someone had.
Coincidentally, that you love music works significantly in your favor to answer these types of questions. There are such wonderful benefits from music to help develop the mind (which have even been proven scientifically).
For example, although it's not always the case, music lyrics can be amazingly philosophical and help you learn to think deeply. Take one of the songs you sang last week at your spring concert (which was awesome, by the way): Brave by Sara Bareilles. The tune is terrific, but remember the lyrics? Sara wants her listeners to think about the importance of honesty. She's egging you on to be courageous and face the truth. Don't let the "shadow" win by keeping the truth in the dark, she advises. "Let the light in." Show her "how big your brave is." She wonders: what would happen?
Don't her words make you curious? What do you think would happen if more people took her advice? What do you want to say that isn't being said? Would you be willing to show me how big your brave is?
Or take Credo by Mark Hayes, which your choir also sang that evening. Another beautiful song, but how about those lyrics? "Who am I? Who shall I become? Who am I to dare to dream that I may be the one who will change the world, who will make a difference, who will reach beyond the stars? Who am I? Who am I? I am imagination. I am creativity. I am determination. I am every possibility. I am the present. I am the future. I have so much to give to the world. I am love. I am hope. I am a servant. I am peace..." (If I could fit all that on a pretty pendant, I'd buy it for you.) Mark wants you to think as well. What do you stand for? Who do you choose to be?
You're so expressive when you sing. It's lovely to watch baby. (Yes, I know you're not a baby anymore. It's a term of endearment.) But don't just feel the sounds and lyrics. Think about them. What do they mean to you? Why do they make you feel as you do?
These are all philosophical questions, and it's almost never too early for kids to start exploring philosophy. Learning to ask, research, debate, reason through, and answer them will make you a better person. It will help build your character.
Grade school was easy
I know you never enjoyed the times I helped you study. I pushed you to achieve. I pushed you hard, and harder than anyone else. I pushed you past what you thought were your limits. I make no apologies. Although you fought with me about it, I saw the absolute glee in your face when your hard work (and mine) paid off. Even now, just thinking about your enormous smile when you succeeded makes me melt. It is upon those payoffs - those accomplishments - that all genuine self-esteem is based.
For example, do you remember when we studied the entire weekend for a math exam for which you were completely unprepared? Do you remember how you felt when I picked you up from school, only to receive a call in the car minutes later from your teacher Mr. S. telling me what an amazing job you did, and that you were the only person in the class to earn 100%? I sure remember how I felt: I was overjoyed. Only with a telescope could I have looked down to see cloud nine. Your teacher was so complimentary of me for helping you master the material with which you had struggled, and all in one weekend at that (which, it appears, you admitted to him when he announced in class that you were the only one to achieve a perfect score). He was so ecstatic for you. He knew you could do it. So did I.
Darling daughter, all you needed was to allocate the appropriate time and effort in combination with the proper instruction. You didn't know (or appreciate) what you needed. I did. You aren't expected to know. I am. We did it together and, as a result, you did better than good - you attained perfection. And, rightfully so, you felt brilliant.
Now I have an admission to make: I didn't (and don't) push you to succeed in order for us to feel great when you do. That's a huge benefit, no doubt, but it's not my primary motivation. Call it icing on the cake. Even though I'd love to see you develop a passion for and pursue science, math, or engineering (unlike I did), the primary reason I push you is to help teach you the discipline required for a healthy intellect.
You see, being smart in a particular subject alone isn't enough. Over the course of history, many of the biggest atrocities and devastations in the world were committed by people who were smart in a particular subject (like science or politics) but wholly lacking in other subjects (like ethics), or by people unable (or unwilling) to integrate knowledge from multiple sources, or by people who didn't know how to reason properly. In other words, they hadn't mastered the intellect. Effectively, they were smart but didn't know how to think. That might sound like a contradiction, but it's not. There isn't any such thing as a contradiction in reality. If you ever believe a contradiction exists, check your premises. One of them is wrong. (As an aside, in a few years when you're older, I hope you will read the book in which that insight is described.)
But here's the key point: discipline doesn't just apply to school. It's much broader. Discipline is about perfecting your mental faculties and moral character. These are its most important applications. Discipline is not punishment. I do not want you to learn discipline because I'm interested in your obedience (after all, I want you to think independently!). Instead, I want you to learn discipline because I want you to (continue to) be an intelligent and morally good person.
That's why, for example, on that ruinous night a little over two years ago, we fought about your bed time. It's a night you and I will likely never forget. Of course, you could have gone to sleep later, even though you had stayed up very late the night before during your double-sleepover. I was concerned about your health, sure, but that wasn't my primary motivation for wanting you to go to sleep on-time. And I wasn't punishing you for bad behavior. I was trying to teach you self-discipline. It's critical to your entire being that you learn to self-regulate your own behaviors (e.g., if you stay up late the night before and enjoy two enormously active days in a row, you should give your body a rest so it remains healthy). But don't get me wrong: it's not just about health - it's about learning cause and effect, which applies to everything.
In other words, it's about learning to reason. I'm not being dramatic at all when I say that your life (and, sometimes, even the lives of others) depends on your ability to reason.
This is why another fundamentally critical ability for mastering the intellect is learning self-discipline. (First, you need to understand and appreciate the value of discipline. Only then can you master it for yourself.) Candidly sweetheart, from what I've seen, this is an area in which you will see enormous benefits if you choose to improve. But you, alone, must make the choice to do so.
It's nothing to be ashamed or defensive about. You're a teenager. Self-discipline isn't a priority for teenagers. Teenagers don't yet have the intellectual and emotional maturity to always make the most informed, thoughtful decisions. (And, I might add, this applies to many adults, too. After all, ageing alone doesn't improve the intellect. You have to choose to work at it. Many adults don't.) So, as you roll your eyes as you read these words, I get it. I was there once, too. But, I assure you, the sooner you understand and internalize the value of self-discipline, the sooner you'll realize the enormous benefits.
Self-discipline is very important in high school (and critical in college when your parents aren't there to prod you to do your homework or study harder for an exam). Grade school was a walk in the park relative to the challenges you'll face in high school. For example, in grade school, if you got behind in math for whatever reason (e.g., difficult material, not putting in enough time or effort, not understanding the fundamentals), it was still possible to catch up in one (long, tedious) weekend and attain success. To do that in high school is much, much more difficult. There are too many subjects. The knowledge you are attempting to acquire is much more advanced and taught more quickly. Combined with all the extra-curricular activities you'll want to do, I'll bet you are starting to get an idea of how emotionally stressful it will be if you lack self-discipline.
And, if you think applying to high schools was tough (and disappointing), wait until you apply to colleges. No amount of crammed extra tutoring will help you at the last minute if high school doesn't go well. So choose to learn self-discipline now. Choose to work hard to achieve it. Most all of your other achievements will rest on its foundation.
And please - let me help you. I can't - and won't - force myself upon you. We've already proven I can help and we've already proven you're capable. Everything you need to succeed is right here. I'm very willing and waiting. But, as I've said to you countless times, the choice is ultimately yours.
Your homework assignment
"Here I am, finally graduating and getting a well-deserved break from school, and here he is giving me a homework assignment! That's the kind of father he is!"
Yes sweetheart, that IS the kind of father I am. Please just hear me out and let me describe my proposal. You might quickly reject it the first time you read through it. Give it a few days, or even weeks. Read through it multiple times. You might find the idea grows on you.
Each person is like a book. A person's life is a story composed of many different but integrated chapters. Like all good literature, there are four important elements: theme (i.e., the central idea or abstract meaning of a story; what the integration of everything in the story adds up to), plot (i.e., the progression of cause-and-effect events leading to the resolution of the climax), characterization (i.e., the description of traits that communicate the characters' personalities; what they do, say, and think), and style (i.e., the way you tell the story; how you present it).
Over fourteen years of your life's story have already been "written." If you were to formally write about it, what would you describe as the central idea or meaning of your life so far? What were the events that led up to various climaxes? How would you describe the traits and personalities of friends, family, acquaintances, strangers, teachers, et al. who have impacted your life? Even though you're not a drama queen, what parts of your life would you describe dramatically? What parts of your life would you report more matter-of-factly?
Now, kick your imagination and desires into high gear. What do you want your life to stand for going forward? What do you want to accomplish in five years? Ten years? Twenty years? What steps would you take to get to each plateau? Where will you travel and how will those places impact your direction? What events can you envision getting in the way? When they occur, how will you feel and how would you handle them? What might you not be prepared for? If you were twenty years older, what would you want to go back and say to your fourteen-year old self? Who will you meet along your journey? What are they like? Did you seek them out, or did they randomly appear? What actions did you and they take? How did they think?
Did you ultimately get where you wanted to go? Were you happy with your journey? Looking back, would you have done anything differently? Do you have any regrets?
I'm sure, by now, you see where I'm going with this. Your homework assignment, should you accept it, is to be a storyteller of your own life, describing your journey thus far and what you imagine the paths and forks to be. Make it dramatic. Give it purpose. Show the progression of events (i.e., cause and effect). What kind of person does my darling daughter turn out to be? How does she lead her life? What does she struggle to achieve? What events shape her outlook? What happens in the story?
What a brilliant story this could be! A story of identity and the greatness of the spirit within. I would help you edit it and even help you get it published. I'll bet everyone you know would want to buy a copy of your book. I'll bet many others would as well. Wouldn't it be the coolest thing ever to go into a book store and see your book on the shelf? What would you name it?
Getting started can sometimes be a writer's biggest challenge. In case you need it, let me offer a suggestion to help:
The World According to Me
I've seen many pictures and videos of me, from the time when I was still in my mom's belly until now. My father put a screen saver on my computer that flashes a picture every five seconds of some random event in my life. There are thousands. Most always with a smile. Sometimes with a smile but without teeth. Sometimes without clothes. (Blush.) Sometimes with finger paints as my only cover. Lots of vibrant colors. At lots of different places around the country, and even the world. And with lots and lots of people. Little Ms. Social Butterfly - that's me. (I got that gene from my mom. I don't think my dad can even spell social.)
So many exciting and wonderful things I've experienced in my short fourteen years on Earth. From all the videos and pictures, I guess my parents think I'm special. But I'm a teenager now, starting to think independently and beginning to explore my rebellious side. (Come on! You know you have one, too.) So I'm here to think about if I agree with them. Because, as you know, parents aren't always right.
The first memory I have of life is...
Before you say no, how about we at least go out for banana splits and talk about it (or anything else in this letter)?
Your graduation to high school should make you feel proud, and I congratulate you. You are capable of accomplishing great things as you grow. The more you develop your intellect, the greater your success will be. Writing a book about the wonderful subject of you would be a fantastic way to develop your intellect. I guarantee your growth would be enormous. It's not enough to desire something in life and get it. Wishing doesn't make it so. Your goals will require discipline. Knowledge. Truth. Self-esteem. Writing this book would help you. It would be an absolute blast to write. And, for me, it might just be the best father-daughter activity I could ever possibly imagine.
What can I offer you, in trade, for you to write it?
Expressions of love
A final thought, as I desperately want you to know and internalize one of the most important aspects (to me) of being your father. There's a picture framed in our home that communicates it brilliantly: "A father has everything one needs to lean on, but is made to help one stand alone." Yes, you are the master of your own fate and the captain of your own soul. But, to become a master requires mastery of certain skills. And to become a captain requires you to take responsibility for precious cargo - yourself.
There is still plenty of work to be done. So, whenever I appear tough on you, or challenge you, or encourage you to try new activities, or disagree with some of your choices and actions, or make decisions that cause you to be angry, or prod you to think for yourself, try to remember that picture. Perhaps it will make my efforts easier to appreciate and bear. Being a father is the most important job in my life. I want to do it. Sometimes you'll let me. Sometimes you won't. It's all up to you.
I know you're sometimes confused by what I say or do. It's not your fault and the reasons are beyond the scope of this letter. But, no matter my actions or the approach I take, know that I do what I do as a father who loves you dearly and, someday, you might do the same as a mother for children you will love just as dear.
P.S. - Now, about that ice cream... interested?