Sometimes when I explain my actions when I was young I will say, “I was young and dumb, with an emphasis on dumb.” As I have gotten older, I have come to see just how little I knew when I was young, and how good it would have been if I had had a few more clues than I did. I am going to try, in no particular order, the present what a few of those clues should have been.
Clue One: Everything will be all right. When I was just 10 years old my father had his first heart attack. Until that time everything had been all right. But his heart attack brought into sharp focus how unpredictable life can be. My mother, a registered nurse, took really good care of him. But we were told that he might not live. Fortunately he did, and for another 11 years at that. But it was at that point I really needed to hear my first “everything will be all right.” This was not a short-coming of my mother but a societal short-coming. Parenting was a strictly on-the-job training experience. And in this case, no one was there to tell my mother that everything will be all right. My point is: we really have very little control over what happens in our present and our future. In reality we can only control our own actions, reactions and thoughts. After that, we really have only a little control over our kids, our pets, and pretty much everything else. Kids, pets and everyone else are going to do what they want regardless of how we feel. But if we take care of ourselves and do our best along with doing the next right thing, for the most part, things will be all right. Still, we need to hear that reassurance from those closest to us. And in that respect, we need to choose our friends wisely.
Clue two: Learn to study. I went through 12 years of public school and 7 years of college without ever running into a course on how to study. For that reason, at the end of my junior year in high school I had to transfer to a prep school, repeat my junior year, and continue on with my education. Part of my problem was, as my mother use to put it, I was just too smart for my own good. That is, from grades one through five I existed entirely on my own intelligence and ability to grasp what was put in front of me. That meant I did not need to study to get an A. The change started in the fifth grade. My grades went from all As to Bs, Bs and Cs and in high school Cs and Ds. As things got more difficult, I had no process for overcoming the challenges before me. The only thing prep school did was it took away television and mobility from me. By restricting some of my actions I was, in effect, forced to work harder on my school work. My grades improved and in my senior year I was doing well enough to get into a very good college. Once in college, however, I was entirely overwhelmed and it took only a semester for me to drop out. Over the next decade and a half I struggled to get through college, but finally did.
There is nothing natural about studying. I think some people, a very few, are self-motivated enough to be single minded about education which carries them through their education. But for most of us, someone needs to tell us how to successfully study. It turns out that study is not difficult, but it does require a degree of structure and commitment. Without that, most of us flail around until we either “get it” or fail. One of the most effective study techniques is really just asking the teacher/professor questions relative to those things we do not understand. But this requires our belief system to understand that, regardless of how our questions sound or the other person’s reaction to them, they are necessary and we will be all right.
Clue Three: Always be honest. Most people will say they are honest. And to some degree that will true. The problem is simple, our perception of what being honest is like. If you were to ask those same people if it is all right to tell a lie to save someone’s feelings, most would say that it is. But what that statement really says is that they are willing to compromise with the truth. If you asked that same group of people if they have ever exaggerated things they have accomplished they would probably say they had. Again, honesty is compromised.
I believe there are two main reasons people lie, shame and fear. We do something that we feel ashamed of and when confronted with what we’ve done, the tendency is to deny and effectively lie. The other thing, when we do not want to say something which may hurt someone’s feelings, is to tell them what we think they want to hear. But the dishonesty there is that we deny the person the right to deal with their own feelings speculating that our judgment is superior to their ability to handle bad news. We tell ourselves that we are doing the right thing when in fact we are not. But since we tend to repeat such actions over and over, in time we convince ourselves that it is the right thing to do. We have become dishonest with ourselves, a truly fatal flaw.
Clue Four: Take care of yourself. That phrase, take care of yourself, is rather commonly used when two people are parting ways, another way of saying good-bye. But my meaning is the literal, take care of yourself. That means in mind, body and spirit. Of those three, the spirit is by far the most important. I look as spirit as that part of ourselves that when things get tough, we find the inner strength to push through, and in the end, expect that everything will be all right. That can be really tough, particularly when we are facing life altering or even possible life ending things. But in the mundane, everyday things, our spirit is what tells us that we need to get out and exercise, go to the doctor when we feel sick, and tell someone of our problems, particularly when we are feeling overwhelmed.
Self-care becomes particularly difficult when the thing we are up against is somehow shameful in our mind. It is at that exact time that we need to confide in someone and unless we have trained ourselves to do that, we will opt for pushing down inside ourselves, totally contrary to the ideal of self-care.
It took me a long time to figure out something which should have been obvious. If I take care of all the little things in my life, the big things will work out and everything will be all right. Feeling good about myself and my future is all about taking care of myself today.
Clue Five: Give a damn! I think one of the reasons I embraced liberal politics was this inner belief that when reasonable, we need to help other people. There are times in our lives when we need to be selfless and give of ourselves to another person. Simply put, it means that when someone needs our help, within reason, we help them. A friend of mine once told me of an experience he had with his mother. They were out one day when they came across a homeless man. His mother gave him twenty dollars and told him to give it to the man. He objected saying why not ten or five, thinking twenty was too much. She told him that was God lying there.
But helping is usually much easier than that. Most of the time it simply means we listen to someone who is troubled, trying to understand them, and help them, where possible, through their trouble. Because if we do take the time to listen to someone else is means, for us, everything will be all right.