Dropping Off My Kid At School, And A Note (Sort Of) For Him On The Only 10 Things You Need To Know.

I dropped my son off at High School a couple of days ago, and left him there… to live. It’s the time of year when countless parents are going through the same thing, at Universities and High Schools around the country, and I’ve learned that there are a lot of support groups dedicated to this activity.

It’s a time filled with emotion, and it turns out that there is a fair amount of ebb and flow to the days before, and the days after.

It didn’t turn out how I expected.

Like all massive events, we predict the moment, then we ride along on that wave of time, helpless to control or prevent the zero minute as it approaches. When it does, invariably it is nothing like we expected, so it wasn’t surprising… and then it’s gone.

I thought I’d prepared myself for just about everything, but when that final moment came, when I had to leave, the only thing I could manage to feel was a kind of wonder at what a weirdly awesome kid I had. And, what struck me, as I was walking away, was what a load of crap it is to think that we “make” our kids. In thinking that he was awesome, I immediately felt a certain pride. After all, if he’s awesome, I did that, right? Which is when I thought, “Oh my God, what complete, self-absorbed bullshit that entire line of thought is.” I didn’t make him. He made me.

But, I thought, he still doesn’t know everything, so I thought I’d give him a handy guide to life, as I see it, and give him a list of what’s really important. You know, the things that, whatever else happens, I keep coming back to… over a lot of years.

I was going to start the list with “Fear is the mind-killer,” because no book ever became so much a part of me as Dune, but I found out that he already owns that one. In the weeks that led up to his going off to High School, he had been so bizarrely unafraid, and of so many things, that I don’t think there is much to offer him there. But, in a general list, you have to include it.

So, as my own way of working through the fact that, if nothing else, he isn’t here to catch, here’s the list of the only ten things you need to know… seriously, it’s the whole list. It’s not 10 Things To Make Sure You’re Happy, Or Successful, or anything else… it’s just all there is. Mostly, everything else follows from these things. That’s been my experience anyway.

*By the way, the list is written as a completely general piece, and shouldn’t be taken as “talking” to one specific person… even though it claims to be.

1. Everyone is more important than you, and you are more important than everyone else.

Virtually all of your day-to-day problems will stem from misapplication of this concept. Most importantly, no matter what anyone else (or any self-help book) tells you, splitting this apart, either way, will lead you down the wrong path.

Whenever you’re stressed, irritated, angry, sad, or otherwise feeling that life, and other people, only exist to cause problems in your life, it’s most likely because you’re thinking with only one side of the equation.

“Who do you think you are?” is something you should also say to yourself once in a while.

Once you actually put them together in your mind, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

2. Almost everything you think about other people is shit you’re making up based on virtually no evidence.

There are a lot of ways this goes wrong, but one of the major flaws in thinking comes from the fact that people generally believe that other people think the way they do.

Actually, the way people think is as unique as their personality, and is similarly constructed over the course of their life as a result of their individual set of experiences.

Basically, people “do” interacting with people wrong, because when someone does, or says, something, “you” analyze that behavior based on the way “you” think, what “you” believe, and how “you” would have come to that action.

For example, when someone says something, and you think, “What a jerk,” you’re coming to that conclusion based on what you would “mean” if you said the same thing, and why you would have said it. But, you’re a cynical, misanthropic bastard, and if you say, “That’s a nice sweater,” in a perfectly nice, flowery voice, you mean, “The fact that you’re stupid enough to wear that hurts my brain,” but that doesn’t mean everyone means that every time they say those words.

Now, sometimes the objective evidence can be pretty overwhelming, and obviously there are plenty of times that people very clearly are trying to be jerks, and the very notion of a “cultural norm” is trying to “tune” yourself to a certain standard that, theoretically, makes it easier to figure these things out, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are still “seeing” people through a lens of the way you think.

What’s the point?

The thing to remember, in most relationships, is that you really have no evidence. Most of the time, what you consider as evidence when analyzing the way that bitch did or didn’t talk to you, or your spouse spoke, shrugged, rolled his eyes, slouched, or whatever, most likely necessitates that they thought about what they say or do fifty times longer than the time actually available. Just because you thought about what they did for hours, doesn’t mean they had that kind of time to prepare to do it. Surprisingly, no one in your life thinks about you as much as you do.

You know the old gag about two people describing an event, and they don’t seem to be describing the same thing at all. Really, that’s pretty much how every single moment of human interaction works.

Why? Because you just don’t think the same way they do, and experiences and interactions don’t make it through your lenses the same way.

Why is it so important to know? Basically, because give people a break. Seriously, who do you think you are anyway?

3. Don’t overcorrect.

Day-to-day problems come from one place, the majority of humanity’s serious blunders come from another. Unfortunately, it’s a natural, and mostly automatic reaction to almost every situation. You learned about it when you were learning to drive, but the problem exists everywhere, and it makes sense. If staying away from the wild animals is good, staying really far away can’t be bad. If that berry poisoned you, not eating any berries isn’t a bad idea.

Unfortunately, most of life is a lot more like driving a car. Avoiding the tree on the right side of the road isn’t a problem that is solved by driving off the cliff on the left side. The way that usually works out in life is closer to simply being just slightly off the center line, and driving off a cliff in response.

4. You never honestly told anyone you love them who didn’t already know.

It may come as a surprise, but what emotions are, which ones actually “exist,” and how they work (if there is any such thing), is a subject of much debate in the world of philosophy. Another way to put that is simply to say that the question, “What is Love?” is alive and well. For some, love is actually just a shorthand way of talking we have, and it only really refers to a big bag of other attitudes and beliefs we have about other people.

Whatever love is, it doesn’t exist in the vacuum of you, and has a lot more connection to interactions than it does to your own thoughts and feelings. You may “something” another person who is surprised by the fact, and it may even be something legitimate and “real” (though you might want to wonder about that), but you don’t love them.

It may sound complicated, and even crazy, but it’s hard to argue against the idea that at least some requisite part of love (if not the sum totality of it) is its expression “out there,” as some part of the other person’s experiences.

We’re all good with the idea that if you walk up to someone and tell them that you love them upon first meeting them, you’re just wrong, but what does it take for it to go right? The exact particulars may be open for debate, but if they don’t know, you don’t.

5. There is being happy because of and being happy in spite of and only one of them is actually being happy.

With the possible exception of statements like, “I haven’t eaten in four days, and a sandwich would really make me happy,” there is no real connection between happiness and the outside world.

Part of the problem here, beyond the idea that consumerist culture is trying to make money by convincing you that you aren’t happy, and it can sell you the widget that will get you there, is what I like to call The Thanksgiving Dinner View.

A large part of a person’s life, especially as they are growing into it, is spent trying to figure out how to be happy, or at least, what the positives are. Ok, I tasted spinach, that wasn’t great. Went swimming, that was cool. And then, add everything you ever do, and toss it in one pile or the other.

Then you start looking at things like you’re about to be on the spot at Thanksgiving. You start thinking about what could happen that you would say you were thankful for it next year. If I won the lottery, I would be thankful for that. No one ever said, “I’m thankful for having almost no money, and none of the stuff I see in commercials.”

The very idea behind trying to figure out how to list the things that make you happy, or the reasons you’re happy, leads to its own conclusion. If you can list what makes you happy, then what must make you happy are things you can list.

It’s an example of trying to figure out how to talk about things throwing the whole enterprise out of whack. It’s doubly tricky, because it does seem like being thankful for things means they made you happy.

Study after study (here’s just one quick example, you can easily find dozens) shows that happy people really have nothing in common, with the possible exception of being relatively social, or at least considering themselves as social as they’d like to be. They are not the recipients of more objectively positive life events, and are pretty evenly dispersed among all walks of life.

What they do generally have in common, is the view that happiness is not a thing that happens once something else lands at your door. You can easily list things that you are thankful for, but what makes you happy is you.

6. You’re pretty stupid and you’re wrong a lot.

So… now shit gets real.

You could go back to the famous story of Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi (though people are loathe to give that a long, hard look) but basically, it should be common knowledge that there is so much you don’t know that there is no way to even accurately calculate how much you don’t know, and you’re wrong about almost everything to a degree that it would take years to get you to understand. You still wouldn’t be right, you’d just truly fathom the depths of your wrongness.

People play along with this idea in certain ways, but mostly they can’t be bothered to try to really put it together. This is especially true if you try to look at all the different kinds of things there are to know.

If you even take a serious look at what it means to know something, you would, hopefully, be ashamed at the conviction with which you say most of what you manage to get out of your mouth during a day.

You know, for example, that smoking causes cancer, right? But, think about that for a second. It’s a safe bet that you don’t. (I’m not proposing that it doesn’t, just that you don’t know that it does.) What you know is that someone says it does. You didn’t read the actual studies, and even then you’d be taking someone’s word for the fact that those are the results.

Sure, at some point this just goes nonsensical, but think about all of the things you know, and all of the things you used to “know” that you now know aren’t true.

But, for all that it may be fun to call people stupid, the point isn’t that you’re wrong all the time, and know very little when it comes down to it, but that people are predisposed to being committed to their current state of inadequacy. Suggesting that people are wrong has become a new affront to their personhood. Who do you think you are anyway?

If you aren’t wrong, then you have nothing to learn, and you have everything to learn… no matter how much you learn.

7. If you say, “but,” you’re not sorry.

It sounds simple, but it’s a concept that eludes people, and our culture generally. There are obviously tons of reasons the idea of apology itself has gone wrong, but one of the big ones seems to be the idea that we are now a culture that wants desperately to avoid being wrong in the first place (see above). This makes for competing views that are hard to mesh. On the one hand, you should apologize when you do something wrong. On the other, admitting that you’re wrong, in any sense, means you are a bad, possibly horrible person. Actions are identity.

I actually blame the world of film and television for this, at least to some extent. People are so used to poor scripts, and one-dimensional characters, that a certain mindset becomes hard to avoid. A person who does a certain thing is a certain kind of person. End of story. We only have 90 minutes to deliver the whole picture, move on.

Thus, since apologizing means admitting you did a certain thing, you have to try to reconcile that with the fact that you don’t want to be a certain kind of person. So… I’m sorry, but here are my reasons, excuses, explanations for why I did a certain thing, and it isn’t exactly “my fault.” These probably relate to you and/or what you did that “caused” me to do what I did, which means that it’s your fault I did the thing… well, wait… that seems to have gone wrong.

You either wish that you could have not done a thing (or done a thing), or you don’t. End of story.

8. The thing you’re saying means almost nothing.

If you hadn’t noticed, you can learn a lot of these things just by hanging out with kids.

Whether you’re a politician, teacher, spouse, parent, or anything else, people actually only care about how and why you’re saying the thing, and how they can relate to how and why you’re saying it. If they can put that together in a way that works for them, then they (may) also attach some meaning to the words that are happening at them.

This is one of those odd things that everyone knows to be true when they think about someone talking to them, but forget exists when they are talking to someone else. It’s also one that will slap you around once in a while.

For me, it came from my four-year-old. She was being particularly irritating, and had done something she wasn’t supposed to after being told for the thousandth time. As I said, she’s four, that’s pretty much the job description. (Also, she’s the best kid ever.)

I was clearly exhibiting signs of great irritation, and trying to find different ways of saying, “That isn’t acceptable behavior,” because saying that rarely gets you far. Suddenly, my daughter started crying a little and smiling, and she looked at me like she was the one in her forties and I was a curious puzzle she had just figured out. It was such a strange thing that I mostly forgot about whatever she had done, and had to ask her what was going on.

As though she had rehearsed the exchange for days, and this wasn’t her first take during the filming of the movie, she said, “I understand, Dad. My teacher told us a lot about behaving, and why it’s important. I love you too.”

None of the words I was saying meant a damn thing to her, and once she forced me to think about it, weren’t what I was trying to say anyway. But, she found a way to relate to why I was saying it, and it turns out that, “Aaarrrggghhhh, because I said so!” has very little to offer in terms of making any connection to anyone else.

You might want to think the idea relates well to the very young, but as I said, you know it relates to you when you’re on the receiving end of things, you just don’t want to think it does when you’re delivering.

9. The most interesting part of life is to Grok things, and you suck at it, which is why it’s interesting.

I feel like I should give Heinlein credit for using his word, but I find it’s in the dictionary now.

Again, you only have to spend a few days with kids of various ages to have this one hit home.

No matter what aspect of life you might want to look at, there’s nothing more interesting than a serious, almost obsessive effort to grok, as a general principle. Every child (assuming the meeting of food, shelter, and other needs) spends the majority of their time in the pursuit of grokking things, until they eventually have it beaten out of them. Seriously, it’s almost all they do, and a good part of any parent’s day is spent trying to get them to knock it off.

Americans started out as a nation of people who largely built their own houses, and morphed into one populated by those for whom their cars might as well be magic boxes. We now have every piece of information ever acquired at our fingertips, and no one wants any of it. Kids go from wanting to know everything about everything to sitting in a classroom offering up the cliche line, “When am I ever going to need to know X?” and no one has a good answer for them. Even if you could convince me that I’m going to need to apply that part of my geometry class in life, I’ve got an App for that.

Don’t let that shit take hold. Grok things. Grok everything.

Kids under ten will tell you an obscure fact about butterflies as though they were announcing that they’ve discovered they can teleport, or turn invisible. And, the problem is that we don’t get that they’re right, it’s just that cool.

10. If you aren’t kind, it doesn’t matter what else you are.

You know why? Because, #1, #2, #6, #7, and #8.

Have fun G, and thanks.

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