Here’s a bit of a cliché

This is a generic public domain photo that adds nothing to this article whatsoever. It is, ready? A visual cliché.

So you’re sitting in a nondescript English class, the clock is ticking away behind you — the time as always is wrong — and the English teacher is talking slowly, or fast, you can’t really tell which. All you can tell is the sluggish quality of the air. He or she is writing on the board: if you could send a letter to your past self what would you write? What advice would you give? You become vaguely aware of the prompt to think, to turn your mind to introspection, but the moment’s quickly gone. The next day you submit a piece that barely touches on significance — doesn’t in fact. You’ve written about generic mistakes. It is the unknowingly practised response to all questions that need more than an outside reading of life in the abstract.

The thing is though, this nondescript English class that trudges along as a barnacle trudges (or doesn’t) has probably never happened for most people. It is a platitude, as they say (who? I don’t know, they are somewhere). But I dare say its a platitude because its broad strokes are true. The languid English class that plays with the possibility of something true and significant to you, the person next to you, and the person across from you, but which falters and fails to take hold in the dimly darting minds of teenagers.

Do I have anything particular to say about this situation? Yes and no. For one thing, I needed a lead, so if you’re still reading it worked (hah). For another, this lead is in its broad strokes, relevant to what I’d like to say. I want to answer that question: what advice would you give to yourself? That is, to the me that would’ve been sitting in an English class not long ago.

What advice would I give?

  1. School is a world of its own.

I will inevitably emphasise (and inflate) this point because I went to Melbourne High School — a castle on a hill, with baby blue skies, rolling white clouds, and brilliant sunshine — but it could be true generally. It is its own internal world, with its own virtues and honours. Here you can become great, and if you’re lucky, heroic, claiming adoration from the only people that matter: your teachers and peers. Here you can dream a thousand dreams and they’d all be equally likely. Your life is sheltered by rules and routine; thick walls and nice people (generally). But leave this world and the layers and grandeur fall way; what was once great is revealed to be mere playing. And you can never return. As the garden of Eden was a perfect place, so too was school, and it lives on only in memory.

A dream within a dream: castle, baby blue skies, brilliant sun, the clouds are somewhere…

2. Question your assumptions.

In school it is easy to rest on your assumptions. There is after all nothing to truly challenge them. The thousand dreams you dream are built on a vision of yourself that may not exist. You can live as someone of consequence, in present or in expectation, and still thrive in safety. What are these assumptions? I’m not and never will be good at Maths, therefore I don’t need it; I’ll only get my Bachelor— who needs postgraduate anyway?; democracy is overrated; reading is useless; I want to leave home; I’m good at what I do eg: studying; I’m a brooding philosopher who is more profound than the people around me; X is superior to Y…in short, any number of the things that make up your identity while in school. Truth is, these assumptions are like the forgotten luggage overloading you at the airport, or the clutter that collects over the years if a room is not cleaned. And like too much clutter, and luggage, they must be thrown away. Life outside the sanctuary of school is a challenge to everything you were in school. The only way to respond authentically and find (allow me another cliché) who you really are, is to revise everything you believe, every belief that founds another belief. Ask why of yourself, and empty the overflowing cup that is who you are.

3. All knowledge is good.

This is the extension exercise of the maths worksheet once you’ve mastered the basics. That is ask why of yourself, and one of the conclusions ought to be this. There is no such thing as superior knowledge. English is not more noble than maths, and nor is maths more penetrating than English. Science is not more neccesarily interesting than History, and History is not more important than Science. All knowledge is good and useful for different reasons. The disciplines you come across are reflections of our mutual capacities as humans. As Aristotle might say, to be virtuous is to excel in our faculties as human beings; there are no higher or lower intellectual virtues, but only a movement to excellence. I would add (or even argue) that as mighty as ‘faculties as human beings’ may sound, it does not preclude any knowledge that is practical. Knowledge of making a chair, cutting hair, or cooking is no less legitimate than the great clashes of ideas in philosophy. These are human things, because humans do them. More than that, we can ourselves say that the experience of life is far too short and impermanent to be making arguments for which disciplines are more important. Pursue the courses of knowledge you wish to, and allow others to do the same.

*Let me disclaim ‘all’ of course does not mean knowledge of harm. This piece is clearly written with the assumption of someone of reasonably good character in the ordinary progression of life (as I hopefully am in the first case, and as I am in the second). Given I mention Aristotle, I felt I should contribute the littlest bit of philosophical rigour in clarifying my exact meaning.

I think he agrees with me — probably.

4. Never close yourself; always be open.

Extension exercise two. I’m about to say things which I find are said most often in A. mindfulness/meditation programs, and B. Buddhism. There is a sort of associated airiness to A, and a mysticism to B. I’m simply going to ignore those associations because much of what’s said is not like something which floats dreamily in clouds, and much more like a sturdy rock firmly set on the ground. Much goes on in our minds, and it’s easy to distract ourselves from ourselves. Day dreaming, memory, worry about a poor conversation, event or person. All this anxious dwelling happens while someone is telling you about their day. What does being open mean? Forget about yourself, and listen to the person talking to you. More than listen, look at them, really look. Feel the air around you, the weight of the floor under your shoes. Be present. 
And if you’re the kind of person who likes to drown in self-deprecation (ie: me, before): “I don’t deserve my friends”, “my friends probably don’t really like me”. Forget it. That’s a self-perpetuating struggle without an end. No one really deserves anything, and don’t assume anything of anyone else. As Kant might say, don’t use your friends as a means to your own self criticism, they deserve more than that. Embrace the uncertainty that is inherent in life, especially among people. Learn to feel a security despite uncertainty, and step forward with a smile and welcoming arms when a friend (or potential friend) comes towards you, stands next to you, and speaks to you.

5. See the human.

This is probably the extension of an extension: let’s say it’s question 2B. Being open is also about seeing the person next to you as human. Not in a gravely important sense of social justice, or of belonging to our homo sapien species. I mean, see them as a person of much that is more, with as many layered depths of complexity as you. Yet, as deep and complex and much as it may be, it is all immediately appreciable in a look, a smile, a conversation. That’s what I think can be aptly called our common humanity. Never forget to be open and to appreciate the human before you. Its a necessary part of being present, and feeling all there is to feel in the moments of life.

And now we come to the question again. Do I really wish to give my past self this advice?

The answer is no (of course not). For one thing the virtue of school is the ability to dream while in it, to be entertained and to experience without fear for the calamities of the outside. It’s the last twirling dance of innocence before it must exit the stage. Is there much I regret? Yes. But that is part of life, and to learn and do right, I had to first falter and do wrong.

I should now clarify (if you hadn’t already gathered) the question of what advice I would give myself has simply been a (maybe clumsy) technique to launch into some of my recent observations on life. This advice? I would freely give to myself or to anyone now and into the future— assuming of course, that I remain convinced I have learnt rightly.

But how should I finish this article of scattered pieces of advice that may or may not be read (or welcome (or even good))? Writing convention dictates I should conclude with something quirky, funny, memorable, so you remember what I’ve written (assuming you’ve read it in the first place). I could return to the English classroom with a smartly constructed scene that ties together all I’ve said. Could, but I won’t (I lack skill in smart construction). I’ll finish instead with another cliché. Here is a half-related quote from Robert Frost:

“ In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

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