We recently had a daughter. Now she’s 21.

A parent reflects on any wisdom he might have for the road ahead. 21 lines for a 21 year old.


It’s no longer called the age of ‘majority’, when you passed from being a minor to a major. But it remains a liminal moment, with a freedom to do now what you might never be able to do again. And it makes a parent wonder if he can throw any light on the road that lies ahead. It turns out every thought I had has been thought first, and said better, by someone else.

  1. ‘This being human is a guesthouse,’ said the poet Rumi, 800 years ago. ‘Every day a new arrival.’ Open your eyes wide at the arrival of each morning, take it all in, make a note. Every day is also a departure.

2. ‘Instructions for living a life,’ writes another poet, Mary Oliver, ‘Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.’

3. The days may seem to accelerate, like scenes through a train window where your eyes fail to alight on any one thing. Paying attention is one way to slow a day down - to appreciate the people you spend time with, to respond to the world you move around in.

4. To be astonished it is enough to notice you are 21 in the 21st century. There’s a decent chance that three quarters of your life remains ahead. Two hundred years ago your life would be half way done by now. Compared to your great, great, great, grandmother you have a second life.

5. Writing about it, is one way to tell about it. Not everyday but every so often. A discipline: thirty minutes set aside when you recall what happened, how she, or he, made you feel, what you’re discovering in the universe of yourself . Later, looking back, even a superficial phrase can magically draw your younger self back into the room. Gaze at yourself in surprise, startled by the invisible mystery of the passing days.

6. Sometimes you will remember that you were writing from a dark place and find that the prayer of the cartoonist Michael Leunig has been answered. ‘Dear God / These circumstances will change/ This situation will pass / Amen.’

7. I asked one of the many powerful women in your life if she had any wisdom for you. She said, A good bra and a blow dry can help in many situations.’ I’m going to take her word for this.

8. She also said, ‘Always check how a young man treats his mother.’ Whatever our words or aspirations, most men retain an instinct that they are the powerful sex. We give up our power reluctantly. We will need to be persuaded or pressured, coerced or cajoled. Men still can’t imagine the future that you can.

9. Follow your curiosity. Education is a great liberator but it’s never the power of our recall, the stickiness of our memory that defines us. Brene Brown puts it best when she says, ‘What we know matters, but who we are matters more’

10. Your mother says to remember that we love you and you’re beautiful. I thought this was too obvious and sentimental to include. She says that says a lot too. Whatever she means by that.

11. When you get the chance, travel. When you return home, stay. Wherever you end up arriving, there’s nothing like knowing that you come from somewhere.

12. On every journey, across a continent or across the street, look for the subtle groove of connections that make up the strange dance of everything. How the energy we harness or the food we eat touches the lives of billions of people we’ll never meet. For good or ill. This was captured by the farmer poet Wendell Berry who says, ‘Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.’

13. Treasure your friends, even when you fall out and break up. How we forgive each other is often the sign of a good friendship. Your friends see you in a way you never see yourself. Sometimes you don’t need that view. Sometimes it’s the only view that matters.

14. Don’t let the instant grat of the screen’s moving image persuade you to neglect the words that don’t move, the words that move you. Stories, plays, poems, novels… the written word demands more faithfulness but is also more faithful. ‘Read a book and you give yourself an inner life,’ is the way Jeanette Winterson puts it, Reading is a rendezvous with your soul.

15. Notice the people in the room who are not saying much. Those who can’t be heard when they do speak because of the volume of those who can’t stop speaking. Those underheard as well as those overheard. Simone Weil got this: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’.

16. Don’t worry when you don’t know what you want to be. Most of us are restless. Even those who claim to have become the people they always imagined they were, still wake in the night imagining they were someone else. To find a career is not as important as to find a vocation, that place, as the novelist Fred Buechner puts it, ‘where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

17. Trust your judgement especially after you’ve listened to a wise friend. None of us have an infallible instinct for the right decision, none of us have the best view. Don’t go with the crowd. Lots of them are secretly wishing they hadn’t.

18. Be agnostic on some things and hopeful in most. It’s good to admit to the limits of any wisdom we might have. Answers aren’t always the answer. Be wary of institutions who want your allegiance or time or money without your ideas or opinions or objections. But guard against cynicism. Rebecca Solnit puts it like this: ‘Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all, the knowledge that we don’t know how it will turn out, that anything is possible.’

19. We will lose each other, all of us, in time. Don’t put aside the prospect of endings and mortality. We can innoculate ourselves against thoughts of death but the jab also preserves us from infection by life. You’ve already lost a grandparent. All being well you’ll lose the others too. That’s what they’d want. And later, with luck, me and your mother. We wouldn’t want to lose you. Undertaker poet Thomas Lynch puts it like this, ‘Grief is the price we pay for being close to one another. If we want to avoid our grief, we simply avoid each other.’

20. Keep faith in the presence of love beyond, within, behind, ahead. Respect your doubts about those who want you to believe too many things but find an outward-looking community who believe that life is more than status or affluence, that fulfillment is found amongst friendship which does not have an hourly rate.

21. Pay attention. Be Astonished. Tell about it. We are in a baffling mystery that neither science nor religion can explain and only art and generosity, poetry and friendship comes close to capturing. There is a Quaker saying that will do for most days, which asks us to reach for a life that is ‘boundless happiness, absolute fearlessness, constant difficulty’.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.