Scott Fitzgerald is famous for his novels and for his letters. In particular, a letter to his daughter, which he penned seven years before he would succumb to alcoholism. This letter resurfaces every year or so as a reminder to parents and children of where we should focus. “Don’t worry about parents,” he wrote. Best advice, in my opinion. Don’t worry about the past, it is gone, or the future, as it has yet to unfold.
Really, the best advice for our kids to think about is:
* Scholarship – and what it really means.
* Do I really understand people and am I able to get along with them?
* Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?
But should we put faith in the advice of a deeply flawed, albeit brilliant, person like F.Scott Fitzgerald? Perhaps, if it is useful. “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” he wrote.
Life is a multitrack mobius–a never-ending circle. We can learn so much from our collective pain if we pay attention.
How could you become a better steward of the instrument that is your body? No matter what stage of life you are in there is always something to improve. The secret lies in your dreams. What do you want?
Make a list of everything you want. Be selfish and dream big! There is nothing that you cannot do or become. I know someone who took advantage of the pandemic to go inward and began a lifelong journey of transforming her body; she has lost over 100 pounds. In our culture, there is now and has long been a dominant view of the body. The journey is not about your weight, even though our culture promotes body size as a metric for every kind of success.
It is tempting to point out that had Fitzgerald taken his own advice he may have saved his own life, but the truth is not everyone can save their own life. Yet, we know what we know only through all of the experiences of life. There is not a person alive who would say “I have done everything right, follow my example and your life will be golden” or if there is, I would urge you to run away as if you have been set on fire.
No one knows how to do it. Most advice is given because the advice-giver has had many kinds of negative learning throughout their life and wishes they had only had the great good sense to follow a different route. But the truth is—if you could have you would have! And we all learn by doing.
So how can you be a better steward of your actual self; the mind, the body, the spirit that is you? Pay attention. Maybe don’t just take advice, choose. Follow examples not words. Tune in to your own experiences and then choose based on the real learning you have had.
One thing I notice in high school kids is a general belief that getting good grades is the most certain key to success.
Why do they think so? Is it something they came to believe from their own experiences or is it something they are told repeatedly and have accepted for no particular reason? A grade can be obtained by many means. If the end justifies the means, have you learned the subject, are you any wiser, or have you merely learned to get a grade? There is learning in all routes.
What is your goal, your truth? Making good grades could lead to more open doors, but it could also lead to not knowing who you are because you are not facing any obstacles. No rites of passage exist in our cultural lexicon. Children are no longer required to find their way alone. It’s another reason they sometimes choose risky behavior—setting up self-sabotage—finding something hard, rock bottom, to push off from.
Every parent will say that their child’s poor grades do not reflect their intelligence (and this is 100% true), but will also point to their child’s genius when they get “good” grades (and this is also 100% true). You are a genius. You are not the sum of your grades. You contain a multitude.
You have to begin to parse your own commitment to excellence. What DOES it mean to get a good grade? Get clear on how it means you are playing a game, how you think you understand the rules, and that you aim to win.
Is success also defined as having people like you because you are well behaved? Remember, too, that well-behaved people rarely make history and the people whose virtues we extol are hardly playing small and quiet.
Would a better use of your true intelligence be to understand the game you are playing, choose the games you want to play, and make the rules for yourself? There is the game of playing it small, following all the rules, flying under the radar, taking the easiest, well-marked roads. But when we follow this path we see that it requires a person to leave their inner knowing behind.
Safety becomes the most important rule of life in a game of playing small. Sometimes, safety is absolutely necessary, to be sure. One thing I have heard repeatedly about high school is that it is like a war zone. Feeling safe must come before any academic learning can take place. Learning the social parameters is a process. But remember, if you are not defining safety for yourself, you don’t actually know the game you are playing. For those among us who are struggling to eat, to have shelter, to get out of abusive situations, etc—there is certainly a different game.
Every parent really wants their child to be a leader, but most parents teach their children to be followers. Be like everyone else. Don’t fly your freak flag. Go unnoticed unless it’s for good grades. But each of us has our own real purpose on Earth which is to become who we are meant to be and no one else knows what that is except you. And your purpose grows and blossoms. It is never static; it waxes and wanes.
Still, so much of our culture dictates we ought to be like everyone else, and for the most part, don’t think for yourself, take the easy road, color inside the lines, don’t look different, don’t be different, do not make a scene–often by people who don’t care who you actually are.
Here is what can happen on the road to becoming a societal clone.
Addiction: Hiding who you are creates a festering sore that oozes out in illnesses, body aches, excess weight, addictions to eating (or not eating), addiction to booze or drugs, addiction to exercise, addiction to video gaming, addiction to social media, addiction to your phone, addiction to caffeine and so on. And all addiction stems from the need for external validation.
When we teach our children that getting good grades matters we are not teaching them why. Some of the smartest and most successful people I know never went to college, failed out of undergraduate college, didn’t follow the rules. Stop teaching that there is one way to get “there” wherever that is. Do you even know? Get where? To a life of 9-5 steady income, a wife/husband, 2.5 children, a house with a four-car garage and the accompanying 30-year mortgage?
Instead of success, perhaps we could teach fulfillment.
What does it mean to feel full? Physically. Psychically. Mentally, Emotionally.
If you do not know the answer for yourself you really have nothing to teach–until you figure that out.
Losing weight is a path to fulfillment—but it’s only a start.
Stopping drinking is a path to fulfillment–but it’s only a start.
Getting good grades is a path to fulfillment–but it’s only a start.
Fulfillment isn’t about getting something. Fulfillment is about discovering all that you have to give in all of your own unique amazing ways.
Who is telling you how to have a life worth living? Who is showing you a life worth living?
If you are telling your kids to play the game—what did it get you?
What experiences have you had that you actually share in vulnerability and authenticity?
Our children see the actual lives we have. Children see the living sacrificed to have life be a certain way. That is only something you can answer for yourself but it can manifest as ADHD, anxiety, depression, relationships that require your smallness, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, drinking and drugging, overeating, sex too early, risky behaviors, cutting, fighting, hating whole groups of people you don’t even know, road rage, any rage, a relationship to a device that is more involved than a relationship with any person, poor grades, not completing assignments, being late, etc.
Children, and all people, need our vulnerability; our truths and our respect. Not the polite stories told at dinner. Not the let-me-tell-you-how-to-succeed playbook you were handed down. We only connect to the authentic. What is real? Only the things you have had to overcome to live your truth. The choices you make become the life you have. But there is more than one way to see the life you have. What are you swallowing whole to appear successful? What are you leaning into, leaning away from, and why? What is the next level?
Do you see your life as unfolding or a folding up?
Are you expanding or contracting?
How is your spirit?
Do you know how you really feel at any given moment—can you name the nuance of feelings you have?
Does knowing how you actually feel scare you?
Would you prefer to stay numb or wake up? Both are hard.
All you can do is choose which hard path you walk.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
― C.G. Jung