Issue #58, 12/31/2006
Family Court Philosopher
If there is an important decision to be made about your life, you are the best person to make it. No one knows better than you what you can and cannot do, and no one has better information about your body and feelings. The advice of others is useful up to a point, but no one but you is better equipped to steer your own ship.
This is an obvious observation but also terribly difficult to learn. Gaining competent self-regulation is the primary conflict of childhood and especially adolescence. In the beginning, our parents regulate nearly everything for us. In the end, we are supposed to be regulating ourselves. The transition in-between can be terribly painful and, in fact, may never end even in adulthood.
Take the simple matter of dressing yourself. In the beginning, your parents dressed you. They may have done an adequate job, but they didn't have much sense for your real comfort. To be dressed comfortably and properly for the environment, you have to do it yourself, because only you have access to all the relevant systems information.
It is a wonder that babies survive at all! It is not they they are abandoned to the elements. What you see more often is parents who overcompensate, wrapping their babies up like mummies even on warm days. The baby is nearly helpless in this situation. He can issue an ambiguous cry, but many parents are insensitive about what it means. Understanding whether the baby is hot or cold takes not only sensitivity to the baby but also a grasp of heat-transfer physics. The baby, however, has plenty of information on his inner state, without the physics; he just can't translate it into actions in the real world.
"Put on a jacket or you'll catch your death of cold," Mom may tell you later. This is very simplistic advice, and you often ignore it. You have learned intuitively that when you are active, you generate more internal heat and may not need a jacket. Mom has no way of sensing this, since she isn't as close to the situation as you are, so she gives you the standard off-the-shelf advice.
Later in the day, when you are not running around, you may start shivering and may regret not listening to Mom. In any event, personal heat regulation turns out to be more complicated than the standard advice. To be comfortable, you have to be sensitive to your own inner sensations and learn some basic science about what makes you feel good. For the most part, these are things you have to learn on your own, often through bitter experience. To know when to wear a jacket, you have to actually experience the cold yourself.
In adolescence, children often become militant about rejecting parental advice. They tend, however, to overcompensate, rejecting all parental wisdom, which often leads to its own set of problems. When Mom tells you to wear a jacket, you refuse, mainly to assert your autonomy. The weather outside, however, has its own independent state, regardless of your power struggle inside. Just because some parental advice is baseless and loony doesn't mean all of it is.
The adolescent quest for self-regulation is a major factor behind juvenile delinquency. Kids are rejecting the control of their parents—as they are right to do—but they don't yet have the systems in place for competent self-control. This inevitably leads to clashes between themselves, the laws of physics and the rules of society.
The adolescent isn't just trying to regulate hot and cold. There are a thousand other systems he is learning to control, including his sexuality, his schoolwork, his relations with his peers and that pesky little problem of what to do with his life. On most of these complex issues, parental advice is usually useless, if not counterproductive, but there isn't necessarily any better advice to take its place.
It is not usually a matter of the adolescent not having enough advice. Often, his bathed in it—advice from parents, advice from peers, and advice and examples from the mass media. Most of this advice is generic and isn't appropriate to the kid's unique circumstances. The adolescent will either reject this offered wisdom (if it comes from his parents) or blindly accept it (if it comes from, say, Nike or Coca-Cola). He is not yet skilled at integrating portions of the outside advice with his own independent observations and judgment. This requires a suppression of ones ego to the point where the data can taken on its own merits, independent of where it came from. This faculty can takes years to develop.
The trouble with all advice is that it is theoretical, based only only a limited number of simplistic variables: If it is cold, then you need a jacket, says Mom. Real life involves thousands of factors: how active you are, whether the weather is windy or calm, humidity, precipitation, etc. Perhaps, the only way to really know if you need a jacket is to stick your head out the door. Then you can prepare for a reasonable range of possible changes.
Advice about what you should do with your life is also simplistic. For one thing, the person giving the advice is far from unbiased. He has made his own investments, and his advice to you is inevitably colored by them. Whatever it is he has committed himself to, he expects you to follow.
You, however, are your own organism living in your own universe, facing many factors that your advisors don't have a clue about. Theory is only going to get you started. Maybe it gets you through high school and into college. At that point, you should start actually experimenting with life rather than reading about it in books.
One shouldn't waste ones mind on too much formal education. Book learnin' only goes so far. In one sense, academic advice is way too complicated: You are forced to learn many arcane facts that you'll never need in the real world. In another sense, it misses the boat, failing to focus you on the things that are really important.
Real life doesn't have this problem. Through the cattle prod of reality, you get instant feedback on what you are doing right and wrong. If you find there is something important that you need to learn, then you can open a book on your own. Book learnin', in this case, is much more focussed and motivated than any artificial curriculum set up for you in school.
All of life, we could say, is a struggle for self-regulation. You want to be perfectly in sync with your environment, your society, your body and your mind, and this takes a lot of experimentation and careful observation. In the beginning, we are clods, just barging through life based on our own delusions and the dumb advice we have been given. In later years, hopefully, we develop some subtlety and grace, working with the flow of life rather than against it.
After that, of course, we end up dead, and all that experience goes to waste. Therefore, it is important to attain wisdom fairly quickly and not get yourself trapped into too many dead ends. If you heed any advice, it should be this:
Life is an experiment, and you don't know what is going to happen until you try it. You ought to approach it tentatively, preserving your ability to change. The worst thing you can do is claim that you have life all worked out at the beginning. You don't have everything worked out and probably never will, so you have to give yourself the freedom and permission to take it as it comes.
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Page Started: 12/31/06