Happy Fourth Birthday, Alden and Asa

Today is your fourth birthday, and I continue the tradition of writing an open letter to you with some thoughts that you might consider when you are older.  I have written letters to Arthur as well, and you should feel free to consider (or ignore) them all.

As it stands right now, we are in the midst of a U.S. presidential election year.  Candidates have been throwing hats in the ring for some time, but the fields are beginning to narrow.  The narrative of this race involves the so-called “establishment”--the institution that maintains a status quo and tends to fatigue the populus with its stodgy, black-box, soul-grinding formalities and insider preferences.  Now, large groups of voters are looking to back so-called “outsider” candidates, who will go to Washington and shake up the establishment.  I am not sure if this electoral cycle is as special as the pundits claim, but I do know that this concept is not unique to politics.

Breaking with the establishment is a pervasive idea in almost every realm of modern life.  In business and technology, there are market “disruptors.”  These are companies that tend to ignore the longstanding formalities and the way things are so that they can build new systems that render the respective establishments as obsolete, antiquated, expensive, or a hassle.  In every aspect of life, you will find a “you’ve been doing it all wrong,” “there is a better way,” or “this and not that.”  And you will be able to replace everything in your life with something faster, less expensive, and more appealing to your lizard brain expectations.  But you must let go of the old to let in the new (whether you think you can hold onto everything or not), and questions should arise about what you are giving up in the process in light of what you gain.

Several years ago, I would have jumped on board with almost any campaign to knock off the establishment.  There is a sense of invigoration in flipping an old fuddy duddy’s table over and setting up your own based on your values and fresh ideas.  Let’s level the old section of town and build a mixed-use development!  Let’s rip out the church organ and put in a drum set!  Let’s set up a website to distribute content without any formal curation or restrictions!  You see?  There is an established way of life that can be uprooted with all sorts of decisions.  The possibilities are exciting and endless.

There is great value in asking yourself, “Why do we do things this way?”  The problem is that you have to actually work and search for the answer if the exercise is to have meaning.  I cannot tell you how many times I initially thought something was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” only to be convinced otherwise with good and truthful reasoning.  In societies and cultural institutions, there are many established ways of doing things that account for the rights and interests of various stakeholders and historical practices that give great meaning to people’s lives.  These limitations may seem ridiculous from any single person’s perspective, but they can be--and often are--carefully constructed ecosystems of compromise and vested dances of metaphors and meaning passed from one generation to the next.  

But you will also find that a lot of things people do are outright rubbish.  We are higher primates and can often continue practices out of fear and primitivity that, while were once useful for survival, actually prevent further growth and development as a person and as a species.  In entertaining new ideas and questioning the old ones--which I hope you will do--I do not want you to get so lost in the sea of information and positions that you become indecisive or inflexible.  So, I have some thoughts to help you work through what I feel are red flags for any upending (the “New”) of an establishment (the “Old”):

  1. Will the New hurt anyone unlike they have been hurt before?  Change is often necessary, but it can be very painful to those that do not expect it.  Many people rely on established institutions for paychecks and meaning in their lives.  Paradigm shifts without thought to these people’s interests can be devastating.  Even where you think that people can continue with the Old, the New often robs those relying on the Old of the critical mass needed to maintain the Old in any meaningful way.

  1. Is the New based in truth?  You should certainly ask for the data or mandate in substantiating any change.  New can often be flashy, which disguises its lack of substance or inability to become a longstanding viable option.

  1. Does the New divide you from others?  I have often found that the New robs me of diversity.  The New can become popular and appear to broaden your horizons, but you may also find that the New creates a more “vertical” social structure than the Old (which is a mangled set of compromises that accommodate and frustrate everyone).  “Vertical” in this sense means that you are creating a system where you spend more and more time with people more and more like you in more and more ways.  This diminishes the bandwidth of your perspectives.  Particularly, your mother and I are concerned that we (and you) will spend too little time with others outside of our generation.  We have precious relationships with mentors who are older--sometimes significantly older--than us.  The perspective of time is as important as any other for your understanding of yourself and your life.      
  1. Does the New elevate yourself or another person above others?  Of course, you can ask this question of the Old as well.  But you do need to think about whether the New creates a sense of humility and service or whether it is more about the royal you and how much more you can take from the system or others.  The best of the New is about a community and minimizes the trappings of the cults of personality.  We are far too quick to label a New as a “movement,” when the core of that New turns out not to be based in community and service to something more than our individual desires.  These types of New are easily cannibalized and will struggle to exist over time.

These questions, I think, will help you evaluate both the value of the Old and the proposed promise of the New.  My hope is that they will also help you find more meaning and satisfaction in the status quo.  Frustration can feed your energies for only so long and will eat away at you over time.  If you are to give yourself over to it, it must be worth it.  Injustices must be made right, and changes often take far too long.  But give yourself a break from unending frustration because it will limit your ability to enjoy the amazing things in life.

Also, I invite you to sit and think about those who have gone before you.  They did not do everything right, and they may have missed the mark entirely.  But they asked many of the same questions and looked to find meaning in their lives and their communities.  In the establishment--imperfect as it is--you can sit where they sat and inform your journey and choices.  It can be a sacred moment in your life, and you should ask many questions before you destroy your capacity to enjoy it.

For now, your mother and I are committed to teaching you and helping you understand your place in this world as it exists.  It is a place bubbling with new and exciting ideas.  It is also full of old and essential principles.  Our love for you captures the whole range. It is forever settled and will never leave you.  You can bet on it.  And we also enjoy, celebrate, and encourage your ever-developing personalities and passions.

We love you.  Happy birthday, twins.

Arthur's Second Birthday!

To Arthur, on his second birthday:

You have the fortune of being born on Groundhog Day—a “holiday” that will always coincide with your birthday.  While men in stovepipe hats ritualistically gather to read the body language of a marmot and the portent of light running across its body, we will shower you with love, gifts, memories, and songs.  Of course, whether we admit it or not, we will be making predictions about the future.

Your second birthday is full of data that are hinting at who you will become in your growing journey.  You are now about half of the height you will grow to in adulthood.  You are starting to acquire language and other skills.  Indeed, there are several things we’ve learned about you:

1.  You have a strong physical presence.  While we are working to help you learn not to push your siblings and friends down to the ground, we are also cultivating your seemingly freakish strength.  You can pick up heavy items, climb on things, and wrestle us with a legitimate chance of winning.

2.  Whatever you do, you do it headlong.  As it currently stands, you show a raw commitment to your actions by attacking them without abandon.  You have certainly hurt yourself, but you are more often pleased with yourself as you fall to the floor, off of furniture, or down the stairs with an open-mouthed grin.

3.  You have early-onset curiosity.  You do not talk as much as your brother and sister did at your age.  You are an observer.  But, when you do speak, you use sentences.  And I find that you often ask me, “What is this?”  When I provide an answer, you repeat the answer with a raised pitch and cocked eyebrow to question my response.  “What is this?”/“This is a spatula.”/“A sp[at]ula?”  With a tone as if you are not sure of the answer and/or you have a bordering-on-the-unhealthy skepticism of your father’s ability to tell you the truth.  I love it.

But whether these qualities are any indication of your future persona, we would be guessing and would probably have better accuracy if we divined it from the marmots.  We are not hurrying the process, but you will continue to change.  I do not know if there is any truly universal principle that we could look to and say that you are guaranteed to turn out “okay.”  After all, this is a world of probabilities and actuaries.  How can we put you in the best place to find honest meaning and satisfaction in your life?  Your mother and I are already thinking about this and how our seemingly small decisions can have great consequences for you and your own future.  We want to be good stewards of the portion of your lifetime with which we are charged.

In the end, though, we want you—our little baby!—to leave our proverbial nest and spread those proverbial wings (while we shed those less-than-proverbial tears).  I have been thinking and imagining the day when we sit down with you and try to impart some sort of unified theory and shove you out the door to face the world head first.  I am working on such a theory of verything, but here is the best piece that I have synthesized to date.

When presented with more opportunities and relationships than you have time to meaningfully experience or develop, ask yourself these questions in this sequence:  (1) “Where am I going?”  (2)  “Who will go with me?”  The crucial part is that you order the questions correctly; if you reverse the questions, you are creating a situation that creates a higher likelihood of trouble and heartache.

You may find that this formula works in a variety of scenarios.  For example, when you are looking to develop strong friendships, you will be wise to visit your own dreams and ideas about your life.  If your friends do not support you or push you to become better, you should cultivate other friendships that do (which will necessarily be at the sake of your relationship with your old buddies).  Not because you are a jerk and view yourself as better than others but because you want to do something with your limited time in this life, where others will desire something else.

Another example, and the most important, is how you choose a life partner.  Any pre-marital counseling or similar relationship discussion will inventory your personal desires for what you want out of your life and how you would like to share it.  It is a strange experience to discuss the big-ticket questions for the first time in a pre-marital survey when the ring is on both the finger and the credit card.  You want to have those discussions earlier in your relationship.  It is part of governing your trajectory.  Where are you going?  Is this the person who should go with you?  This is the evergreen romance; two people outloving one another towards their individual but shared dreams.

But, as the saying goes, you cannot pick your family (or your friends’ noses).  For a while, you are just along for the ride with us, but we want our family to be a launching point, where you will find and begin to tread the unique journey of your life.  If you will have us, we will go with you.

Happy birthday, son.