The curse of benevolence

Following are the principles by which I raised my boys. ‘Raising’ them meant washing and cleaning them, filing their documents, driving them to myriad appointments and picking them up after same, buying their clothes and serving their dinners – all while delivering, year after year, a steady, relentless, and doubtless confusing, monologue on these principles as applied to the situations at hand.

1) Happiness is not what life is about. About twenty years ago, in a greasy breakfast joint, before dawn, I became aware of a group of old men surrounding a table in one corner, when one of them began pounding his fist next to his coffee cup, declaring, in rhythm with the blows, “happiness..is..not..what..life..is..about!” Happiness, treated as a goal, leads to haphazard and quickly abandoned effort, coupled with extensive, and pointless, self-analysis. Happiness is a pleasant by-product of purposeful exertion. It’s one of our rewards for pursuing something else.

2) Be true to your art. That is, basically, ignore your audience. Appreciation is fine, and it feels good, but it’s feeding somebody else. There’s one unique, ineffable constellation of cells that comprises you, and if you grow it, love it, respect it, pursue it, being true to it alone – all will follow. If you travel off course, and pursue the applause, you will diminish.

3) Don’t try to be the best. The ‘best’ is both a diversion and a lie. In all things which have a measure – intelligence, beauty, creativity, love, war – beyond a point, comparisons simply do not matter. It’s okay to be the best, if it just happens. But don’t teach yourself to want it. There are suffering kids out there whose parents have coerced them into truly wanting, needing, to be first. They deserve it. Remember, being first makes you a slave to being the best. It’s a huge weight to carry. So let somebody else go there. Just don’t fall below third.

4) Don’t get mad. This is peculiar to males in my genetic line. We need to repeat this a lot. Perhaps it should be the first principle. It’s complex magic, easily subverted. I have often tried teaching it by getting mad. But it’s like a divine law. The ease with which life could be encountered; the joy we could bring to our situations; the hope we could offer in any dilemma – if only we didn’t get mad!

5) Honor and respect your mother. She’s wiped your butt, cleaned up your vomit, and stayed awake all night holding you in her arms. Forgive all her sins. Look at her and love her. See right through everything you’re upset about and see her soul. You’ll never encounter its like again.

6) Carry your responsibilities; fulfill your commitments. Deep satisfaction comes from opening your own shop in the morning, and closing it yourself at the end of the day. But we all depend on each other. The accumulated demands of just being alive are excessive, it’s true, but answer them all, anyway. Be reliable. Be strong. Do the dirty work. Pick up your brother when he falls down.

Information recently brought to my attention suggests perhaps these principles could bear some review. But oh well, it’s too late now.

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