December 4, 1998
Although honored that you would confide
in me, I felt a bit ridiculous the other day after you told me of certain
problems you have with your parents, as I could not really give you
any advice towards an improvement in your situation. Not that there
exists any easy solutions, but after a day or two to mull over in mind
what you told me I would say a few more words.
At 13-years of age, you don't have the
ability to control completely the realities of your life. You live
in your parent's house, eat their food, and wear the clothes they have
bought you. You must obey their rules and share their dinner table.
Certain aspects of your life grate on you until they become well nigh
intolerable, but you are limited in being able to change your parent's
behavior. This will continue for at least a few more years, and only
then will you be truly free to live as you wish. I don't doubt your
parents love you and would get along better with you, if they knew
how or could find the means to do so; but the reality might be that
the situation will not change, as you suspect. "Your son at five
is your master, at ten your slave, at fifteen your double, and after
that, your friend or foe, depending on his bringing up," claimed
the Jewish scholar Hasdai Ibn Shaprut.
And so it might well be that you are brought
up to look unfavorably on your father and his rages, that you always
have a troubled relationship with one another; but there is nothing
written in the stars saying you must let it drive you crazy. If it
is true you are unable to control how your parents act towards you,
it is equally true you can always control how you act towards them,
and, more importantly, how you act towards yourself. Clearly it is
easy for me, who suffers none of this, to say so much. I don't have
to walk in your shoes. Nobody yells at me everyday. But you are such
a sharp young woman, Susan, that I don't doubt that you will find ways
to adapt and even to thrive. There are, after all, more areas of your
life that you control than not: what you think, who you are, where
you are going. A person is completely sovereign in this, no matter
what might be the surrounding circumstances of daily life. As it says
in Proverbs, "For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
We human beings have a way of getting so
close to our problems and letting them assume overwhelming dimensions
that we lose sight of what is right and healthy for us. If when challenged
by your parents you are tempted to defy them angrily, try to rise above
your anger and thereby make it manageable. So many families destroy
themselves with towering animosities fed by years and years of conflict,
but it takes two to fight in these combats that produce no victors.
As Francis Bacon describes the self-defeating nature of anger: "Seneca
says well that anger is like ruin, which breaks itself upon that it
falls. The Scripture exhorteth us to possess our souls in patience.
Whosoever is out of patience is out of possession of his soul." Ecclesiastes
also tells us, "Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth
in the bosom of fools." According to Job: "For wrath killeth the foolish
man, and envy slayeth the silly one." Keep your anger at arm's length;
control it, or it will control you. When feverish angers overtake us
we develop a tunnel vision where all we can see is the object of our
anger and ourselves. We lose sight of happier, healthier, and more
productive courses of actions. We also lose sight of the decency and
beauty that does surround us. And if we lose sight of the good and
the beautiful, to what purpose does life serve? What does it matter?
To live in a world devoid of goodness and beauty? One might as well
call it a day and give up! If you allow yourself to become fixated
on the angry and the negative, you never will be happy.
Happiness is the proper pursuit of our
human lives. Susan, you go to school to learn about religion and study
literature and develop the skills of self-reflection through reading
and writing -- all in the hopes NOT of one day landing a prestigious
job and making gads of money but in achieving a frame of reference
that prepares you for the challenges life throws at you. In other words,
you go to school not so much to become a successful employee as to
one day arrive at being a successful human being. (It is not so easy,
eh? But it is possible!) As I used to say sometimes in class: "Non
schola sed vita decimos." We learn not for school but for life!
This is honestly how I see it, although
I fear I have spoken in terms uncongenial to a teenager. It might sound
like a bunch of unpracticeable mumbo-jumbo, and maybe it is. Quoting
philosophers and the Bible, etc. You probably have adults talking this
way at you all the time! But take the time to find and embrace whatever
helps you get through the day, that which makes life a little easier
- no matter where you find it, no matter how you make the discovery.
(Luckily life continually presents us with teachers in all forms and
And for God's sake, don't let the temporary
crises of life drive you to despair, something that happens with too
many teenagers! (Check out my similar comments to another young woman
with a worse predicament than yourself at: http://www.rjgeib.com/about-me/faq/life-and-death.html)
If you should find yourself in some black despair late at night and
don't know if you can take it anymore, just remember the following:
the night is always darkest just before the dawn.
Susan, I hope this letter helps you. The
words were written honestly, meant to help.
Very Truly Yours,
P.S. Destroy this letter (but not the
poem by Mary Oliver beneath it!) before you get home this afternoon.
Let these words be just between you and me.