"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."
Hasdai Ibn Shaprut

      December 4, 1998

      Dear Susan,

      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 fashions!)

      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,

      Mr. Geib

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.

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