One of my childhood friends passed away this year (2013) and left behind two college-age daughters. His sister asked friends to offer some “fatherly” advice in my friend’s stead. Here is my contribution:
I’m not sure what I write below constitutes fatherly advice, but I do have more than my share of experience as a father of five children ages 23, 20, 16, 14, and 12. I have been a university professor for most of my career so I have substantial knowledge of what college students do – what helps them succeed and what causes them to flounder. So, much of what follows has probably been learned from counseling hundreds of students in the 18-22 range, and beyond.
I have learned that there are three big questions that each person needs to study deeply and answer. The first question actually has a correct answer, but the other two questions you will have to answer for yourself. The most important question, by far, is “Will I act/behave/feel/think/etc. as if there is an objective truth and order for human behavior or is there no such order or does each generation and culture have to make this determination? Based on my study of more than 40 years I have concluded that the former is clearly the answer to this question. We should act according to this order even when the consequences to us might be negative (in the short term). We should be honest even if a lie helps us. We should try to help other people even if it reduces our fun time. We should keep our word even if that results in consequences we didn’t foresee. The older I’ve gotten the more I have realized that the reason for doing so is that it builds and retains our character. There is no achievement on earth more important than maintaining your character. My deep study of atheism and many major religions has resulted in the discovery that the best description of this natural order is found in the Christian Bible and in the person of Jesus. I won’t make that argument here, but if you would like more information about it, just let me know.
What I see in young (and old) people who don’t believe that there is a natural truth and order is that they behave as if life is totally meaningless. They can’t find peace in life because nothing they try is ultimately satisfying. They try to numb the pain that comes with this lack of peace in a variety of ways that bring momentary relief – alcohol, video game playing, sex, achievement, etc. Also, they lack character and make many poor important life decisions.
I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about which of the next two questions is second-most important. The two questions are: “What are you most passionate about doing in life” and “Who will you take your life journey with?” I’ve concluded that the first question is more important if you believe strongly that you have one passion, or calling, in life. Personally, I feel more than one calling, so for people like me, who I journey with is more important and that decision then informs which passion I pursue. So, let me write about them in “my” order.
I am a professor, which you might guess by the philosophical nature (and length) of this advice. I also search urgently for evidence to answer questions. We know from research that the people you choose to be around have a tremendous impact on who you will become. For most people, the most important choice of who you will journey with will be your spouse. Although marriage is on the decline in the United States, it is such an important institution. If you think about major societal efforts – building an urban subway system, ending slavery, curing cancer (still to come!), etc. there is no way these can happen without at least a 50-year time horizon. The greater the time horizon, the more significant the achievement that is possible. So, if you can partner with another person for a 50-year commitment to each other, you will be able to achieve joy in life that those without it can only dream of.
The most natural journey-people in life are your family members, particularly your siblings. Sibling estrangement, however, is common. For a variety of reasons, family relationships can be complicated into adulthood. However, I encourage everyone to always be willing to develop those relationships once an estranged person also becomes willing. Work now to develop deep care for your siblings. You don’t get to choose your family members, but with them you have a form of primal bond that we don’t fully understand yet. You do get to choose your spouse, friends, business partners, etc. All of these choices should be made with the utmost due diligence. Aim for people with the highest character, people who inspire you, people who make you laugh, people whose standards you want to live up to.
The third question, “what is your passion?” is probably the least surprising on the list. Society sends us all sorts of “do your thing” messages. However, society also sends strong messages about what success should look like, and most of these include material wealth. I encourage you to discover your passion and follow it even if it doesn’t result in material wealth. Even if you become wealthy, live as simply as possible anyway. Life is best lived with “carry-on” luggage, not several checked bags. If you don’t know what your passion is yet, keep searching! You might not find it if you don’t search relentlessly for it. Try hobbies, volunteer in a variety of settings, go to cultural events you wouldn’t ordinarily attend, meet people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet, travel. Ask everyone you know what they are passionate about.
If I had known about these three questions when I was your age, it would have saved me many dead ends and poor decisions in life. My hope is that you will take these to heart and go out and live a life full of joy and true love.