One of the themes is:
No-one (including me) has the right answer, but you can nevertheless find that right answer for yourself. This is one of the many paradoxes of life. The right answer will be made up of parts of many different ideas and role models and mentors that come your way and, if you're lucky, some of your own ingenuity, too.
Even though I quite honestly admitted that I don't have the right answer for you, I'm still going to assume that my advice is not wrong, either. Another paradox. It's for you to decide, and this decision process ideally will continue for many years, perhaps even all your life. Yes, you can -- and sometimes should -- change your mind about what's right for you, even as you have certain basic ideas, core principles, that you never give up. Yet another paradox.
The biggest paradox of all, perhaps, is my suggestion about how to view adulthood, how to think of yourself in relation to the world you're entering:
You may well feel that I'm trying to confuse you here. It seems I'm suggesting first that you live without any support from anyone or anything other than yourself, then I'm suggesting that things and people are essential to your existence. Yes. That's exactly right.
This paradox results from the fact that the first item is attitude, and the second is behavior; furthermore, the two are inseparable. Each one, without the other, is at least absurd if not dangerous. I mean, actually living in all respects as if you're the only person in the world is only feasible if you're marooned on a desert island with a lifetime supply of coconuts. By the same token, if you gather "friends" and possessions but you, yourself, are not an unique individual, you might as well be a warehouse on the outskirts of town that people only visit when they need supplies.
Another way to say this is that if your attitude is that you can't do anything without the support (and approval) of other people, and that only the ideas and opinions that you see in movies, on television, and in advertising seem right to you, your behavior will be dependent and you will give up your right -- and lose your ability -- to decide things for yourself.
You must not let this happen. You must challenge yourself to learn, to be independent as much as possible, to "survive in the wilderness", so to speak. Then, with that attitude as the "bottom line", you can then make meaningful behavior choices about who and what you want to bring (or allow) into your life and, over time, what you want (or need) to get rid of when it doesn't work for you any more.
A long time ago, when I was first beginning to realize that helping people through teaching was my "calling" in life, I had the following insight, which conveys in yet another way what I've been trying to say here:
(*NOTE: the words "or her" were added on 10 December 1978, as I was gradually realizing how important it was to use language that included both females and males in writing about ideas like this. The old practice of using male pronouns when referring to people in general is called the "generic male" reference, which I feel is both unfair and unacceptable.)
What can we learn from Nature?
Nature teaches us the basic truth that things -- animals, plants, stars, planets, snowflakes -- exist in infinite variety. Even those things that seem to be in a single category -- like ants, for instance, -- come in different colours, sizes, and even shapes.
Nature also offers us a chance to put our existence into perspective. There are things in nature -- rock formations, planets, even some living things like bonsai trees or tortoises -- that have been around far longer than you or I will ever be. Say you're traveling through a protected natural setting, such as a United States National Park. You can look directly at mountainsides or canyons or caverns that would have looked the same to one of our remote ancestors 20,000 years ago. On the other hand, there are insects such as the mayfly (botanical order Ephemeroptera, a most appropriate name!) which live only one or two days after transforming from nymphs into adults. Being aware of one-day Ephemeroptera and ten-million-year-old rock strata gives us an idea of our own significance -- or insignificance! -- in the overall scheme of things.
Humans can tap into the infinite variety of Nature. In fact, if we fail to do this, we've missed most of what the world has to offer us. Why would we let this happen?
Symbols are probably easy to understand -- designs or pictures that represent something else, usually something much more complex. Computer icons are symbols. The word icon, in fact, is an old Greek word (εικων) that means "likeness" or "image". In addition to computer desktops, common symbols are found in everything from road signs to remote controls for electronic devices. Less common symbols are used in writing, particularly poetry, and films, and architecture, and many, many other places. Did you know, for instance, that water, particularly crashing waves on a seashore, is an image that often is used to symbolize sex? More generally, in religion, water can be a symbol for the "flow of life". (Without too much thinking, you can probably see that these ideas are quite closely related.)
A word of caution, though. Some people learn to recognise symbols, then start to see them in everything, everywhere. Oscar Wilde (1856-1900) warned us, "It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life too full of terrors" (Salomé, a play written in 1891 and first produced at the Comédie-Parisienne, 11 February 1896, these lines spoken by Herod).
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a medical doctor whose life and work led to worldwide interest in psychoanalysis which is a method of therapy that helps people understand their lives and problems by analysing, among other things, the symbolism in their lives, including what they "see" in dreams. Even in his lifetime, he was known for his keen interest in sexual symbolism. He was also an habitual cigar smoker, reportedly 20 per day. Someone once asked him if his cigars perhaps represented (symbolised) something else, perhaps a particular part of the body. (Here, you have to imagine what part of the body a cigar might look like. If you haven't figured it out by the time you're 20, let me know.) Freud reportedly said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." This remark, which is not regarded as authentic by many scholars, was quoted by Allen Wheelis in the medical journal Psychiatry, in his 1950 article, "The Place of Action in Personality Change". Authentic or not, it illustrates how easy it might be to see symbols even when they are not intended.
A metaphor is also a type of symbol, and usually involves a story, or a concept, or even an event (real or imaginary) that may be difficult to understand or describe directly -- or maybe you just want to say things in a more colourful, interesting way. As you may have expected, like many words we use everyday in English, "metaphor" has Greek origins. It comes from the Greek words μετα (meta, meaning between or among) and φερω (phero, meaning to carry), or very similar Greek words with similar meanings. Today we use the "metaphor" to describe words, phrases, or ideas that express what we want to say, but use images and situations that could not actually be true or believable.
Metaphors are not as easy as simple visual symbols for younger people to interpret -- or even recognise -- without practice. I'll give you an example: the temperature is 39°C (102°F) and you've been riding your bike uphill. You might express how you feel by saying something like, "I'm burning up." That's a metaphor. No-one would actually believe that you were on fire, right? But it's more interesting and colourful that just saying, "It's hot out here." (Note that there are types of comparisons, figures of speech, that some people confuse with metaphors, but they are different. Similies -- that's SIM-i-lees, not "smiles"! -- are direct comparisons that use words such as "like" or "as" to show how one thing is similar to another. An example from the scenario above might be, "Man, it's like an oven out here." A simile says that one thing is like something else. A metaphor creates an image that one thing is something else, when most everybody knows that it isn't, really.)
Myths and Fairy Tales and many religious traditions make use of metaphors, in part because they can be artistic and beautiful, and also in part because a metaphor can satisfy the human need for things to be explained, even when some things are unexplainable. This is where this subject gets very complicated and intense, so I'll let you learn more about it, on the Internet and in books and from people you trust, once you're ready. I'll just leave you with this teaser: there are entire books and college courses that deal with the metaphors and symbolism just in the Star Wars series of films. I mean, if George Lucas uses metaphors, then maybe lots of people do, and that is the case: metaphors and symbols are everywhere.
Fortunately, it is not essential that you recognise and interpret symbols and metaphors right away, right now. You've got a lifetime to scratch that surface. For now, just be aware that these devices exist, and you'll begin to see them more and more as you grow and read and think and meditate and watch superhero movies.
It is very, very important for you to learn to evaluate the information that you discover or that others give you. Whenever you can, you need to think twice about what you read and hear and see. It is completely within your power, and is your right, to question anything that another person tells you, in speaking, in a book, on television, in a text message, anywhere: Is it believable? Does it make sense? Does it fit in with the facts and opinions that I've already learned? Is it better than something I already believe, and should I change my mind on it?
Questioning, or evaluating doesn't mean that you need to change your behaviour, or protest, or fight with others, even when you disagree with them. It just means that you are "processing" the information that comes into your awareness, you are thinking about it, you are deciding whether it's meaningful to you.
There is an old joke that carries vital advice for avoiding a very common human pitfall: "When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME." Assumption are not facts, and often are wrong. Know the difference. Get facts, and until you do, challenge all assumptions.
There are many ways to evaluate and process information. One that I've found particularly interesting and helpful is what I might call the "10-year test". A so-called "100-year test" also can be helpful. They're really both the same kind of process. The basic idea is that you're adding perspective to the things that otherwise you might just accept (or reject) without thinking twice.
What you do is, when you come upon a new idea, or device, or way of doing things, put that new thing into an historical context. You might ask yourself, "Did this thing exist 10 years ago (100 years ago)?" If not, "What did people 10 years ago (100 years ago) do without this new invention?" You might even consider, "If I had to, could I exist without this new thing, like they did 10 years ago (100 years ago)?" This is almost the same as what I mentioned above, about using Nature to put your own existence into perspective.
Like most things, there are a million answers to these questions. It doesn't matter. You'll find that just thinking in terms of 10 years ago or 100 years ago is both easy and helpful, doesn't take much time or effort, and may even be a fun use of your imagination.
The central task of the teenager is to recognize and embrace what I refer to as the spark of adolescence, and firmly establish in your mind and your activities that you must never lose it, you must never give it up.
The spark of adolescence has been noticed and mentioned by philosophers and other writers since the beginning of time. It is difficult to define or describe. It has to do with a sudden awareness of the world, the magic and wonder of existing in the universe, and the excitement of being a participant, an explorer, an individual who is unique and at the same time a part of it all. Younger people don't see things this way. Their world is their home, their neighborhood, their bedroom. Something happens in adolescence that is like an explosion. As an adult, you may learn and use the word "epiphany". One day you notice the trees or sidewalks on your way to school, the next day you notice the stars and wonder what might be beyond them.
Losing this spark is a tragedy which, unfortunately, is how most people make the transition into adulthood. Even Homer Simpson was aware that he had lost something important when he said to Marge,
Of course, there's nothing wrong with gaining and using the wisdom that comes with experience in adulthood. Ignoring that just to "stay a kid forever" would be foolish. The wise man will find a balance between the two. Unfortunately, the average man allows the so-called wisdom he thinks he has gained to snuff out the spark of his adolescence, leaving only half a man. (I remind you once again that I'm using the word "man" here because I'm offering advice to boys. It should be obvious that these ideas apply to women and girls just as well.)
I'll have more to say as I develop this page further. For now, just let me try to convince you that the most important, and maybe the most difficult, task you will have as you become an adult is to hold on to that wonder, that spark, and never lose it until your last day on earth.
Here is a relevant quote, which is one of the many brilliant things that have been written on this subject:
O running stream of sparkling joy
To be a soaring human boy!
--Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Bleak House (1852-53), Chapter XIX, p.114
I've selected a bunch of my favorites that I think might apply to growing boys, and have posted them at these Web pages for you to read if you're interested:
This page is under construction, and will expand and develop over time. Please visit again.