🎶 Teach your children well...🎶
When I picked up my son from school the other day, “Teach Your Children” the old classic by CSNY was playing on the radio. During the obligatory sing-along (harmonies only of course), I began to wonder what I’ve taught my kids…
Now a disclaimer here: WARNING the next sentence is written with absolutely no modesty whatsoever (totally non-humble brag). In December my daughter got accepted into my alma mater, Yale University. Of course she was thrilled. I’m not going to lie: her mom and I were friggin’ psyched as well. We all take a little credit in our kids’ great accomplishments, right? (And if we're paying attention, a little blame for their flaws). But we can only give them the tools and teach them how to use them. And even if we give them the finest tools in the world, in the end they’re the ones who must wield them. Hard work, determination, self-confidence, independent thought – just a few of the tools my wife and I tried to instill in the kids. My daughter’s formative years had her watching us work like dogs, but also seeing us do some amazing things. I’m pretty certain just being that model for her had some positive effect. So I’m not going to lie that I at least gave myself a little pat on the back. If just a small one.
The radio continued on. I looked over at my son. He’s four years younger than his sister, so you could argue he’s just now in the middle of his formative years. What behavior have I been modeling for him? He’s watched me be unemployed and sit around the house a lot for a year, so that’s cool. I’ve had plenty of arguments with him about spending too much time on the internet or gaming. All the while he sees me almost constantly glued to this keyboard, and he knows I don’t use all of that time working. Remember my Candy Crush habit? He watched me playing on level two thousand-whatever, and it was he rolling his eyes at me for being on the computer too much. This past year I’ve said “Do as I say, not as I do” so much I should have it tattooed on my forehead.
I know there’s a much bigger lesson that both kids can glean from my current status. I’ve indicated how toxic my relationship with Medicine had become. They saw it first hand. They may not have known how far it had gotten, how much I hated myself for hating my profession. They did not know how much pain that self-hate inflicted, so much that I wished for death over hurting. But they got a very good look at Depression and I hope a healthy respect for it. And they know the importance of making even cataclysmic change if something is not right.
It makes me wonder, though, if at their adolescent age their minds can understand that lesson. Or do they just see a dude who quit when the going got tough? I think my daughter gets it; not quite sure about the boy. He sees things much more black or white. And yet even with her acceptance letter, my daughter still works studiously. She could so easily develop senior-itis, but really has only slightly eased off on the gas pedal. She was always a hard worker and took pride in it, so her continued drive comes as no surprise. I expect she will have the same drive, even more so when she goes off to college. She doesn’t have a particular career in mind, and I envy her the wide open possibilities she’ll have. I also watch warily as I see signs of the same demons that possessed me.
And so, if I really teach my children well, what should my lesson be? To understand the difference between our life’s goals and happiness. Should there be a difference? In an ideal world, the only goal should be happiness. But really, probably only the most enlightened of us can say that our ONLY goal in life is Happiness. Life is life, and in order to live it, we usually are going to set some goals. We should have goals. With that in mind, I would hope to teach my children that nevertheless those goals are not happiness. I would want them to know that goals always change; either the goal line itself gets moved further down the field, or once you reach the goal, a new one appears.
I’m not trying to besmirch the idea of having goals. Far from it. I’m just saying that they are not happiness. Neither having them, nor attaining them will make you happy, or at least it will not keep you happy. I would hope my kids learn that the effort, the will, the determination, the doing, all of those should be what makes you happy. Reaching the goal is just icing on that cake.
I’d love it if they learn that lesson, but it is a hard one to get. We all set our goals and equate reaching them with happiness. Or rather we feel happiness when we attain our goals and feel unhappy when we don’t. It’s impossible to ignore the natural feelings of satisfaction versus disappointment. Getting into college, making the big sale, winning the big promotion…graduation from medical school or becoming a surgeon; any goal we set can trick us into happiness or disappointment. And like the psychology of addiction, each goal achieved gives us that high, the feeling of elation. Soon however, we crave more, and with each hit, the need for more ramps up. Goals get loftier, richer, or more glorious as does the craving for achieving them.
On the other hand happiness as an ideal is an absolute. It is not conditional, not contingent on reaching goals, nor defined by those goals. True happiness is not measured in units or metrics. And it's not just the high we get with each success. It just is, and in the end what we should seek. If we can find happiness regardless of our achievements, then that’s the true meaning of success.
Not exactly earth shattering philosophy I’m dropping here. But remember, this is a blog about failure. So how’d I do finding happiness by this standard? Let's see... I chased the dragon for twenty odd years. I reached the goal and made a life out of it. Take a guess if I ever found happiness. Great lesson for the kids. I mean this sincerely and also insincerely.
We drove along mostly in silence. The radio continued on, the final verse playing. “Teach your parents well, their children’s hell, will slowly go by…” I need to get that forehead tattoo.
UPDATE: Just saw this on the NY Times. The Psycchology and the Good Life? Happiness 101?? Where the hell was this class when I was there? (For the record, I'm pretty skeptical that any semester-long course with 1200 other students is going to teach one anything about how to be happy. They psychology of happiness maybe, but not actual happiness).