Last week, I took the elder of you two to the park, and for forty minutes you tried to slide down a pole.
You wanted my help positioning your feet, but I could see that you were big and strong enough to hop off the three-and-a-half foot high ledge all by yourself. I said I would be there to catch you if anything went wrong, but you had to do the leaping yourself. You were scared, you said, and in being scared you made that pole larger than life. I could see it in your eyes; you looked at that pole over and over, sizing it up, grasping at it with both hands and one tentative foot, and each time you let it defeat you. You retreated. You tried over and over to take a running start at it, but came to an abrupt halt each time at the edge.
I stood by and waited. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I said. “That you fall? So you fall. It’s okay to make mistakes. You pick yourself up and try again.”
But it was hard to say these words–and not because every now and again you would work yourself near to tears while I said them, but because they were words I often do not live up to myself. Even as I spoke I knew I was asking you to be braver in the face of your challenges than I have often been in the face of mine. In my heart I knew I was a hypocrite; but in my heart I also knew my hypocrisy was no excuse to keep advice I know to be good and true from you. You must risk failure to succeed. You must, you must, you must.
When I first started to write this letter, I had resigned myself to the kind of hypocrisy I practised that day. I wanted you to understand that you will find yourself surrounded by hypocrites like me as you grow up–people who will tell you one thing, but partake in actions themselves (unknowingly or otherwise) that contradict any wise words they have given you. And this is true: you will.
But I also want you to understand that, in writing these letters, I realized how much I want to become a better role model in the years to come–for you. How much I am committed now to one and the same. So I hope the future Aunt Maggie (the one you know) is braver than the one who writes this. If she is, remember that it was the thought of you that helped her change her ways.
But if she is not–if that Aunt Maggie still withdraws from more challenges than she should; if she still looks at the obstacles in her life and over-thinks them to the point of nervous distraction; if her actions still make her a hypocrite for her words–I ask you not to let this be anything but a cautionary tale.
Please understand: you will find so many failings in adults in the coming years. This is a given; as old as people around you look, as wise as they may present themselves as being, they are all still on journeys of personal development and discovery that may or may not ever come to provide a sense of lasting peace and balance in their lives.
So it will be so easy to enact anger and outrage at the whole of them–the good and the bad joined together–in the wake of realizing their failure to live up to the words they have given you. But the worst thing you can do for yourselves is to let the personal failings of those around you–those, that is, who would teach you and nurture you to adulthood with the best of intentions–keep you from living better adult lives yourselves.
How to avoid it, though? Simply put, by evaluating the words themselves, distinct from the people who say them: Are the words sound? Why or why not? Listen broadly, but keep only what you find is good. (And if you can, try to forgive your teachers for the rest.)
I considered including a reading list with this long letter, then threw that idea right out: What use to you is yet another prescriptive guide on What You Must Read? You will run into hundreds of variations on that theme as it is, and I would rather you think about how you read, than to buy in blindly and wholesale to any one person’s recommendations.
So think about this instead: at thirteen or fourteen, chances are very good you will be running into works like Catcher in the Rye. For generations now, this work has been much loved among young teens because of the anger of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, toward the adult systems in his life. He has identified the adults around him as all phonies, and right from the start he invites the reader to share in his view of the world. How easy it is to be as angry as he is; to feel just as disillusioned by the various failings of people around you; to feel that the world itself has let you down.
It is easy to realize, and hard to accept, that people are not perfect. Possibly as hard as grasping the concept of your own mortality, and getting on with your life in its wake. Nonetheless, these are important lessons. If you value your safety and your sanity, they are vital lessons not just to learn, but to learn well. Yes, people you look up to will often let you down. No one person has an infallible monopoly on what is and is not true. Remember these things, and remember, too: How you respond to these facts is up to you.
But if I may suggest the danger of one kind of response, Catcher in the Rye invites you to linger with this feeling of outrage in a way that is no less fake, no less contrived–a way that creates a false, black-and-white world all its own. In the book, it’s Holden Caulfield versus the phonies; in reading the story of his exploits and struggles, you’re invited to view yourself as always in direct conflict with one and the same.
That’s not your real battle, though. The real battle lies always in yourself–the only person you have any good reason to hope you can change. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden uses the phoney nature of those around him as an excuse not to do any better for himself–to preoccupy himself with keeping even younger people from realizing the hypocrisy of the world, instead of fixing the hypocrisy within.
But remember, nephews: even if the whole world were truly made of frauds and hypocrites, you would still have yourselves to answer to for any failure to try to do better.
And you may fail.
And that’s okay.
Last week, it took forty minutes for the elder of you two to leap from that ledge, grab the pole, and slide down. When you finally did, you cried after you hit the sand–surprised by the speed of the descent and calling immediate attention to your knee because it had also touched down on your landing.
I smothered you in congratulations, not sympathy; I praised you highly for taking the leap and surviving the cost. Within a few confused seconds your tears cleared up, you brushed the sand from your knee, and you shook off the rest of your surprise. All you wanted to do now was get back up on the equipment and try again–but this time, to stick the landing when you did.
I smiled and waved you on. You scrambled up the stairs. You saw the pole again, and in that moment the challenge of it reset itself in your mind’s eye. For all that you had already defeated it–and lived!–you balked anew. You tested its distance with hands and foot but could not make the leap. You tried to take a running start and failed.
In short, you were back to fighting the only real enemy you will ever have in your life, whatever the long and daunting course of it may bring: Yourself. The pole did not change; the pole will never change. There was and there remains only you.
Down in the sand, I was fighting with myself as well–ruminating over the many obstacles I was currently defeated by, obstacles I too had defeated at least once before. I would not overcome them all that day, and perhaps even in your day, as you read this, I will remain defeated by a few.
But for all my failings, nephew–and for all the failings of others gifted with the responsibility (and the privilege) of your care and education–remember, too: I gladly put them aside to stand at the bottom of that pole, with arms wide open, and help you overcome your own.
In the absence of perfection, our ability to care about each other’s struggles is really the best mentorship we’ve got. May it be plentiful in your lives, nephews–but even if it is not, may you be brave enough to forgive its absence, and then get on with the business of doing better for yourselves.
For better or for worse,
Your Aunt Maggie,