A Cynical Idealist’s Advice to His Children

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For many years, I’ve intended to set down advice for my children. Not practical tips, but Profound Wisdom. Until now, I’ve failed to write a single word. This was mostly for fear that, once I sat down to compose these lines, I’d find I had nothing original to say. There was also the dread of being mocked for self-importance. Who am I to tell anyone else how to live? It’s not as if I’ve done such a stellar job of it.

Recently, though, I stumbled on a long letter written by the English essayist William Hazlitt to his eleven-year-old son.* In poor health, and fearing that he might not live much longer, Hazlitt laid out an exhaustive inventory of advice. I may at least be able to caution you against my own errors, if nothing else, he wrote.

Exactly.

I admire and agree with much of what Hazlitt wrote to his son. As many others have noted, he deserves to be rediscovered. The forerunner of Orwell and Hitchens, he wrote insightfully about politics, books, art, theater, the famous people of his day, and such odds and ends as loving the countryside, fearing death, and even the “Pleasure of Hating.” Son of a Unitarian minister, friend of celebrated poets and painters, he was a skeptic and a political radical who saw the French Revolution as a cataclysmic step in the inevitable journey toward freedom. His conservative contemporaries, who considered the revolutionaries criminals, despised him.

Hazlitt wrote his letter after taking his young son to a new school and watching him hold himself apart (scornfully and defensively) from his new schoolmates. What distinguishes this father’s advice from that of modern parents is that, where the moms and dads of today write warmly and tenderly of responsibility, respect, listening and trust, Hazlitt bluntly pointed out his son’s faults and tried to correct them. This may not accord with current child-rearing wisdom—and one can only wince, imagining the poor kid reading the letter—but we can learn a great deal from his words.

The world has changed since 1822, and some of Hazlitt’s guidance sounds a bit dusty: urging his son to take dancing lessons in order to learn physical grace, for example. Overall, though, the letter bowled me over with its insight. I wish a mentor had told me these things years ago:

“Because… you have learnt Latin and Greek, and can speak a different language, do not fancy yourself of a different order of being from those you ordinarily converse with. They perhaps know and can do more things than you… Do not fancy, because you are intimate with Homer and Virgil, that your neighbours… are to be despised…”

“I would not… have you run away with a notion that the rich are knaves or that lords are fools. They are for what I know as honest and as wise as other people. But it is a trick of our self-love, supposing that another has the decided advantage of us in one way, to strike a balance by taking it for granted… that he must be as much beneath us in those qualities on which we plume ourselves… So in the other sex, if a woman is handsome, she is an idiot… in ours, if a man is worth a million of money, he is a miser, a fellow that cannot spell his own name, or a poor creature in some way, to bring him to our level.”

“You are, I think, too fond of reading… I would wish you to make it a rule, never to read at meal-times, nor in company when there is any (even the most trivial) conversation going on, nor ever to let your eagerness to learn encroach upon your play-hours. Books are but one inlet of knowledge; and the pores of the mind, like those of the body, should be left open to all impressions… Whatever may be the value of learning, health and good spirits are of more.”

“Let not the cloud sit upon your brow: let not the canker sink into your heart. Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the colour in your cheek and the fire in your eye… maintain your health, your beauty, and your animal spirits…”

Hazlitt opened a door for me. After reading his letter, I finally sat down and poured out the thoughts I had wanted to pass down to my children since they were small. You may disagree with some or all of this; if so, I invite you to put your own beliefs into words and share them with your children or other loved ones. It’s worth doing, if only to discover what you really think. We don’t always live up to our own ideals, but I think most of us would like the people closest to us to know what those ideals are.

There’s also another motive operating here: as Hazlitt put it in his opening paragraph, I wish to leave you some advice (the best I can) for your conduct in life, both that it may be of use to you, and as something to remember me by. Like Hazlitt, I’d like my children to think of me when I’m gone—and to know what I believed, even if I rarely said these things out loud.

Here, then, is my advice to them:

  1. Be more of a doer and less of a spectator. Trying to do something, and doing it badly, is better than sitting on a couch watching a champion do it well.
  2. See those people who are excellent at what they do? They’ve spent a lot of time practicing.
  3. Don’t try to be something different than you are—but this doesn’t mean you can’t improve. The trick is finding the balance.
  4. The more you say Yes to opportunities that come your way, the more experiences you’ll have—and many of them will be good!
  5. Still, it’s wise to step back now and then and remember what you most want to achieve—which may be completely different from what has fallen into your lap.
  6. Try to do something to improve the world, rather than only pursuing your own goals and pleasures. Being kind to the people you meet is an excellent way to start. (To clarify: I’m talking about courtesy and compassion, not about sugary insincerity.)
  7. It’s better to help your elderly neighbor (by shoveling the sidewalk, for example) than to stay informed about every problem in the world and do nothing about any of it.
  8. The people in charge don’t know everything. They have more information at their disposal than you do, but they don’t always use that information wisely. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you strongly believe the authorities are wrong.
  9. But before you call the people in charge idiots, learn more about the problems they face. Don’t criticize from a position of ignorance.
  10. There’s an art to persuading people. I’ve never learned it, but you can if you try.
  11. Don’t be too quick to adopt the ideas and prejudices of your friends and family. There’s usually some truth on the other side, too.
  12. Avoid falling in love with people who don’t love you. (This is easier said than done.)
  13. You may love someone who wants you to be different than you are. Consider the specifics. If they ask for minor adjustments (e.g., improving your table manners), you may want to change. If the complaint goes deeper (“You need to change careers”), run for your life.
  14. Seemingly contradictory statements can both be true. For example…
  15. Don’t spend too much time worrying about how you look — but try not to look ridiculous. (Another way to put this: fashion is silly—but if you ignore it completely, you’ll make yourself an oddball, possibly an outcast.)
  16. Getting rich should never be your goal; but don’t forget to find a way to earn a decent living. (Don’t be as impractical as I was.)
  17. “No justice, no peace.” That may sound like a threat, but it’s really the key to fixing the world. Unfortunately, it can also be read as a prediction.
  18. If possible, choose for your profession something you’ll enjoy doing every day.
  19. If a goal seems out of reach, don’t give up on it. Instead, figure out the steps that would get you there.
  20. If you become a workaholic, remember that some of your happiest times will be the hours you spend with the people you love best, just fooling around. I recommend that you do more of this.
  21. When you fail at something, after the inevitable despair, think hard about what you can do differently next time. Seek advice from someone who knows more about it than you do.
  22. If you work in a creative field, you’ll face rejection over and over again. This will hurt—but it doesn’t mean you’re no good, or that you won’t succeed eventually, or that someone else won’t say Yes tomorrow. (On the other hand, if you believe you’re the greatest despite unanimous rejection, you may be delusional.)
  23. Our family tends to be pessimistic and worry a lot. Notice that most problems get solved whether you worry or not. Do what you need to do, and worry less.
  24. Do you know what takes real courage? Risking your comfortable livelihood because you don’t believe in what you’re doing. I admire anyone who does this.
  25. What takes even more courage than that is standing up for an awkward person against the mockery of a popular leader. Do this and you’ll be a hero.
  26. Eventually, forgive your parents their imperfections. (This may not be possible until you have children of your own.)
  27. Appreciate friends. And forgive small annoyances so you can keep them.
  28. You will hurt someone’s feelings. It’s inevitable—we’re not angels. If you can, try to heal the damage.
  29. Use your body, not just your mind. Take as much pleasure as you can in physical things—sports, dancing, and all degrees of affection. (How’s that for a euphemism?)
  30. Exercise often. Be strong and fit, and stay that way as long as you can. You’ll be happier than if you sit inside growing weak and pale.
  31. Walk in the woods as often as possible. Do it alone and you’ll be amazed at the new thoughts that come to you.
  32. When gazing up at a bird in a tree, enjoy nature’s majesty but keep your mouth closed.
  33. Your computer is not just a tool. It’s also an addiction. Don’t get sucked down the rabbit-hole.
  34. Tell as few lies as you can manage without being cruel. People don’t talk about honesty much any more, but it’s still a noble virtue.
  35. Try not to gossip or mock people behind their backs. This will deprive you of a popular social pastime—but my impression is that the people we think the most highly of are the ones who talk this way the least.
  36. There are men who think all women are bitches, and women who think all men are assholes. They’re both wrong—and stupid, if you ask me.
  37. I hope you’ll think in terms of what would be best for everyone, not just yourself. Be aware, though, that you’ll have to contend with some who think only about what’s best for themselves.
  38. If your side has lost an important political battle, that doesn’t mean you’ll never win. Serious wrongs take a long time to right.
  39. Once you’ve been at the mercy of rude, lazy and incompetent people, you’ll learn to appreciate anyone who does his or her job carefully, courteously, and well. This includes everyone from neurosurgeons to fast food cashiers.
  40. From time to time, consider what you’d like your life to be like. Notice the gaps between wish and reality, and then do what you can to close the gaps. You’ll never get all the way, but you can come closer.

Reviewing all of this, I see that I’ve urged my children to be better and wiser than I’ve been myself. Like Hazlitt—like most parents—I want them to succeed where I haven’t. Children: don’t worry that I’ll be disappointed if you fall short of perfection. More than anything, I want you to be happy. And I already admire you both, for reasons you don’t even suspect.

* Hazlitt, On the Conduct of Life