Friday, November 23, 2007

Three Lessons From My Mother on Youth

I blame my mother for teaching me three truths about youth.

The first of her truths is that all girls are pretty and all boys are handsome. I used to hate being taught that one by her.

She taught it to me throughout my childhood and adolescence. She did it simply: Merely by praising the beauty of myself and my young friends. I hated it when she did that because it sounded false to my naive ears. Especially during adolescence, I couldn't believe she was anything but a lunatic when it came to beauty, because I had a markedly different standard of beauty than hers.

I had internalized the standards of my peers. Among ourselves, we had no sense of the universal beauty of youth. We didn't see that truth. One of us might be beautiful, but certainly not all of us. Certainly not our classes' ugliest girl nor most homely boy. So I would shrink in fright each time my mother pronounced that one or another of my classes' "less attractive" boys or girls was beautiful. I'd think, "Has anyone overheard her besides me? I'll die if they discover my Mom is an idiot! "

Roughly around 40, I discovered for myself the universal beauty of youth. That is, I finally saw what my mother had been talking about all those years. The beauty of youth transcends whatever happens to be fashionable beauty. It is timeless and universal.

The second truth my mother taught me was how transparent a youth is to an adult.

Mostly she did that by instantly seeing through my every pretension. Many times when we're growing up, we want to put on a front, we want to have pretensions, and we especially do not want our mothers to see through those pretensions. Instead, we want the sense of privacy that comes with imagining no one else knows we're bluffing.

Yet, just as a six year old is transparent to a 16 year old, so is a 16 year old transparent to a full adult. To this day, I have mixed feelings about that truth.

On the one hand, I've learned over the years that it is basic human nature to play at being something before one becomes something. Like all mammals, humans in most cases learn best through play. If you want to be a charitable person, first "play pretend" you are a charitable person. If you want to be a good lover, first "play pretend" you are a good lover. Playing/pretending kicks in whatever gears there are in our brains that allow us to learn very complex behaviors. So, to the extent we put on fronts as part of that learning process, it's not all that helpful when your mother tells you to "quit pretending to be something you're not."

On the other hand, when your mother tells you to "quit pretending", it can be a great lesson in the futility of living inauthentically. The trick is whether your mother knows you well enough to steer you away from trying to become something untrue to your nature, and instead tries to steer you towards becoming things true to your nature. That's largely what my mother did, and today I'm grateful to her for it.

She allowed and even encouraged me to play pretend at things that developed my natural talents into skills. She discouraged me from playing pretending at things I had little or no natural talent for, or which were anti-social. She was able to do that because she was some 39 years older than me and my own true nature was transparent to her.

At 37, I moved to Colorado. Through a strange set of circumstances it happened the first 200 or so people I met here were mostly kids. Some of them attached themselves to me, and I used to wonder why they willingly attached themselves to a man two decades their senior.

One day the answer came to me: I was doing for them what my mother had done for me. I was encouraging them to be true to themselves in the same persistent and often subtle ways my mother had encouraged me to be true to myself. That's what they wanted and even needed from a man two decades their senior -- someone who could see through their insecure fronts, and encourage their true selves.

The final truth my mother taught me about youth is the tragedy of wasted potential. This was something she taught through her comments on people. As I was growing up, she would occasionally point out how this or that person had wasted their talents. She never made a big deal of it, and her comments were always more or less in passing, but her point nevertheless sank in.

Is some part of youth's universal beauty the almost tangible sense of potential that young people exude? I don't know. But I know potential is thick on youth. I know that youth is a time when crucial steps are taken -- or at least should be taken -- to realize that potential. And I know that a thousand pitfalls await youth which will prevent all but a minority of them from ever fully realizing their genuine potential. That last strikes me as an especially poignant tragedy, and I think the reason the tragedy of wasted potential affects me as deeply as it does is in part because of my mother's teachings.

Again, this is something I saw most clearly in my late 30s and 40s, and if you have kindly read this essay, you will know by now that's a pattern with how I've absorbed my mother's teachings about youth. In each case, she pointed me to look. But in each case, I either didn't look, or perhaps couldn't look, at what she pointed until I was middle-aged. Yet, once I looked, I saw clearly what she had been all those years talking about.

Now, if I add all three of those lessons together to make a sum, then I get something like this: My mother prepared me through her teachings to clearly see, once I was older, how beautiful youth is, how important it is that youth learns to be true to itself, and how tragic it is when it doesn't.

All in all, I think those are some pretty profound lessons.


Priyank said...

How old are you??

David Rochester said...

There is no such thing,really,as teaching a lesson to youth ... it's just advance preparation for a lesson of middle age. Youth can't hear anything worthwhile, unless it says it itself.

Paul said...

Hi Priyank! I turn a decrepit 51 in January.

David, that is an excellent observation! Thank you!

Mystic Wing said...

Your mother seems to have been a wonderful parent, and you clearly learned her lessons well.

Well done to both of you.

Minal said...

hey that is GREAT
n yeah thank ur mom on my behalf for having taught such valuable lessons

Paul said...

Thank you, Mystic!

Thank you, Minal! I will do that!

Anonymous said...

I love it!

Who else think Paul can write us a book? ;)

I think you should one day. As i enjoy reading online but there is a special kind of joy when i read a physical book, not just online. :)

And also, please send my regards to your mom. :)


Paul said...

Hi Faisal! Thank you so much for your very kind words! I'll be sure to pass onto mom your regards. Every now and then she asks about you -- although at 90, she can never remember your name. :)

Nita said...

I think it's great, the relationship you have with your mom. Our parents teach us so many things but we tend to appreciate them only as we get older. You understood the wisdom in her words, but you couldn't have expected to understand it when you were 14.

Paul said...

Thank you, Nita! Mom and I had some rough years when I was growing up, but we made it through those years and have a wonderful relationship today.

prerna said...

We appreciate our parents and their views only after becoming parents and going through the same situations.You have a wonderful mother Paul.