On June 17th, 1744, the commissioners from Maryland and Virginia negotiated a treaty with the Indians of the Six Nations at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Indians were invited to send their boys to William and Mary College. The next day they declined the offer as follows:
We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those Colleges, and that the Maintenance of our young Men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced, that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same as yours.
We have had some Experience of it. Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces: they were instructed in all your Sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods...neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing.
We are, however, not the less obliged by your kind Offer, tho' we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.
- from Touch the Earth by T.C. McLuhan
I got a phone call recently from a young man in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He said, "A friend of mine told me I was heading down the wrong road, and that I really need to get your books to steer me back in the right direction." I asked him what wrong road he was taking, and he said he was using drugs again. He has been out of prison since 1993 and has been doing "so-so," but he knew that he was starting the Big Slide again and was desperate for help.
I said, "Well, you don't need my books to know that drugs are going to screw up your life. You need to do whatever it takes - twelve steps, counseling, detox, whatever - to stop using drugs immediately. You have to stop. You already know that. Don't wait for my books. You need to do it today."
He said he had already been through groups and rehab, and maybe he would go again, but wasn't sure how long it would hold up. So I asked him to tell me what his life was about. He said that he has an apartment and works at Bally's Casino. That's it. That's his life.
I told him I'd probably be doing drugs too if that were all my life was about. Working every day in a greed-filled, decadent environment, witnessing pathetic gamblers, prostitutes, drug dealers, gangsters, wealthy people, poor people, young people, elderly people, wasting their time in pursuits that have absolutely nothing to do with the meaning or purpose of human life; if all he's doing is working there and going back and forth to his apartment - that's not life, that's hell. He was silent for a while.
I asked him what he believed in. What is important to him? What brings him joy? What noble cause, what passion, inspires him? He was silent again for a minute and then said, "I don't know; just living, you know, just hanging out." I asked him what he was good at or interested in -- anything that he might strive to become better at, whether carpentry or auto mechanics or music or art or anything at all. "I don't know, nothing, I guess."
I told him we'd send our books, but there was no magic recipe which will help him create a delicious life out of such rancid ingredients. He needs a bigger change. I encouraged him to look into his heart, talk with others, develop some worthwhile interests, find a cause he can believe in and work hard to support.... after about five minutes of which he meekly said, "Well, listen, um, thanks for sending me the books; I appreciate you taking the call," and hung up the phone.
Before reading on, please take a moment or two to send that brother in New Jersey a silent blessing from your heart that he may find his way, that he may find a decent vision to follow. Please send him your love.
Why Do So Many Of Us Feel Useless or Powerless?
How is it that millions of people in our modern society reach adulthood having almost no values, interests or useful skills? It is a big mistake to assume that this is just a matter of underprivileged kids needing a better education! Privileged kids are just as lost and apathetic, and usually even less skilled in practical things like fixing a flat tire or repairing a leaky roof. These days, few kids of any socio-economic group feel any link to their ancestors' honor or their unborn children's' future, or any ideal larger than "I don't know, just living, you know, just hanging out."
In her recent book, Jesus Meets Buddha, Sister Ayya Khema says that the Buddha listed fifteen qualities which are essential for a good life. At the very top of the list is "To Be Able". To be a capable person, to have a variety of skills that come in handy, give us self-respect, and which provide various honorable ways to make a living.
The Jewish culture has a well-known word for such a person: Mensch. A mensch is someone whom you can loan your car to without worrying about it; someone who can figure out how to get the crumbly piece of toast out of the toaster without electrocuting anybody; someone whom you would like to work with, or have next to you in a fire, or a stuck elevator, or an earthquake or hurricane.
What does it take to be able, to be a mensch? It seems to me that it takes three things which should be the framework of any educational system or model of childraising:
Learning the classic spiritual and moral values which are common to any civilization - mercy, kindness, justice, courage, etc.
Learning practical skills relevant to the basics - food, shelter, warmth, health. Such self-reliance is the core of self-respect and common sense.
Developing self-discipline and adaptability so one doesn't fall apart in hard times. Not needing to be pampered. Not being so touchy or needy.
A Different View of Childhood
In the ancient Hindu culture, even the most privileged kids, the children of kings and emperors, were sent into the forest ashrams of rugged sages at a very young age to live without any luxuries and learn true unselfishness.
In most other ancient cultures too, childhood was mainly about learning those three things: Values, skills, and self-discipline. This is what gives us a sense of connection to others, a sense of our place in the great scheme of life, a sense of responsibility to the common good. If we separate kids from any duties in the real world, we inadvertently remove their deepest sense of value as well.
That may be the chief reason modern American kids are so lost and angry. American childhood is unnaturally insulated and separate from the adult world. "Generation gap" is not a natural human phenomenon; it's a serious problem we have created by having so little to do with our children's daily lives. Many kids don't know or care what their parents do for a living. The kids have no direct importance to their family's daily needs or maintenance. Even the government calls children "dependents." Is that a good message?
We may see American childhood as "giving them a chance just to be kids, just to have fun while they can." But in reality the effect seems to make them bored, agitated, and hopeless. People of every age need to be useful, and need to be skilled at something.
If we provide no opportunities for kids to be responsible, skilled, and needed; no meaningful initiations from one stage of childhood to another, then children will form their own groups - gangs, social cliques, Satanic groups - in which they can experience initiation, define their identity and value to the group, pledge their loyalty, and learn the skills relevant to that group - even if the relevant skills happen to be using a credit card to pick a lock, or shoving an icepick through the exact location between two ribs so that it punctures an enemy's heart.
A Nation of Mensches
Helena Norberg Hodge, a British woman who spent many years living in the tiny Himalayan country of Ladakh, points out that before our modern western educational system came to Ladakh, the society was basically a whole nation of mensches!
Children grew up learning their society's values of compassion, nonviolence and harmony, and virtually every boy and girl, by the time they reached adolescence, knew how to raise food, mend clothes, care for animals, build houses, construct complex irrigation systems -- in short, Ladakhi youngsters naturally became moral and capable young adults.
Now "progress" has come. Thousands of children are removed from their villages, crammed into classrooms to memorize facts and recite their times tables. They no longer learn from their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents; they no longer share the responsibility of food production, warmth, shelter, child care; they now have a more "privileged" childhood.
But as Ms Hodge explains, when their education is finished and they return to their villages, they are essentially useless. They have been cut off from the wealth of values, skills and traditions which have made the Ladakhis a happy people for hundreds of years. Many of them then migrate to the larger cities around India or Nepal, becoming prostitutes or drug abusers or working for minimum wage and being as aimless as our friend in Atlantic City at the beginning of this article. It's a very sad situation, similar to the devastation of the Native American cultures in the USA
Josh's Two Complaints
In 1991, Sita and I celebrated our 25th anniversary by spending the day with our son, Josh, in a remote spot at the bottom of the Rio Grande Gorge in northern New Mexico. The three of us took the opportunity to clean out all our old baggage with each other, air any secrets, deepen our sense of love and connection and loyalty to each other. Josh was twenty at the time.
At one point during the day I asked Josh if there was any way we had let him down as parents. He said there were actually two ways. "First of all, whenever something was hard for me to do, you guys helped me so much that I didn't develop much self-discipline. That hurt me a lot when I got to L.A. I had to develop all my self-discipline on my own. You didn't help me become very tough or adaptable.
"The second thing is, Dad, do you remember when I was fourteen and I told you that as soon as I finished high school I wanted to go out to L.A. to be an actor, and that I didn't want to go to college?" I said that I remembered, and he continued, "Well, you told me that I would have your blessing to do so on one condition: That by the time I left home, I was a skilled carpenter. That way, whether I succeeded in my acting career or not, I would still be able to make a good living and feel the satisfaction of working with my hands."
Once again, I said I remembered. Then Josh said, "But you didn't make me do it. You didn't force me to become a good carpenter, and you gave me your blessing anyway. You should have stuck by your word."
I said, "But I tried! I built five buildings between the time you were fourteen and the time you left home, and I tried to get you to help me on every one of them. You didn't like it; it was like pulling teeth to get you to help. So I gave up. I didn't want to force you."
Josh replied, "That's exactly what I mean: You should have forced me. You were the parent and I was the kid. You set a condition for your blessing and then you didn't make me live up to it. You should have made me become a good carpenter whether I liked it or not."
Sita and I sincerely asked his forgiveness on both those accounts. He asked for ours on a few other things. It was a great day - a renewal of deep affection and trust. I recommend such an occasional event to any family. And once again, it reminded us that kids don't want to be in a fantasy world of their own, they want to be needed and involved and held accountable, even though they may resist it.
The Common Myth of "Personal Freedom"
Most people think of personal freedom as doing whatever they want to do; our media images of personal freedom always depict self-centered pleasures and irresponsibility ¾ "getting away from it all," "taking the phone off the hook," "luxuriating in a bubble bath," "being rich enough not to care what others think," etc. . But human beings exist in relation to each other. Real personal freedom is being able to respond to whatever our situation or circumstances require from us. Ability to respond. Respond-ability. Responsibility.
If I don't know how to swim, and I walk by a lake where a child is drowning, I may passionately want to save her but not have the personal freedom to do it. I may have a million dollars in my pocket, I may be president of the United States, but if I don't know how to swim, that child will still drown. Motivation is only one part of freedom. Skill is another.
Many things limit our true personal freedom. If we are unskilled, illiterate, addicted, greedy, short-tempered, we will not be very free. We will always be victims of forces outside of our control. Even addiction to cigarettes, coffee, or sweets or a certain amount of sleep or particular working conditions compromises our personal freedom.
Needing to be "validated" or "acknowledged" by others also prevents us from being free. The popular sentiment "I just want to be loved" is a veritable anthem of slavery, not a song of freedom. When we focus on our ability to give love instead our need to receive it, that's when we set foot on the path to true liberation.
Cutting Out the Old and the Young
The truth is, real freedom, real joy, require a sense of one's "fit" in the great scheme of things. In order to feel connected to Life, we must contribute something positive toward the common good. Children and elderly people are no exception. By sheltering children from responsibility and putting the elderly out to pasture, we have unwittingly created an angry, aimless younger generation and a lonely, unappreciated older generation.
Many Americans assume this is simply what it means to be young or to be old. But anyone who has traveled in other cultures knows this is not true. Children can be happy, respectful, capable. The elderly can be radiantly peaceful, lucid, venerated.
Life is a holy and mysterious process all the way through. It's not just about making a living. There are wonders and challenges in every stage of life. Each stage is worthy of equal respect. Each stage requires values, skill, and self-discipline. And in every stage, we need each other. We need younger, middle-aged and older people around us, not just others our own age. We are ever and always part of each other. We either walk into Heaven arm in arm or we don't get in at all.
Making the Change
At this moment, there are many millions of angry young people, lonely old people, and lost, unhappy people like our friend in Atlantic City. The situation won't turn around overnight. But each one of us can begin the process of turning it around by sizing up our own lives with respect to values, skills, and self-discipline and doing whatever we need to do in order to bring those qualities up to our liking. We can look at how we are treating our children and elders and see whether we are allowing them their own areas of usefulness and responsibility, even if they fuss about it for a while.
We can steadily dismantle every notion we have that freedom is about money or accomplishments or prestige or recreation, and we can cease passing such empty notions on to our kids. We can develop common sense and basic skills, at any age, so that we become more self-reliant and adaptable to changing circumstances. We can size up our way of talking and make sure that we say what we mean and mean what we say; no hidden agendas or broken promises to ourselves or others.
In short, these are the qualities of a basic Mensch, and the world badly needs more mensches. Values, skills, and self-discipline make for a more enjoyable experience of living, more self-respect and confidence and friendliness to others. We can put ourselves and our kids and our elders back on the time-honored path to freedom and see how it begins to affect the folks next door and down the block. Everyone wants to feel better these days. A humble personal step in the right direction is a contribution to the whole world and to all future generations