College Advice to my Kids

As my kids grow I try to reduce commands and increase suggestions.  That way, in theory anyway, by the time they’re ready to head off to college, they make and own their decisions: I haven’t told them where to go; but I’ve helped them along the way–sometimes without their cognizance–so that when they finally decide it ends up being a win-win.  That’s my thinking, anyway.  And so far it’s working.  One of my kids is a sophomore already in college and another is about to finish her senior year of high school, on the cusp of embarking on her voyage into adulthood.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enough on parenting styles.  What I want to write about today is the suggestion part of the above equation: what lies at the foundation of my urgings, directings, proddings, pursuadings, and hintings–my advice, in other words, to my kids as they approach the day when I bid them bon voyage.

It has to do with play (something I mentioned near the end of my last post, “Why Audit Apuleius?”) in contrast to work.  Not that these two form a dichotomy: it’s not either play or work, I know; but more of both play and work.  But picture a play-work spectrum.  On the extreme left is pure play, on the extreme right pure work.  Everything else from left to right–every tiniest gradation–is some combination of play and work, more play than work on the left half and more work than play on the right, with a 50-50 mix occurring right in the middle.  “Now if you’re like me,” I’ve told my kids throughout their childhood–subtly, and sometimes not so subtly–“and if you’re like most people I know, you’ll probably want to end up with a job that puts you as closely as possible to the left side of the spectrum–as close to pure play as possible.”

Of course, this advice requires some definitions.  For both these terms–play and work–are vague and can therefore mean a lot of things to a lot of people; or even a lot of different things to the same person.  So, okay, what do I mean?

By work I do not mean a job, as in the common use, “Honey, I’m going to work.  See you at 5:30.”  Rather, I mean more the term given to Adam and Eve in the creation account–or the fall account if you prefer.  God created Adam and Eve, so the story goes, in the divine image.  There, in that pre-fall state of uprightness they were both given jobs to do.  But it wasn’t until after they ate that notorious fruit that their tasks became the work to which I refer.  Now they were told that they would toil by the sweat of their brows and that, for Eve, bearing a child would involve pain and labor.  Here are some synonyms that go with the term then: toil, pain, labor.  This is the stuff on the right side of my spectrum.

Play, by contrast, is something more transcendent.  In pure play–on the extreme left of the spectrum–I lose all sense of time, and perhaps even some sense of space.  For instance, I compose music when I have some free time and the fancy strikes me.  More than once I have started composing something late at night, after most or maybe all other family members have gone to bed, when the house is quiet and there’s nothing to distract me; only then to realize suddenly that it’s beginning to get light outside, that birds are chirping, that I’m actually in the world of time and space again, and that I better go to bed and get at least a couple hours of sleep lest I be a grumpy wreck of a father all day.  Point is, in the act of composing I entered something of a trance during which I’d lost all sense of time, and was even transported in some sense from my piano bench to an other-worldly spot, something like the Wood between the Worlds in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew.  Pure play.  Perhaps it’s the same for you.

Of course, in the world of jobs, vocations, professions, whatever–in the world of working for a living–it’s difficult to conceive of a job that allows a person to be in a state of pure play daily.  Indeed, is this even possible?  Even the author who gets lost in writing a book has a publisher to satisfy, deadlines to abide by, and the obligatory book-signings to attend.  Even the professor has students to teach, students who don’t really have any interest but are taking the course simply to satisfy a graduation requirement.  Even the independently wealthy have finances to worry about.  Even the–fill in the blank with your idealized job situation–has some type of toil, labor, and pain attached to the position.  We cannot escape work entirely–a truth that the Genesis story conveys all too well.

But we can do something about it.  Especially when we’re young, about to embark on a voyage into adulthood!  What moves you?  What engages you so completely that you lose a sense of time and space when doing it?  Once you identify this, the key is to find something that enables you to engage in this activity as much as possible.  So, for instance, in my case studying music theory and composition seemed the best option for a college major.  And even though I’m a priest now–a vocation that nonetheless helps me engage in the transcendent–I wasn’t thinking so much along these lines in college.  Too, even though I’m a priest now, I still find those occasional times to spend an evening lost in rapturous composition–an activity I honed and shaped most productively while in college.  Not to mention, my musical expertise often comes in handy now, in this vocation!

So what is it for you, I ask my kids?

I’ll tell you this: if you end up with a job that feels to you like labor, toil, and pain–on that right side of my spectrum–you’ll have a difficult time waking up every Monday through Friday; and you’ll watch the clock throughout each day, counting the minutes till five o’clock.  I once worked in a civil engineering firm that felt like that for me.  Not that it did for other engineers!  For some of them, they couldn’t wait to start work each morning; and they frequently had no idea that five o’clock just came and went.  For me, engineering was close to the right side of the spectrum; for them, left.

I’ll tell you this too.  The more I work–the older I get, the more experienced I become in my calling–the more leftward I want to move on my spectrum.  But that’s nothing to worry about too much now.  Still, you don’t want to find yourself in some dead-end job, unable to move leftward once you’ve got the responsibilities of a spouse, kids, a house payment, and so on.  (That can happen whether you have a college degree or not.)  If you ever find yourself there, have a plan to find something less toilsome and more transcendent.  (Not easy without a college degree.)  Point is, strive for play in the present moment.  And now, looking at college squarely, study what you love, what moves you, what triggers transcendence.

Of course this advice starts early: the proddings and all that.  But it must in our day and age, where kids are pressured from early on to worry about where they’re gonna go to college, what they will do when they grow up, how they will make the most money, live in the biggest house they can afford, drive the most luxurious car, and vacation at the best resort.  I don’t want my kids to worry about any of these things.  But I want them to be wise.

Here again my play-work spectrum fits the bill.  For even in pre-school my kids are encouraged to do what they love and love what they do.  But that brings us back to the beginning, doesn’t it?  When my kids are little, it’s more command and less suggestion.  That’s just about learning to love what you do.  Yet as they grow it becomes less command and more suggestion, or learning to do what you love.

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