A (Fourth) Open Letter to My Daughter

Hi, Peanut.

Since the last time I wrote you, another summer has passed. A summer filled with both growth and decay, with revelations and disappointments, with dreams and reality- in short, with life.

You’ve grown this summer, not merely in inches, but in wisdom, in compassion. You’re figuring out who you are, and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. You are the product of nine years of your parents blathering on about how you should live as if we hold the key, as if there were such a thing.

But, obviously, we’re doing something right, because you’re a magnificent human being.

You transferred schools this year, into one that offers advanced placement classes. You’re taking to it well (thank heaven), and making us proud.

It got me thinking.

You’re challenging yourself. Your teacher is challenging you. Most interestingly to me, though, your fellow students are challenging you. Now, let me preempt this by saying emphatically: your new AP classmates are not, in any way, better kids than your previous classmates. They are, however, more skilled in a given subject (hence their inclusion in the AP program).

So, in that one particular context, you’ve surrounded yourself with people who are better in the area in which you’re trying to improve yourself (reading, math, etc).

You’ve no idea how important that is. When I think about it, you can succeed in nearly any aspect of... well, anything... by surrounding yourself with what we’ll call The Better.

The Better is not simply better in some abstract way (such a thing doesn’t really exist, does it?), but is better at a particular thing at which you want to improve.

To improve your math and reading, you’re surrounding yourself with a teacher and students better suited to fostering the necessary environment.

Daddy’s a writer who wants to get better at writing, so I surround myself with writers who are better than I. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I so love the web; not everyone in my physical surroundings are writers (in fact, very few are), but on the web, I can seek out The Better, I can surround myself with them, their work, their passion, and it seeps into me. In short, I become better.

Often, when a person has too much noise in their life, they go to a retreat to silence things for a bit. He or she wants more silence, so they surround themselves with those who are better at silence.

If you wanted to, say, practice more kindness, you could do no better than making a deliberate effort to surround yourself with kinder people. Want to learn a language? Immerse yourself in the culture, they say. Go to the source, they say. In essence, surround yourself with people who are better at that language than you are.

Sometimes, of course, surrounding yourself with The Better doesn’t even require people. This is the true beauty of books. If Daddy wants to get better at writing descriptions, then I can, though they are long gone, surround myself with Flaubert and Tolstoy. If you ever feel that you are flying a bit too straight, then you can immerse yourself in the story of one who’s better at mischief than you are- Pippy Longstocking, say.

You get the idea.

The problem is that we are human, and humans have a tendency to shrink away from The Better. Why? Because of a little thing Sigmund Freud called ego. You know how, when you’re out playing with friends, it’s really, really hard to admit that you don’t know something that everyone else knows? Or that you’re not very good at a particular thing? That’s ego getting in the way, and ego doesn’t leave, doesn’t diminish, doesn’t lose its grip as you get older. It stays with you, always sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong. Don’t get me wrong: ego has its uses. It’s the thing that instills confidence. It’s responsible for that little spring in your step when Mommy does your hair in the morning, and you feel good about it. It’s responsible when you ace a math test, or when you master a cartwheel after weeks of trying. It’s that little voice inside your head saying “You can do this.” Without that voice, you’d accomplish very little. But, just like you can take things too far sometimes, so can ego.

Ego is also responsible for the what ifs?

What if they think I’m stupid?

What if they laugh at me?

What if I screw it up?

What if. What if. What if.

Remember the Silverstein poem that we always read? You remember:

Last night, while I lay thinking here, Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear...

Don’t let the whatifs inside, sweetheart. The ego feeds on them, and an ego full on whatifs is like you on too much ice cream: it can’t be controlled. Be bold, be brave, be smart enough to surround yourself with The Better, with those people and those things that will lift you up to new heights. Things can seem dizzying from those heights, you should know, but the scenery is amazing.

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