A (Second) Open Letter to My Daughter

I was eleven when we met at Lisa Sheena’s birthday party. I was standing in the hallway, looking for the bathroom. I’d had four cups of punch, and it wouldn’t wait. Lisa’s mother had told me that the bathroom was the third door on the left, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t sure which door it was, and didn’t feel quite right about barging through every door, so I stood there, paralyzed, desperately hoping that someone or something would come along and show me the way before I made a fool of myself. I don’t know how long I stood there. One minute, five.

I remember coming around to the inevitability that I it was going to happen- I was going to piss my pants, out of sheer stupidity. I knew how ridiculous it was, and yet I could not move.

Then she came around the corner. Her amber hair was braided, but one lock strayed, falling over her face and curling just under her chin. She paused for just a moment, then smiled slightly. She walked past me, to the fourth door on the left, and opened it. I walked past her, lowering my gaze, and slammed the door in her face.

When I finished, and opened the door, she was still there. I tried to convey my gratitude without words, and as she entered the bathroom, I watched her close the door. I started back to the party, full of humiliation and relief, and examined each door as I went. The second door was a linen closet. I hadn’t factored that into the equation.

Hi, Peanut. It’s Daddy... again. I know I did this open letter thing already, but I’d like to impart some more wisdom, if you don’t mind. I’ve been collecting it, and I’ve got to get rid of some to make room for more. You don’t mind, do you?

Did you read that little story up there? It makes a very important point, and one that I want you to remember. See, you’re at the age (you’re eight as I’m writing this) where the world is starting to come into focus. It’s like you’ve had water-filled goggles on until this point, and we just took them off. You’ve seen everything, but it’s all been distorted, blurry.

Now you’re starting to question things. And you’re getting annoying answers when you ask questions; answers like “We’ll talk about it when you’re older” or “Nevermind- that’s grownup stuff.” It’s frustrating, I know. You’re exposed to so much more stuff than I was when I was a kid. I couldn’t even have conceived of YouTube at your age. As a result, you’re finding out more about the world, and some of it doesn’t make sense. Some of it seems silly, and some of it seems plain wrong. Of course you have questions.

Here’s the thing, though: you come to us grownups for answers, but the truth is we’re like that little boy in the story up there: we have no idea what we’re doing.

Sometimes we just don’t know why things are the way they are or why people behave a certain way. In fact, lately people have been taking a certain pride in their ignorance, your dad included. We’d be making Socrates proud (Socrates was a loud, ugly genius who changed the world; we’ll talk about him later), but that doesn't really help you. It just doesn’t suit us to tell you that we don’t know what we’re doing.

We can’t admit that we’re letting you grow up in a world in which virtually everything is unknown. We want to give the impression that we know what the hell we’re doing. We don’t.

See, people much smarter than Daddy have been studying other people for years, and it feels like it’s all coming to a head. So much of the research indicates that we’re not nearly as intelligent a species as we like to think we are.

There’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which seems to afflict the majority of the population — or so you will come to believe if you turn on a cable news channel for a bit — which tells us that a person who lacks intelligence will never know that they lack intelligence because... well, they lack the intelligence to understand that about themselves.

That’s just one cognitive bias, though- there are many others, like the ever-popular cognitive dissonance and my personal favorite, belief bias. Belief bias basically means that we only give an argument as much strength as our original belief allows us to. That means that if you argue with me, I’ll only believe your side if I already believe your side. Yeah, I know, it’s pretty ridiculous- but keep that in mind when you tell me what a safe driver you are after you ask for the car keys. I’m already not hearing you.

Then there are the recent studies that show that when we hear evidence that directly contradicts our beliefs, we not only do not change our beliefs, we actually believe those flawed beliefs more. We are a ludicrous people, we humans.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I want you to remember it anytime you come across someone who seems to know what they’re doing. These people are all around. Start looking and you’ll see them. They’re the people who make it all look so easy. They’re on top of the world and nothing can keep them down.

Or maybe they just excel at a particular thing. Maybe you’ll be practicing the violin one day, and the person next to you is playing like an angel while your fingers are cramping up and you feel like you’re making an ass of yourself.

Maybe you have kids of your own one day, and you go your mom’s house and she makes her grandkids a pineapple upside down cake, and you’ve never been able to make it taste the way she does and why the hell is everything so hard?

Whenever this happens, Peanut, think of the little boy in the story, standing in the hall, paralyzed, about to burst and make a fool of himself just so that he doesn’t have to admit that he doesn’t know where the bathroom is.

None of us know what we’re doing. That’s the secret. We’re all making it up as we go. So don’t assume anyone knows anything- lend a hand when you think someone needs it. Ask for help when you need it.

I want you to be just like the little girl in the story. Don’t judge, just help. Grab that little boy by the hand, walk him down the hall, and open the door for him- not because he asked you, but because you know (now) that no one in this world knows what the hell they’re doing.

When you get right down to it, we’re all just little boys trying to find somewhere to pee.

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