A MODERN AND WORLDLY PERSPECTIVE
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Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys

What exactly were Willy Nelson and Waylon Jennings* warning us about? About our dreams? Aspirations? Expectations? Flights of fancy?

When we’re young here in America, we have dreams, big-as-the-Texas-sky dreams. This is as it should be. Youth is filled with possibility. Indeed, we are born into a culture that claims all is possible. We simply must choose. Not only do we have the right to pursue happiness, it is persistently claimed that any one of us can grow up to become the president, a Nobel prizewinner, a championship-winning athlete. Yes, the sky is the limit.

But dreams, expectations and conditions for satisfaction are tricky and should not be thought permanent. Better to think of them as tools. They must be monitored and where warranted, changed, lest our dreams be reduced to a form of escapism. It is important that we acquire the flexibility of mind to reorganize our expectations and conditions for satisfaction periodically, say in each decade of our lives. For example, the fire and enthusiasm we can bring to the party when we’re in our teens and twenties may be elevated and expressed in a different way when we’re older because of the competence, responsibility, relevance and stability we are now able to bring. So let’s take a closer look at America’s aspirational idealism, its “anyone can achieve anything if you just put your mind to it” culture.

First, according to Alexis de Tocqueville†, our personally inspired dreams typically aren’t substantive and often leave contribution (caring for others) out of the picture. In his book titled, Democracy in America, he said that America’s emphasis on personal success is at the expense of the quality of the moral and social fabric of this nation. He worried about our future. 

Second, we’re urged never to let go of our youthful dreams. We are driven to go for it because somehow we’ll achieve it. But such a set-up, which may be motivational in our youth, often leads to disappointment in our maturity even if we achieve our goals! At the mercy of a desire for endless personal gain, and with a low threshold for criticism that doesn’t affirm our sense that we’ll achieve the highs we wanted to feel, then anxiety and anger begin to pervade our experience. 

Of course, the whole of our life is about possibility, given that we are set up to self-rule. It's also about where we can fit in or lead, where we can financially prosper, emotionally and intellectually thrive and where we can contribute our utility to the moral and social fabric of the nation. However, over the course of our lifetimes as circumstances change, we must rethink our expectations and conditions of satisfaction accordingly. 

We who study autonomy and life have learned to frame and reframe our lives in this way. The key is our philosophy. In accordance with the responsibility for managing the mandatory freedom emerging from America’s experiment in self-rule, we have learned to philosophically oversee our sovereign behavior, our thoughts and communications and our judgments and choices.

We have also learned to resist the allure of an insatiable egoism and magical wishfulness to avoid the errant behavior that can ruin our lives and the lives of others and bring about an ad nauseam internal dialogue.                

If being a cowboy, billionaire, acclaimed writer or star of a reality show doesn’t work out, we are free to reorganize our expectations and our conditions for satisfaction. Time and experience have taught us to temper our initial aspirations with the wisdom of pragmatism and an existential read on our feelings. This new flexibility helps us to continue to experience fulfillment, satisfaction and equanimity as we keep up with the inevitable change in our circumstances over the course of our lifetimes. 

* Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys was first recorded by Ed Bruce, and written by him and wife Patsy Bruce. The song was made famous by Nelson and Jennings.

† Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1869, was a French thinker and historian whose perceptive and prescient analysis of the political and social system of the United States in the early 19th century is still widely read and respected. 

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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.    

 
 
 

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