They, of tender years, can't know the fears that their elders grew by
I intend to use our interest in the recent scandal about wealthy parents and their children’s college education to talk about the problems that accompany a dysfunctional ego: unbridled rivalry, the illusions of proficiency and the tendency to live above the law.
Bred into our DNA is a do-or-die rivalrous instinct. We are also equipped with educable sensory functions—for example, self-awareness, thinking, rationality, planning, creativity—that contribute to making humans successful in many ecological niches. But our born-of-nature programmed rivalry may distract us from bringing the development of these perspectives, understandings and aptitudes to the forefront of our attention.
Instead, we’re provoked by our DNA to “win” at any cost. We’re also co-opted by our envy of the stuff or privilege of others and by Scoreboard’s artful presentation of the spoils (including bragging rights) of winning. In addition, we are saddled with a dysfunctional ego (an unrealistic—think overblown—sense of who we are in terms of real talent, real competence, real character). As such, is it any surprise that we may lose sight of fairness, equality and justice and surrender to the temptation to live above the law?
In general, people don’t brag about breaking the law. However, prodded by the dysfunctional ego to compare ourselves to everyone else, many of us brag about how much time, effort and money we’ve spent (in this case, getting our children into the right college) as if these driven-by-rivalry, one-upmanship expenses and expressions were signs of what remarkable parents we are.
But what about the fact that children needing so many illegal paid-for advantages are leaving school lacking the intellectual and emotional maturity to succeed in the struggle that life is? How realistic are they about what it takes to make one’s way lawfully in the world? What resources do they have when it comes to the recognition and resolution of competitive conflict in the marketplace and in relationship? What do they know of the learning and practice of civilizing behavioral conditions such as cooperation, trust, persuasion and fairness? How naïve it is to think that more money and more shortcuts will prepare our children with critical skills such as dependability, resolve, patience and the ability to read and write well, set objectives and solve problems so that they can design a responsible, meaningful and contributory life that they are fit to live.
Those parents caught in the recent scandal are embarrassed. But they’re not ashamed of their lack of behavioral control and character, or that they’ve left their children without the tools to belly up to the bar, to pay their dues and to deal with the competing visions of what’s important in life. Those parents are embarrassed because their carefully cultivated image as a model upstanding citizen of this country is tarnished.
Think about it. Who talks about responsibility, character, good citizenship, contribution, discipline and playing by the rules except after a scandal such as this one? We may give fairness lip service and climb on moralizing bandwagons, but the pressures of rivalry may force us to focus our attention on the image others have of us in terms of wealth, attractiveness, influence, high-profile parenting and philanthropy and not on the substance we actually need to teach our children well.
Most of us here in America try to present ourselves as decent people of good will. We wish to be seen as individuals who behave in accordance with this country’s experiment in liberal democracy. We try to act as if we don’t need constant policing, that we’ve actually acquired the behavioral discipline to live as upright, law-abiding, responsible citizens, autonomous, in charge, self-possessed.
Of course, I am not saying that such integrity and autonomy are easy for us. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “They, of tender years, can't know the fears that their elders grew by.” Scoreboard is intimidating; it possesses us. The pressure to impress our peers is intense and so is the demand from our children. And besides, we know others cheat. It takes a great deal of acquired intelligence, commitment and the development of a metaphorical backbone to keep these fears from compromising our decency and good sense.
And no one should be saying that it is easy for our children to become honest and autonomous adults. Restless, distracted, coerced to conform, anxious or depressed about global or local dangers or prejudices they face, tweens and young adults are often distant, emotionally fragile, self-absorbed. Many of them don’t have their attention on learning to overcome timidity or on developing the wisdom and skills to play fair and the ability to tolerate novelty, uncertainty, contingency, bad fortune, bad news and disappointment.
In sum, it’s not easy to develop the governing authority in our lives because the human animal is biologically and historically determined to appear to win at any cost. It's also hard because envy, a resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage, is painful and one of the major causes of anxiety and discontent. Worse, while for the moment it may seem to make sense that we’d want to alleviate this discontent by any means possible—including bribery, cheating, extortion, gaming the system, etc., it’s never relieved once and for all. Scoreboard makes sure of this. It relentlessly compares what we have to those who have more. Still, by what measure do we want to know and be known. By what manner will we fairly enact and account for our lives? And, if we are unable to transcend the temptation to live above the law, what’s to become of our children?
As you know, I don’t think there are any real shortcuts. I don’t think happiness is a product of the number of followers we have on social media or our absolute rank on the Scoreboard. Pragmatically, if not morally, each of us is asked (by our country’s guidelines for the privilege to lead a life of our own design), to become an autonomous self, obligated to be free and responsible for the consequences of our choices, i.e., in the matter of selecting and controlling our behavior.
If we don’t accept this demand and follow the rules governing it, we carry a very heavy conscience-jarring subjective load. No matter how well we polish our image, we feel like phonies, cheats, aware that we’re not pulling our weight. Worse, when we pass this skimming on to our children, we do them a cruel disservice. Think about how much courage, competence and commitment each of our children will need to live a decent life when we’re no longer around.
Teach Your Children, from which comes the post title's paraphrased line, was written by Graham Nash and first appeared on the album Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released in 1970. The original line is, You, of tender years, can't know the fears that your elders grew by.
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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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