Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Forty Mid-Life Lessons

Well, I'm 40 years old today. I'm officially middle-aged. That must mean I've gained wisdom and have life lessons to teach, right? So, herewith, 40 lessons. Take them for whatever they're worth.

1. For all except a rather small minority of people on this planet, probably nothing is more important than finding a partner you can make a loving, respectful, happy union with, and then keeping that union together through thick and thin. Compared to accomplishing that, just about every other failure shrinks into insignificance; compared to giving up on that task, just about every other success does the same.
2. Read. Start young, and don't ever stop.
3. Write. Poetry, fiction, criticism, songs, essays, letters, scholarship, personal diaries...it almost doesn't matter what.
4. Don't let all the things Karl Marx got wrong prevent you from learning from what he got right.
5. Be a patriot, not constitutionalist. (That is, love your homeland, not your homeland's government.)
6. Have or adopt or foster or spend time with children. There's nothing better.
7. Find a church, and stick with it; the more time you commit to it, the more truth you'll find both within and without it, and plus the your fellow parishioners won't bug you so much after a while.
8. Occasionally visit other churches too. You shouldn't spend your life wandering from one house of worship to the next, but it is good to learn what other people are looking for; it might help you see your own choice more clearly.
9. People who won't even acknowledge the upside of protectionist or socialist economics are people who have allowed Ayn Rand or P.J. O'Rourke to convince them that forms of life have no historical or material grounding, but rather are just things individuals make up as they go along. They're wrong.
10. Much as it compromises my own profession, this would be a better world if there were more social and economic opportunities not tied to getting an official piece of paper from a black-robed, accredited intellectual like me.
11. Vote.
12. Just about everybody likes some sort of fluff; practically everyone is some sort of geek. This is not to say that every idiosyncratic preoccupation is equally worthy--not everything is relative. But if you argue against others' obsessions, argue respectfully, because you have them yourself.
13. Take a pay cut rather than work in a cubicle; turn down the promotion in favor of the office with a window.
14. Manners and rituals and customs and uniforms and holidays are all important secondary goods: not absolute, but not to be casually dismissed either.
15. Take breakfast seriously: learn to how to make waffles, biscuits, potato cakes, fresh orange juice, maple syrup, poached eggs, cinnamon rolls. It's the most important meal of the day.
16. Commuting to work on a bicycle is good for the environment, good for your body, and good for your soul.
17. While others study romantics and agrarians for their poetry, study them instead for their ideas.
18. Occasional goofiness and irresponsibility can be a good thing.
19. Context almost always matters more than content.
20. Ideas can't give offense; you can only choose to take offense at those who deliver them.
21. A little Luddism never did anyone any harm.
22. Nearly all "expert" nutritional advice is flawed.
23. If at some point in your life you learn (or even just pick up a little bit of) a foreign language, don't make the mistake of forgetting it.
24. Derek and the Dominoes, John Denver, the Commodores, Jackson Brown, Blondie, ABBA, Electric Light Orchestra, Parliament-Funkadelic, Lou Reed, the Clash, Supertramp, Earth Wind and Fire, the Bee Gees, Carly Simon--all this, plus the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, Elton John, the Eagles, Talking Heads, Linda Ronstadt, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and James Taylor at the height of their creative powers? Don't listen to the haters; the 1970s were the greatest decade in American pop-rock radio ever.
25. Plant a garden.
26. Aristotle (and Confucius, and Rousseau, and Tocqueville) was right: we are discursive, communal beings, who find ourselves most fully through fellowship and service and role-performance with other human beings. So don't take that individualism crap too seriously.
27. If you have an addiction, don't hide it, don't think you've got it under control, and don't allow yourself to believe it's just a problem with your self-image or self-esteem; get yourself into a legitimate, faith-centered 12-step program, and stick with it.
28. Slow down; take that family vacation in the car.
29. Play on the computer if you must, but Dungeons and Dragons will always be better with pencils, graph paper, and some 20-sided dice.
30. Subscribe to a daily newspaper. Read it.
31. Shop locally, especially for food. If you go to a farmers market, get to know the farmers, and find out where the food you buy comes from.
32. Move to a neighborhood that has sidewalks or quiet streets, where you can walk to church or the grocery store or the kids can walk to school. Then do so.
33. Naiveté gets a bad rap. Second naiveté especially so.
34. Take traditions seriously enough to be able to argue with and reject them; don't just leave them alone to die.
35. You can (and should) be liberal without being a liberal.
36. It probably doesn't matter too much if your partner isn't all that interested in your personal hobbies or what you do at work or what you do with your other friends. It does matter a lot if you can't explain to your partner why those things are important to you...or if you can't appreciate in turn what your partner explains to you.
37. Brown bag your lunch to work.
38. A truly humble person can't be humiliated.
39. In the end, after all the ethics and commandments and tough choices and hard judgments, as important as they are, never forget what this passage of scripture says truly matters.
40. Have fun.

Oh, and happy new year, everyone.

16 comments:

thekibitzer said...

Happy birthday and what a great list. I loved it.

Kaimi said...

Great list, Russell. And Happy New Year.

Matt said...

Happy birthday, Russell. I'd disagree with a large number of these, though often only in degree, and many of them are clearly matters of taste more than anything but the one I'll pick on is that the only sort of patriot worth being is a constitutional patriot, and that only as an ideal.

Hugo said...

Happy birthday, youngster. Special thumbs up to your @2,9,24,27,30,34...

Nate said...

Happy birthday!

This:

"17. While others study romantics and agrarians for their poetry, study them instead for their ideas."

is of course wrong ;->. I have a book of Berry's essays, but I have three books of his poetry. The poetry is much, much, much more compelling than the prose.

MH said...

Happy birthday. I'll take the list under advisement, but I don't think I'll start commuting by bike until Pittsburgh is as flat as Kansas. (I did see a guy go up my very steep street on a wheel chair, but he was clearly some sort of athlete training for something. I would have asked him, but I didn't think he had the breath to spare.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Kaimi, thekibitzer, Hugo, MH, thanks very much. Best wishes for the coming year to you all.

Matt, thanks for the birthday wishes. We obviously see things pretty differently; I think the great majority of people actually have (or ought to have) "homelands," for lack of a better term, and that it makes much more sense to have some attachment to said place rather than a civic construction, as important as they may be. But that's a long argument, obviously.

Nate, as usual we disagree, though I admire your openness to poetry, which I've never been able to read and learn from the way I probably ought. (Though it kind of amazes me that anyone can read, for example, his great essay "The Whole Horse" and not find it pretty damn compelling.)

cleggle said...

Turning 40 this year, and I think I will print up your list and post it somewhere prominent. It nearly brought me to tears (is that weird?) I guess because you got it- these are the things that matter.
Thanks

Christopher said...

It's posts like these that make me said I am not still in your classes.

Thanks for mentioning Rousseau by the way :)

Abe Fox said...

HAPPY B-DAY Russell! I love the list.

But No.....Billy Joel....in your #24 list of greats! And I am well aware it was not meant to be a comprehensive list, but come on..... (or sh'mone as Michael Jackson might say)....

Happy New Year!

Baden Fox said...

Happy birthday Russell! We enjoy reading your posts.

Marj said...

38. A truly humble person can't be humiliated.
I am going to think more about this one.
I think that this could help with relationships alot.
Thanks Russ.

Matt said...

This isn't really the place for such a discussion, of course, but since the idea of a "nation" is a pretty modern one it can't possibly be necessary for human flourishing as such. Some claim it's necessary in the modern world, but that also seems clearly false, at least in general. The best argument for a "constitutional patriotism" is Jan-Werner Muller's book by that name, one that I very strongly recommend.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Happy birthday!

5, 9, 26, 34, and 35 all seem to me at least problematic-as-stated, and of course in some cases just wrong. One should take *some* traditions intellectually seriously in that fashion, but some should be ignored and allowed to die-- and many should be ignored and allowed to live, even if you don't live by them or tend to their survival yourself-- the Oakeshottian in me worries that *arguing* with a tradition is sometimes a category mistake in a way that ignoring it need not be.

9 would be less problematic if it weren't stated as "protectionist or socialist *economics.*" What you're appealing to is the prioritization of something else *over* economics. I can recognize that creative destruction involves, well, destruction, and that the destruction is disruptive of ways of life that have real value to persons and that that's a real human cost that might be buffered or insulated against, and that sometimes might be intolerable. But I won't call any of those qualifiers "economics," and won't pretend that socialism or protectionism writ large somehow escape from the world of disruption and dislocation and destruction.

But there are many more items on the list that are right, and important, and insightful!

John B. said...

Russell,
A belated happy birthday to you! Speaking as someone with 6 more years of wisdom than you have acquired, I can't quibble too much with your list--or, for that matter, add to it. This should stand you in good stead for a while yet.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Russell, and Happy Birthday!

-Barry