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RBC Letter

Vol. 56, No. 4 — April 1975 — Young People at the Starting Line

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Young people leaving school and university this year are coming up to the starting line in a troubled world.

New international alignments with changing balances of power cast a cloud over hopes for peace. Economic ups and downs affect the buying power of every family. Industrial unrest is marked by widespread unemployment. The rapidly increasing world population is straining food resources. And to all these major troubles there are added the irritations of traffic congestion, housing shortage, racial and religious dissension, and the apparent perversity of people.

Nevertheless, people everywhere keep alive their hope, if not expectation, of an improved future. Discontent with things as they are at present is accompanied by the desire and the will to change them for the better.

There can be no greater enterprise for young people and for their elders who left school many years ago than to adapt to changing conditions and to succeed in spite of them or by making use of them.

When you look at them discerningly you see that the sciences of economics, sociology and ethics are made up of attempts to formulate a satisfactory balance between desirable ends to be attained and the prices to be paid for them.

You cannot do what you like with anything or any situation: you can do only what can be done with it. It is possible to shape its future to some extent, but not if you ignore its past.

There is a subtle pleasure in using old things and thoughts wisely. We cannot avoid making the same mistakes as previous generations unless we learn what the mistakes were and how they came about. Learning what answers to problems like our own were made by our forefathers will help us to approach their solution as intelligently as they did and to avoid making the mistakes they made.

Totems and taboos

Primitive people regulated their lives by totems and taboos. The tribal totem or flag or other symbol, is the object of respect and the symbol of principles and institutions of a group of men and women who are associated with one another through common obligations. Tabooed articles or practices were prohibited as being improper or unacceptable in society.

Some things are still totemistic. Men or women engaging in business or a profession or an art adopt to some extent the characteristics expected of them in their chosen position: it is necessary to do so in order to succeed.

There is nothing demeaning about giving your support to institutions with whose purposes or practices you do not wholly agree, if they are venerable, beautiful, or useful. You may be right or wrong in your opinion about them, but remain clear-headed so as to avoid being unjust.

Many people cannot find satisfaction in old conventions and beliefs, yet are not sufficiently learned to commit themselves to forging workable new ones. Instead, they concoct flighty mental images of ideal working conditions, government, education and society. These beget strange beliefs of impossible shape. A person needs to support his imaginative excursions by facts gathered in sober inquiry.

We are surrounded by a babel of voices making enticing promises, proclaiming glittering fallacies, advancing deceitful arguments, and advocating shamefully spurious cures, all urging us to impetuous action.

Most human beings admit that the state of human beings on earth is lamentable. The feeling of being part of a great society is absent, and instead there is a sense of being an enormous number of fragments, their actions as ineffective as the gestures of puppets.

Past generations having failed to bring harmony to human affairs, there are two choices open to men and women today: to acquiesce in despair or to recognize that some feet will tread the heights of improvement and to make sure that their feet are stepping in that direction.

Our environment cannot be changed by demonstrating against it, but only by adapting intelligently to the conditions it imposes and doing something positive to improve them.

There has been inequity in every generation. This is not to excuse it or to say that it must exist, but to say that today's conditions are not unique. Older people have had burned into their memories the inflation of the 1920's and the depression of the 1930's. Younger people, raised in comparative affluence and security, have not these memories against which to appraise the relatively small distresses of recent months.

Privation is no longer a valid reason for disturbance in western countries. Between thin layers of wealth and poverty there is a bigger comfortably housed and well-fed percentage of people than ever before in our history, and bigger than in most other countries.

There is, however, an instinctive effort by parents to help their children to avoid the hardships of life that they endured and to seek the satisfaction of their parents' unrealized hopes through the advancement of their children, and this leads, in some cases, to a distortion of values.

A member of society

What should a young person's approach to life be under existing circumstances?

One is not an individual living alone, but part of an organization, a member of the human race. Do not demand that those around you shall be framed by a more perfect model than you are able or willing to imitate. Respect and cherish friendship and the opportunity to serve. Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man: "The social instincts naturally lead to the Golden Rule, and this lies at the foundation of morality."

Decency is of public concern. No matter how deep our knowledge, it must be adorned by manners. You may rebel against the conventions of society, but convention is the lubricant that makes it possible for human beings to live together.

Courtesy is not the whimsical invention of a past generation, but the expression of a law whose observance is necessary to co-habitation of human beings on a crowded planet. It is needed in all ranks and activities of life. If filial devotion has gone out of style in certain circles, there remains the attribute of courtesy, which is the least that children can contribute to the parents who nurtured them.

There is dignity in the desire to be right even in the smallest questions wherein the feelings of others are concerned. "What a pity," said Talleyrand, great French statesman, after listening to a tirade by Napoleon, "that so great a man should be so ill-mannered!"

What to seek

It is a reasonable ambition in men and women of any age to seek to raise their level of living while enjoying a way of life that is in accord with their particular personal sets of values. If people do not consider what is best, but only what is pleasurable, how can they be any better than the most senseless animals?

It is important for everyone, but particularly for young people, to select the appropriate path to follow. "Right aspirations" is the second precept in Gautama Buddha's Eightfold Path.

Having a purpose gives your mind unity of thought and action, and helps you to keep your sense of direction. It is tiresome to go through life as if you had a radar set instead of brains, always telling you what people expect you to do. Thinking for yourself along the right lines gives you wisdom.

Intelligent human beings will not long be satisfied with animal pleasures. The pleasures of the intellect come first. Corliss Lamont wrote in The Philosophy of Humanism: "The individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare of the community." Such people seek to make sure that their pilgrimage may leave some traces.

Capture or develop the dominant idea of your worth in society, and go to work. There is little that one cannot do with good tools, good materials, determination, and an ideal. The tools for improving life are education and skill in its application; the materials are the events of everyday life; determination is a personal application of the desire that one has; and an ideal is a vision of what might be.

On the way to whatever goal you set your eye upon, try to make a contribution to the promotion of science, art, morals and education. Planning what contribution to make and mapping out the course you intend to follow are part of the joy of living so as to be self-fulfilled.

Do you desire fame? To be famous for what? Distinguish between being notable and being notorious. Neurotic ambition arises from weakness and insecurity and derives its satisfaction from the acclaim of the crowd. As Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman learned the hard way, popularity is a spider's web support for the realities of life.

Do not get side-tracked by self-indulgence, self-preoccupation, or exhibitionism. A narcissus complex, full of self-love, is the most tragic of all complexes. Wholesome ambition is outward-looking. It seeks to learn what it can do, not what will set notoriety's trumpets sounding a fanfare.

A well-balanced ambition gives stability. The person who has it is not simply a bundle of isolated acts and beliefs: he has unity. When you have emotional stability you refuse to be put out by failure or made rash by the expectation of success. You can be depended upon. You are a person of character.

A person of character has the will to put forth energy in doing things, and the wish and ability to keep desirable aims before his mind. He may have dreams, but he is not solely a dreamer.

Dorothy L. Sayers tells in her story Clouds of Witness about a man who lived to be 96, doing nothing, but planning all the things he might have done. He wrote an elaborate diary, containing the record of this visionary existence which he had never dared to put to the test of trying.

Attaining maturity

Mature judgment is not a matter of age but of the application of knowledge to situations. Advertisements daily urge us to look young, be young, act young, and stay young. They are, in truth, the greatest campaign for arrested development of the human being ever waged anywhere.

Far from glorifying infantilism, the dawn of maturity is a time to get random impulses under control, a time to cease being an undergraduate. Maturity is the ability of young and old to react to life situations in ways that are more beneficial than the ways in which a child would act. It involves an increase of self-understanding, self-control, and self-direction.

Delayed maturity is evidenced by those who remain habituated to being supported by parents or the government when they should be shouldering their own responsibility. Instead of leaning upon others to supply wants, soothe fears, and provide refuge, the mature person has come to a stage in life where he feels the impulse to be a self-sustaining person useful to family, friends, and society.

You need to know

It would be a great mistake to assume that fundamentals do not apply in your case; that you can skip a lot of lessons that other people need to learn. The questions "What shall I do under these circumstances?" and "How shall I go about doing it?" cannot wait until you have had experience. They must be answered out of stored knowledge of principles and practices.

If you wish to make a spacious version of your life you will keep learning. One sign that you have grown up, that you are no longer a child, is that you do not look upon study or learning as work. Educational fixation places a limit on personal development, and holds down your level of attainment.

There is a book that gives sixty-five rules for efficient study. Four are sufficient. 1. Decide what you wish to learn about; 2. Select the books or classes appropriate to your purposes; 3. Set a course and assign times, making allowance for storms and contrary winds; 4. Get sailing.

Cultivate the love of mental adventure. Study close to the limits of your mental powers and strain them a little. A break through into new knowledge is an occasion for immediate jubilation and the source of lasting pleasure. You are escaping from being commonplace.

Limitations of experience

Some people are obsessed by the idea that nothing ever happens in the world unless it happens to them personally. They think that the only way to learn a route is to go over the road themselves, suffering every hardship, clearing every obstacle, and working things out for themselves.

They are like Ko-Ko, who made his entrance upon the entertainment stage as the aspiring Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. He intended to qualify as a competent executioner by beginning with a guinea pig and working his way up through the animal kingdom.

There is a better plan: ask "Out of whose book can I take a leaf?" Take a short-cut to knowledge by using the experience and precepts of others who have trodden the hard path before you, making the necessary adjustments to fit a new environment.

While you will avoid asking advice in matters that should be decided by the use of your own wits, you will sometimes approach some perplexity from which the advice of a prudent friend or a wise associate might easily deliver you.

It is usually a weakling who does not take advice, someone who fears in a small-thinking way that to seek advice is to admit incapacity. On the contrary, to use advice proves that you are well-advised. Socrates had a daemon who warned him against one course of action and suggested an alternative, and many a king's throne had a little filigreed hole close to the sovereign's ear through which advice could be whispered to him.

When you bump your head against a new experience, take time to figure out what happened and why. One must be a bit of a Stoic, with a mind too great to be affected by the small troubles of life, but at times it is necessary to examine happenings with a view to correcting them, while submitting without complaint to unavoidable necessity.

Sir William Osier, Canadian-born physician who became Regius professor of medicine in the University of Oxford, said to graduating students that they should cultivate "Coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storms, clearness of judgment in moments of great peril."

Experience that counts is not acquired quickly. Some persons are on a hurry-up schedule. They want promotion and prestige without spending the hundreds of hours of labour needed to learn how to do their jobs. They are like Prince Henry in Shakespeare's play who took the crown before his father died.

This is an age of wading into everything up to the neck, but enthusiasm should not be allowed to push us beyond our depth. We need to evaluate our strength from year to year by considering the distance we still have to go rather than by the distance we have already swum.

We have choices to make at every stroke. The possibility of choosing is the crown of human life. We can choose between immediate ease or the satisfaction of our urge to press on. The choice deserves careful study. It is narrowed and made less intelligently by ignorance, obsession and laziness.

About making progress

Every person who wishes to enjoy peace of mind needs to learn to renounce many ephemeral things in order to possess things that are substantial.

Upon entering a new field of activity such as university, business, trade, or profession, you may feel somewhat lost. Before setting foot across the door sill, review in your mind these facts. Dwell upon the advantages offered you in the new position. Determine that you will take the first steps to being friendly with the new people you meet. Follow a health pattern that has suited you in the past. Do not think of yourself too much.

Take into account your personal capacity, your tastes and ambition, the demands of the professional or other career you want, and how strong your desire is to do what is necessary to meet them.

Become aware of what your nature fits you for and certain about what you wish to become: otherwise you are like a seedling that does not know whether its destiny is to become an oak or a cabbage.

A healthy independence can scarcely be attained except when a person is fairly realistic about himself. Only by knowing yourself - your potential and the strength of your will to develop it - can you do all that you are capable of doing.

Be prepared to cope with change and the problems it brings. A person's physiological, psychological and health characteristics are different at every age. This change is part of the normal process of development. Some great musicians, say critics, were guilty of working up to colossal climaxes early in a composition and then blasting away at the same chord over and over again, ruining the moment by being reluctant to leave it.

Having problems does not mean allowing oneself to be flattened out by them. The shadow cast by a problem may be transparent or only a passing shade. What a healthy-minded person seeks is not to be relieved of responsibility for conducting his life, but toughness and determination to live successfully under pressure.

At no stage in your career is it wise to trust to luck. A good mood in which to tackle life is to believe that luck will never desert you when you are prepared to do without it.

At the relief of Dunkirk a motor torpedo boat snarled away from England to pick up its quota of beleaguered British and French soldiers. The signalman on shore flashed to it: "Good luck." The captain replied: "Thanks. Actually we rely on skill."

Whatever part you choose to play on the world stage, keep in mind that life is like a candid camera: it does not wait for you to pose. You cannot adopt safely the Bohemian belief that washing the dishes should be left until they are needed.

Do your best

Some people's lives are pressed down and running over with earned honours: others are empty with an emptiness that will never be filled because they will not try. There may be a certain placidity, but there is little that is interesting, in the life of a person whose main object is to avoid thought, work and effort.

This year's graduates are about to try their wings, hitherto used only in theoretical flight, against the bracing air of reality. They need a proper foundation of knowledge and ability and a fair share of intelligence.

More important for their progress is that they should end their formal schooling with the conviction that with constructive original thought they can build on that foundation some contribution to the progress of their profession, business or trade. Employers everywhere are looking for such young people, with education, intelligence, and drive enough to take up some of the burdens.

Vital to high achievement is the capacity for directed and sustained energy expression. Ambition is not merely holding out your hand to receive: it is positive, purposeful, energetic, creative and self-assertive.

When a noted artist was asked how to attain perfection of drawing combined with resplendence of colour, he replied: "Know what you have to do and do it."

Your future is not a novel that you can leave on a shelf to read later. It requires a resolute facing of the world as it is now and as it is becoming. We shall see some things looming in that future about which we can do nothing. But in most affairs what we do today may have a most significant influence in helping us to share in the human enterprise.

Search for a vacuum and expand into it. Seek a place where your special qualities can be used to the greatest advantage. Find a firm place to stand, a sturdy fulcrum, and the lever of your particular qualities will move any obstacle.

Much of the misery of life is caused by efforts to control the uncontrollable. The message of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century A.D., may be paraphrased in this way: a person's environment contains two sets of factors, those which are controllable by him and those which are beyond his control. The wise and happy person is he who applies himself to controlling the controllable items and refuses to worry about the others.

That you cannot yet comprehend fully the universe in which you run your race is no more surprising than that Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile only after eight years continuous training.

Myrtle Cook, the Toronto girl who won the 100-yard gold medal at the Olympics in 1928, was asked by Laurier Lapierre on television in January: "What do you think about when you are poised at the starting line waiting for the signal?" She replied: "You just think: 'run as fast as you can'."

 

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