Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IF LINCOLN WERE ALIVE TODAY

My fiance' and I were discussing the idea of children and what to tell a child who dreams big.  It's not as easy a topic as it might first seem.  When is it OK to tell a child his/her dreams are not realistic?  Or is it ever OK, because isn't every child as they grow up going to decide for him or herself what works and make decisions accordingly. And if you step on those dreams early, will they even try?  It's a conundrum because I assume all parents want to protect their children from the pain associated with failure, from the experience of having your hopes dashed.

Even more disturbing when taking this all into consideration is the fact that the rules have truly changed.  Even if you are the best or the smartest, are you going to be judged on who you are and what you do?  Or are you going to be judged on the juiciest piece of gossip released about you?  You may scoff, but I ask you, are you going to remember any of the good things John Edwards did in his public life or that he cheated on his wife and fathered another child while his wife was ill? 

So how do you encourage a child's dreams while letting them in on the world's realities?  In most cases, I don't think preventing someone from experiencing things to avoid disappointment is something parents should do.

There was a sermon delivered recently by a Rabbi, who told of a non-Jewish man who came to services and witnessed the High Priest performing the rites, dressed in extraordinary beautiful garb, and decided he wanted to be a high priest (known in Judaism as a Kohane Gadol).  He went to the Rabbi and told him his desires and the Rabbi informed him the studies he would have to undertake to get there.  The man immediately delved into his study, and converted to Judaism.  He worked day and night and became skilled and adept in his studies of Jewish law and tradition.  Then, after several years, he came to a point in his studies where he learned on his own that it was impossible for a convert or anyone not descended from Aaron to become a high priest in Judaism.  He was angered.  He went to the Rabbi and asked him why he didn't inform him of this limitation when he first approached him.  The Rabbi replied to him with a question of his own, "Was he unhappy in the conversion and the studies he had undertook?"  The man replied, "No, he was not."  And the Rabbi responded, "Well if I had told you your dream was impossible, then you might not have even tried, and then you wouldn't be where you are today."

I started thinking about one of our greatest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln.  Here is a man, who were he alive today, probably wouldn't have a prayer of winning the White House, and for all the wrong reasons.  First and foremost, the press would have invaded his past and found that growing up he had one year of formal schooling or so.  He also suffered depression after losing a rumored love to typhoid fever, and according to this article in the Atlantic he contemplated suicide several times.  Several people thought Lincoln had lost his marbles.

Could any such man, after the release of this information to the public, become President?  Could they become much of anything?  Should someone have told Lincoln his dreams of running for President after losing his second shot at the Senate was impractical albeit stupid?  Wouldn't we step on that very man now and tell him how silly he would be?

I am profoundly amazed at how much faith we as humans place in gossip and in the past.  So quickly we are willing to act as judge, jury and arbiter for cases that have little to do with us, while insisting we should get fair treatment should ever that occasion befall us.  We act as if the past as an indictment, rather than a case for study.  In fact, I would argue that while our school education serves us, it doesn't measure at all up to the experience we gain simply by prevailing and failing, by loving and losing or by falling off the horse and getting up to ride again.  And yet, we are presented with the dilemma of whether we let our children experience those same lessons.

We are apt to complain ad nauseum about our leaders, particularly our Presidents, but then wonder why few who run meet the criteria we would demand.  I would conjecture that the reason someone as uneducated and occasionally clueless about the government as Sarah Palin as can run a successful campaign (and by successful, I mean even get mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate) is twofold:

1) she has learned the most important thing in today's society; that the collective knowledge gained about her actual credibility can be thrust aft with the proper delivery and diction.  In other words, what she lacks in knowledge of fact, she has gained in knowledge of human behavior.  Never mind she is a stringent Christian who preaches how people should lead their lives and parent their children, all while her own daughter's choices in life would be something she would condemn in other parents.  The proper presentation can and will make people forget the contradictory dichotomy of what she says versus what she does; and

2) we trust our eyes so much, we would be deceived in an instant by a witch in sheep's clothing.  Could William Howard Taft have won President at his size today?  Doubt it.  What about FDR - particularly after polio struck?

The world today likely would have voided all of Lincoln's profound attributes because of the trifles that affected his day-to-day function.  Yet no man, sans a select few, has ever impacted a country more than Abraham Lincoln.

Dare I tell my child because he gets too heavy or suffers from the same mental problems Lincoln did, that his dreams are unrealistic, not necessarily because his parents deem them so but because society will see fit to selectively pick and remember what matters not, over what matters most?  Should I stoop so low as to be teaching them the art of media manipulation -- using the press to deliver controlled propaganda to an uneducated public to get what they want?

My hope is a future Abraham Lincoln can and will be elected.  And that our kids can learn to dream again that based on what they do, not what they look like, or what mistakes they make in their past, is on what they will be judged.

We can't step in and prevent our children from making mistakes, no matter how hard we try.  In fact, while we can offer guidance, I'd argue, as I did with my soon-to-be wife, that it is not the job of parents to take away dreams, but instead present opportunities.  It is our job to teach responsibility and encourage imagination and ideas.  My hope is someday that included in every school curriculum from a young age will be a MEDIA LITERACY mandate serving to teach our kids how to handle the new world in front of them, so that they can interpret that which they are spoon fed.  But if not in schools, then it becomes our job to teach them how to read media, much like you teach them how to read books.  Honestly, my hope is my kid doesn't seek to become the next Snooki or Beverly Hills housewife or Khardashian sister as a form of fulfilling a dream because I don't know what that goal is.

I refer back to the sermon above, where a man's decision to become a High Priest was based solely on witnessing the surface of the priest's tasks, without understanding the core and responsibility of such a position.  It speaks to the fact that we as humans are impressed easily with what someone else has and this is a common problem amongst young people.  The difference here is that the Rabbi instructed the man how he had to go about such a task and the man did so and discovered things his own way.

It becomes our job to act more as monitors I suppose, and to explain the kind of misplaced celebrity that occurs today in the vein of things aren't always fair.  However, I believe that youngsters particularly must learn it's OK to dream big, in order to keep their imaginations with them as the harsh realities of the world settle in over time.  

Despite Lincoln's hardships, he never stopped believing he had something to accomplish.  And my hope is as long as we as parents can provide that hope in our children, they will never stop trying.