I, Polonius

I’m comfortably into my early forties now. My son will soon be a teenager and my daughter is only a few years behind him. Their pending sub-adulthood has got me cataloging any bits of advice I would offer them. Like tedious old Polonius in Hamlet, a father wants to pass on a wise word or two before Act 3 arrives and he finds himself stabbed to death behind an arras.

The well-known trouble with advice is that while everyone wants to give it, no one at all wants to receive it. This is doubly true of advice dispensed by parents. And yet, while there’s little to justify the offering of unsolicited advice to peers, forcing advice on our children feels like a duty. Therefore: too bad, kids. A father’s prerogative will not be denied.

Do not trust your heart. What you may think is your “heart” isn’t really your heart. What most people call their heart is simply their capacity for desire, the acquisitive longing they feel at any moment for one object or another. This false heart is a fickle chatterbox and it lies a lot. Your real heart is that essential but unknown something that makes you yourself rather than someone else. Its job is not to guide you. In fact it has no job at all, as far as I can tell, and it has nothing much to say. But that false heart that’s always whispering inside? Most of the time it will not lead you anywhere worth going. Now, if you want something and there’s no decent reason to deny yourself, by all means proceed. But don’t imagine your heart is guiding you to it.

Don’t trust your head either. The life of the intellect may be enriching and civilizing, and logic is a wonderful tool of the mind. Do not disparage these things. But do not imagine that they will guide you infallibly. Grappling mentally with the world is a form of shadow boxing. You risk nothing in it. That’s part of the intellect’s utility, but always remember that the contest is false. The intellect may inform your most important choices; it should never absolutely determine them. There is an idea of a lion that lives in your head, and there’s another lion – an actual lion – that lives in Africa. Only one of them can kill you.

It’s okay to be a fox rather than a hedgehog. There’s an old fable about a fox and a hedgehog. It exists in many versions but it started with the Greek poet Archilochos who said that while the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one important thing. Isaiah Berlin borrowed this idea and decided there were two types of people, hedgehogs who are intellectually guided by one over-arching idea or interest, and foxes who wonder about a great number of things and test them as they explore. Which of these you will become is in part a question of temperament, but I want to recommend the life of a fox. It seems to make for happiness, and I think it has served me well. My gloss on the old fable: “To be broadly curious is better than to be singularly passionate.”

Don’t solve your problems. When you have a problem that irks you and proves difficult to solve, set it on a shelf in your mind and turn away from it. Go out to see a movie. Have dinner with friends. Read a book. Sleep. Don’t do these things as a means to solving your problem, but for themselves. The solution will present itself at some point when you are no longer actively looking for it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let go of solving a problem in the evening and woke the next morning to find the answer floating in the air above me.

Be a drinker. I don’t mean that you ought to plunge headlong into alcoholism, but teetotalism is nearly as bad. Moderation is key. A drink (and sometimes two) in the evening with dinner or in the company of friends is a natural sacrament, a way of expressing gratitude for all that is good and happy and blessed in life. A meal prepared at home with care and shared with family or friends has the same quality.

Leave things unsaid. Words are actions in their own right, and they have their own inevitable consequences in the world. There’s a time for speaking, but there’s little value to speaking in ignorance, vanity, cheap sentimentality, or from a sense of what others around you want to hear. And while emotions are sometimes tested and proven by words, they are also ennobled by silence.

Know the value of rotten things. Life is full of things that get spoiled: personal relationships, civic and religious institutions, moral ideals, just to name a few. Don’t let this distress you or eat away at your soul. Remember that only things which are good to begin with can be spoiled, and only the very best things are susceptible to really outrageous corruption. When you discover that something you love has been corrupted, don’t imagine that you loved foolishly. The corruption is the thing that needs to be got rid of. The corrupted thing itself needs rescue or rediscovery.

Keep your great-great-great-grandmother’s cedar chest. What I mean is, don’t discard things simply because they’re old or unfashionable. This goes for ideas as well as objects. It’s true that certain bigotries are better left behind, but as a general rule you will find that the old things which are still with us are with us still for a reason, and the new things that are promoted now and then to replace them are ill-considered, of poor quality, or merely designed to enrich or empower someone. People are tempted sometimes to imagine the past is a thing from which one should be free. This is both impossible and undesirable. Human freedom is like language. Language allows for infinite variations of expression, but only when certain rules of grammar and syntax are observed. Knowing and accepting your place in the story of your family, your nation and your culture is not a burdensome constraint; it provides you with a grammar of personal freedom.

Remember that all categorical statements are false. That’s a self-defeating proposition, of course. But I do want to warn you against indulging too freely in generalizations and broad judgments, particularly when these are directed at other people. As human beings, we’re very good at abstraction and generalization. It’s a trait that has served us well, but we don’t know when to stop. We’re tempted to apply categorical judgments to others in ways that do little justice to the circumstances and choices of their individual lives. Now, the truth is that you can’t avoid generalizing, and exercising judgment is necessary. But remind yourself that generalizations have a power to kill. Real lives are lived in particulars.

Flee from righteousness. Righteous is one of those slippery words. If by “righteous” you mean “just,” well, I don’t mean to dissuade you from acting justly. I do mean to warn you against too firm a belief in the righteousness of your own convictions or actions, and to warn you in general against righteous outrage, righteous anger, and joining righteous causes. True righteousness is something like the Sasquatch. Rumors of it are common enough, and it may be walking out in the woods somewhere, but don’t expect to see it with your own eyes. When you feel a sense of righteousness well up inside, ask if you aren’t simply granting yourself a license for bad behavior.

Go small. Ambition is something that most of us feel at one time or another. Fame, wealth and power are dangled before us like steak before a lion. They bring out the fangs in people. I don’t mean to discourage you from a desire for achievement. To do an honorable thing excellently is its own reward. If fame, wealth or power come to you as a result, fine. But remember that your capacity for contentment does not expand with the scope of your ambition. Family, a few friends, a shelf of good books, a hearth and perhaps a little garden is, in fact, more than enough to provide you with all the happiness you will ever be capable of enjoying.

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10 thoughts on “I, Polonius

  1. My own father never gave any advice whatever, which was pretty annoying when I was puzzling over some life choice – he’d always just say people had to make their own mistakes. So one day when he did offer me one single piece of advice, I not only listened but have never forgotten it.

      1. Oh sorry – no not secret, I was thinking more about the perversity of the young! His advice was that truth is rarely pure and never simple, which would fit with quite a bit of what you have written in your post. It raises more questions than it answers of course, so the diagram on how to blow your nose would be more practical use 🙂

  2. Funny. My grandmother once told me I wasn’t blowing my nose properly. She even drew a cutaway diagram of the sinuses to show me what should happen with a proper nose blowing.

  3. You have nailed it, exactly as my tongue has been tied. Douglas, might I share your post via my own spot on the web? Your Alaskan cousin thrice removed.

  4. I have just this minute stumbled upon this, via the blogroll at Laudator Temporis Acti. First, thank you for writing it, and for the thoughtfulness and grace and talent and humility that went into writing it. Second, although your words are framed as advice to your children, it might’ve been framed as One Man’s Credo at Midlife – and as such, I hope you will be OK with my decision to copy and paste it into the Commonplace Book section of my blog (http://www.calgough.wordpress.com) – I may need to invent a new category – Credos? – to accommodate it (at the moment, I’ve pasted it into the Uncategorized category). (I’ve copied and pasted your lovely Doors of the New Year comment into the Commonplace Book under the heading The Seasons – thank you for that, too! Third, though I very much love the simplicity and succinctness of Afield Notes, I look forward to gradually working my way back through That Other Blog of Yours Now Suspended. Thank you for enriching my morning with your unpretentious prose (nice photos, too, by the way – loved the one of the lichens! It’s been a long time since I marveled at something so commonplace, and your photo and blogpost reminded me of how I was enchanted the first time I discovered this common but so unlikely life form!)

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