Beyond suffering

A few weeks ago I wrote about how kids are oriented toward fun, and how adults tend to be wary of this orientation.  It’s one thing to enjoy one’s self, we think, but too much attention on fun seems like it might suggest that a child isn’t motivated to do the hard stuff in life that prepares a person for adulthood.  It seems like a commitment to fun might eventually lead to, say, a 29 year-old child living in the guest room.

It helps to trade out the word fun for a word that’s a little less culturally charged.  Fun seems too much like the antithesis of work and productivity.  And we’re clear that the American Dream, whether we think of it as yachts and country club memberships, home ownership and health insurance, or a diet of organic food and a solar-powered car, is accessible via hard work.  Suffering, actually.  Kids can recite some variation of this ethic in their sleep: “You have to learn that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.”  This is what we say when we’re worried that they’re getting too focused on fun – when they’d rather be running around outside with their friends than bent over a math book, when they’d rather build and rebuild a pirate ship out of Legos than read, when they decide to study art instead of economics. Fun freaks us out.

So instead of fun, let’s call it vitality.  Let’s imagine that when they make or attempt to make these choices (outside, Legos, art), they’re actually demonstrating a commitment to vitality.  They’ve noticed that when they’re doing these things, they feel alive.  They have energy, they feel light, they’re participating.  If you look at a child, or any person for that matter, and you see them going after something that brings them to life this way, it’s hard not to imagine that they’re on the right track.  And the really good news is that it doesn’t mean that they won’t ever choose to do something they don’t necessarily “want” to do.  If kids know and are allowed to pursue the experience of feeling alive and being committed to keeping that experience at the forefront of their lives, they’ll have reason – motivation – to endure what they have to do in service of that experience.  Even if it’s not always fun.  If you’re studying art, for example, because you find it invigorating in some way, you’re more likely to be patient with the parts of your studies that may in their own right be less than invigorating – practicing a particular technique over and over and over, or reading up on the financial ins and outs of selling your work, or even working extra hours at your day job because it means you can keep up your studies in the evening.  If someone tried to get you to do any one of those things and it wasn’t connected to something that gave you an experience of vitality, they’d just feel like Things You Have To Do.  If you feel alive and energized by building things out of Legos and you need a new $60 bulk set in order to build what you’ve got in your imagination, the extra chores you have to do for your neighbors in order to earn the money aren’t necessarily things you Want to Do, but you’ll do them without having to be told that it’s important to do things you don’t want to do.

We can teach kids to search for the realms in which they can experience profound commitment, or we can try, in a vacuum, to get them to do stuff we think they should do.  When they’re actually committed, they’ll still be able to use our guidance, but we won’t have to force them to do things just to teach them the lesson of doing things you don’t want to do.  In fact, the whole notion of Don’t Want to Do tends to fade and even disappear in the face of actual self-driven commitment.  Don’t Want To is a relic of a worldview we could let go of if we weren’t such creatures of habit.  We say we want kids to have better lives than we had, but we cling to our beliefs about how hard life has to be.  Every day kids are trying to show us how to be committed to vitality, to be guided and informed by it, and every day, we try to steer them toward suffering.