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  • Ken Ilgunas

Dear Paul’s daughter

About half a year ago, a father named Paul posted the following comment after one of my entries:

Hi Ken.

I’ve been reading your stories since fall. You remind me of myself at that age. I have a daughter, I’m curious of your thoughts. She’s 21. I asked her what she sees in the next 5 years for herself, what are her goals or dreams. With no hesitation she said “finish school, get married, have a baby.” Just like that. Later she said the married part is just for us, her parents. I’m shocked. I asked her why a family so soon? (my wife and I didn’t start our family until our upper 30s). What about traveling the world? She said she moved a lot growing up and has seen what she wants to see. We did move a few times, but have been where we are now since she was 10 years old. I’m her father and I want to support her and her dreams. But her dreams are a lot smaller than what mine are for her. What would you say to her?



Dear Paul’s daughter,

Soon after I got your father’s message, I wrote out a big, inspirational, sell-all-your-stuff, and take-to-the open-road response. It was terrible. Really awful stuff. The problem was: while writing it, I got my boots stuck in some very swampy philosophical and psychological terrain. The only way to give you a clear message—I thought—was to over-simplify, dumb-down, and abandon nuance. I realized I was giving the sort of advice that a fundamentalist might give—advice that’s full of passion, but without any brains.

Sometimes I get downright zealous about voluntary poverty. In such a frame of mind, it’s easy to separate people into those who’ve been “saved” and those who’ve “sold out.” It’s sort of like believing in a religion. Doubt is cast aside because it’s easier and more convenient just to thoughtlessly believe in something. At my worst, I might think that people who enter the workforce and start families early have been “brainwashed” by the “system”—some ambiguous omnipresent demon carrying a trident—each prong representing the corporations, politicians, and consumer-capitalist elite who supposedly govern our lives. Oh, if only life were so simple! If only we could discern the good guys from the bad by the color of their hats. Things—you don’t need me to tell you—are far more complex. And only an irresponsible, undisciplined mind would preach such nonsense.

I know that living in a van is not for everyone. Hitchhiking is not for everyone. Nor is standing in front of a grizzly and reveling in some primordial high. So before I go on, know that I understand that you might be a vastly different person than me. I do not plan on telling you to live like me. Not one bit.

Just as many long for the freedom of the open road, dwelling in us, too, are fantasies about hearth and home. We have conflicting desires and conflicting interests. Consider “freedom” for example. Surely, no one wants to be ruled as a slave, but few, I’d guess, would want to be completely free either. Take away gravity from a man, and the first thing he’ll want is his feet back on the ground. I suppose what I’m getting at is that it’s utterly, undeniably human to seek safety and security, perhaps in the form of a stable job, a permanent home, or—in the case of our floating man—gravity. These are natural desires that should not be derided. Desires that I should not deride just because they do not intrigue me as much as they intrigue others.

I should also note that I feel somewhat awkward giving advice at the meager age of 27. As your senior by just six years, please forgive me for taking so bold a stance at so young an age when it might be more prudent to hold my tongue. Perhaps you ought to seek advice from someone who time has blessed with wisdom.

I’m writing this letter anyway because I feel compelled to speak to young people. Just a few years ago I was in a similar position as you: uncertain about my future, anxious about my next decision, and drawn toward a life that was not of my own making. I see young people all around me who are living lives of “quiet desperation.” I see young people living non-deliberately and without self-awareness. I see young people who are not cognizant of the many forces pushing us down certain paths and compelling us to make certain life decisions. If it wasn’t for some last second advice that I’d gotten from an unexpected source when I was 21, then maybe I’d be living a life of quiet desperation today, too.

I’m eager to respond to your father’s request because it tortures me to see young people who fail to seize control of their own lives—people whose fullest potentials will never be realized and who, as Theodore Roosevelt says, “neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

I’ve never had the chance (or the guts) to sit down with one of them and tell them something that they may have never heard before. So this letter is not really just for you, but for anyone who has felt how I felt when I was 21.

I remember myself at that age sitting in my car in a University at Buffalo parking lot, waiting for a spot to open up. My life, at the time, was far from ideal. Four days a week, I’d push carts at the Home Depot. Between long commutes from my parents’ home to school, a 30-hour a week job, an onslaught of papers and exams, and an ever-mounting dunghill of debt, I was starting to lose it. Throughout my undergraduate years, I picked up a minor case of Turrets. My hair began falling out. During class, I had to resist the inexplicable urge to jam the point of my pen into the back of my hand. To make things worse, I had no summer job prospects except more cart-pushing at the ’Pot. Summer after summer, I’d make excuses to not do what I really wanted to do. I wanted to drive to Alaska more than anything in the whole goddamned world.

In that parking lot, waiting in my car, listening to my stereo, out of nowhere a voice whispered four little words into my ear. I looked at the backseat to see who had snuck into my car. Much to my horror, no one was back there. I opened the door and looked beneath my car. No one. I got back in, sat back down, and thought about what was happening to me, why I heard this voice, and what those four little words meant.

Two weeks later, I turned in my orange apron and embarked on a journey that I’ve yet to return from.

So, Paul’s daughter…

I beseech you to do one thing for me: Imagine yourself as an 80-year-old woman lying on her deathbed, thinking about how she lived her life. How would you like to feel? Certainly you’d prefer—as we all would—to bask in the memories of a life well-lived. Should it not be our foremost ambition in life to give ourselves such solace in our last moments—not just so our last breaths are exhaled with peace of mind, but so that—with that moment always in our thoughts—we can live our lives deliberately, forever guided by the reminder to cherish this wondrous thing called life, and to carefully blaze a life path that leads from dream to dream and from happy memory to happy memory?

John Taylor Gatto , a public school teacher and historian, said, “Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are; whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important; how to live and how to die.”

I’m guessing that your education didn’t teach you these things, as mine didn’t for me. Schools, parents, and friends can show us certain beliefs and values, but it’s up to us—as unique individuals with our own particular needs, inclinations, propensities, and idiosyncrasies—to decide how to live and how to die in the way the best suits us.

So my advice is not to sell your stuff and buy a plane ticket to an exotic country; it’s to, as Socrates says, know thyself.

Know thyself better than anything. Write, think, read, talk. Question everything. Don’t just moan in your diary; figure out why you are the way you are. Analyze every emotion, every thought. Drop the texts and make you the object of your study. Play the detective and solve the mystery of you. Ask yourself why certain memories have embedded themselves in your mind, while others never stuck? What is it that makes you, you?

You speak English because you’ve grown up around English speakers. Just as you’ve come to speak the language, you’ve adopted certain cultural customs, beliefs and values. But just as there are other languages to which you haven’t been exposed, there are other ways to live—other ways (depending on the sort of person you are)—that might be more agreeable than the standard “husband-baby-job” formula that has come to be considered “normal” by our society, but is not, for many, the surest route to happiness.

We’ve been told what to do since birth. We’ve been told to do well in school, get good jobs, buy a home, and start a family. Perhaps you’ve been told something else, but you’ve been told something. Our advisors seem to sing together as if part of a choir, which suggests to me that a lot of people believe that there’s a formula for happiness and a certain way to live. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Why should we take advice from our society in the first place? If I saw a society comprised entirely of enriched, happy, peaceful and healthy citizens then maybe I’d think society was on to something. And while I do not deny that there are many wonderful things about our country and our society, I will never accept its tenets as gospel so long as Wal-Mart workers are being trampled in Black Friday stampedes, so long as children are raised more by TVs and teachers than by their parents, so long as a huge chunk of our population has no access to affordable health care, so long as we thoughtlessly pollute the waters we drink and the air we breathe. I point this all out because—just as we shouldn’t believe the nut on the city street yapping that “The End is Nigh!” (even though he may have some reasonable things to say)—we should also be deeply skeptical about what our sometimes-deranged society expects from us too (even though it may have some reasonable things to say).

There comes a time in a young person’s life when I think she ought to detach herself from the ties that bind; to separate herself—if just temporarily—from family, friends, and society; to give herself time to wander in the woods, sit by a creek, walk in foreign lands, and to turn inward; to give herself a chance to begin to know herself.

While you may feel bound to your family, no human should be bound to think as they do. We are bestowed with different capacities, propensities, talents and faults—characteristics oftentimes far different than those of the people who birthed and reared us. So, to feel compelled to live as everyone else lives—even if such a lifestyle doesn’t agree with us—is a dishonor to the diversity of the human experience.

You must discover for yourself what is right and true. And what is right and true must come from you. Not the “you” that’s been indoctrinated in compulsory schooling, not the “you” that’s been told by TV that thin is beautiful, not the “you” that’s been told that a productive citizen is one that seeks riches.

I’m talking about the “you” that our culture has not been able to get its greasy hands on. I’m talking about some small piece of you that is pure and unalterable. Call it your nature, your soul, your authentic self, your genes. Call it what you will, but I believe there is a part of us that culture cannot reach. And when it speaks, it ought not be ignored.

Sometimes I think people cannot awaken the “sleeping prince” inside them. Or maybe the prince cannot be heard amidst the clamor of civilized life, drowned out by the billboards, iPods, TVs, teachers, parents, friends, politicians, gurus, and self-help books. Give yourself some peace and quiet and take to the woods or desert or mountains. Maybe then you’ll realize that his murmurings have gone unheard all this time.

I’ve received oodles of terrible advice from my seniors. I’ve been told that the things I’ve wanted to do couldn’t be done; that such and such a thing is “impossible.” Over and over again, I’ve proved them wrong. But the one line of advice that’s always stuck—which has always made perfect sense to me—is to, as they say—sometimes with wistful, nostalgic, and envious tones—“enjoy it while you’re young.”

Have you ever wondered why married people (excluding newlyweds) never seem to be dripping with happiness? Ever wonder why so many middle-aged men go through mid-life crises? Ever wonder why post-war-years housewives—who had all their needs satisfied—commonly suffered from depression? Ever wonder why almost ever older person says to “enjoy it while you’re young”?

There are phases or—as Shakespeare says—stages to one’s life. Let yourself be the “lover/ Sighing like furnace” or the “soldier/ Full of strange oaths… seeking the bubble reputation.” Embrace the stages as they come, but do not skip ahead to motherhood just because you’ve been advised to or because it’s expected of you. Scratch your itches. Trust your instincts. Follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell says. Embrace the phase you’re in. Know thyself, and you’ll begin to learn how to live and how to die.

You may very well decide that to “finish school, get married, and have a baby” is what’s right for you—I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m just saying, don’t commit to anything of that magnitude until every fiber in you aches for it; until you know you want it with as much clarity, certainty, and confidence as the starving man who knows he wants food.

I go to school with so many PhD students who have thoughtlessly surrendered their autonomy and sentenced themselves to a lifelong livelihood that often doesn’t befit their character or interests. They made their decisions hastily, acting before first knowing themselves. And now they’re more or less locked into lives from which they cannot escape.

It amazes me how freely people surrender their autonomy. People get nervous when they don’t have a job, obligations, or things to pay for. Debt isn’t just something forced upon us; it’s sought so we have a game to play, a battle to fight, a life to live. But I feel our autonomy should be cherished, regardless of whether it makes us uncomfortable. Your autonomy gives you a chance to develop and mature and grow into who you really are.

If you’re not sure what you want to do, my advice is to not do anything that ties you down. Your revelation will come soon enough. Find odd jobs, take more classes, sit on a tree trunk, do anything but commit to a lifestyle for lack of other ideas. And travel for God’s sake! Your peregrinations with your family do not count as “travel.” Spin your globe and stop it with your finger. Once you point to a place that makes you squirm in your chair, you’ve found a suitable destination. Real traveling is a cold, hard business. It’s not about taking pictures next to iconic cultural relics or collecting National Park stamps. Real travel is about testing yourself; it’s about trudging through uncomfortable territories; expanding your horizons; learning new points of view; and developing your selfhood. When you’re traveling alone, you’re forced to turn inward.

Maslow says we have a hierarchy of needs. We can’t ascend to the top of the pyramid (self-actualization, creativity, purpose, meaning) until we have the necessities on the bottom (food, clothing, and shelter). It’s funny, though, how so few people choose to realize their true potential, electing instead to dwell on the bottom of the pyramid, widening their waistbands, buying flashier clothes, and building bigger and more expensive shelters. While these lower needs are satisfied, other needs are ignored. They will not learn the thrill of enrichment and the world will suffer for want of greatness.

I think it ought to be our sacred duty to cherish this rare opportunity. So few get to live in a place and age when we can easily satisfy our most basic needs. What a privilege it is to have the opportunity to think, invent, create, and overthrow. What a wonderful father you have who is encouraging you to do as you wish, and not as he wishes! We should frown upon the person who spurns this honor to self-actualize the same way we frown upon the person who wastes food or abandons loved ones.

Just as nature has given us legs to walk the earth and lungs to breathe its air, it’s bestowed us with eyes that can make out the faint glimmerings of stars so we can wonder, imagine and dream. Don’t let the foul cloud of civilization come between you and your innermost dreams. Know thyself and have a kid. Know thyself and live in a van. Know thyself and rebel or know thyself and conform. Whatever you do, know thyself.

As a young man, there was no one to give me the advice I really needed. In high school, no one talked about—as an alternative to going to college—traveling, working odd jobs, or walking across the country. No one spoke about voluntary poverty and certainly no one talked about saving money by living in a van.

The life prescribed for me, for reasons unexplainable, would have led to unhappiness, failure, maybe even insanity. But everything changed when I heard those four little words in that campus parking lot—spoken to me, not by “God,” my stereo, or another “personality” but by a voice so crisp and clear I can hear it as I type this letter. Sitting in that car, I found it interesting that the voice sounded like my own.


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