One Father's Advice

Dear Annabelle & Timothy

If I'm still alive, I hope you'll feel comfortable talking to me about any any topic. I promise to be non-judgemental and I'll try not to force my opinions on you, all I ask is that you listen first, before disagreeing with me. (You don't expect me to keep my opinions to myself, do you?). If I'm not around any longer, you can read this and see what I hoped to talk to you about.

I just turned 44 and my mother was murdered a little over a year ago, so I feel my own mortality more than I ever have before. I came close to death in 1996, when I fell through the ice, had both feet amputated, and spent six months in the hospital. My dad died when I was 15 and we never talked about what was important to him. Although I asked my mother many times about what she thought about life, and what was important from her, she was never interested in talking about those things to me. Therefore, I'm writing this because I wish my parent's had left something like this for me.

Now I'm 56. When I was 48, my PSA was elevated, but I ignored my doctor's advice. When I turned 50, I learned I had prostate cancer. After two months of radiaton and two years of hormone therapy, my PSA started to rise again. For my birthday last year, my PSA rose above 2.0, so NIH deemed my cancer was back, and started to look for where it was. Fortunately, it was confined to my prostate, so Dr. Pinto at NIH removed it in May. At my nine-month check, the PSA was still undectable, so the surgery was successful. Still, there are no guarantees for the future. I'm writing this because I have seen the exit sign and was unhappy. But Dr. Citrin gave me some advice that I won't forget: "Life is a journey, not a destination. If you forget to look around and enjoy things along the way, it will be so much wasted opportunity." If I don't enjoy my day, I've wasted it. And I wasted a lot of days then, so I'm trying to do a better job of enjoying them.

I haven't found the meaning of life, but I have found the secret of life: "No matter what path you are on, each day, each moment, look for things along the way that give you joy." Do the things that bring happiness. Advice from Charlotte Payne at NIH: "Every day is a holiday and every meal a feast." During the government furlough, I learned that when I put on music, it makes the day feel like a holiday. I need to learn how to play the saxophone. No recording can compare with the real thing.

Five Things to Remember

  1. We love you (and just because you don't get what you want, doesn't mean we don't love you),
  2. Never be afraid to talk to us (If you tell us something you've done wrong, before we find out about it, we'll go easy on you),
  3. If you get in trouble, we'll try to help, but sometimes, the best way for us to help is to let you suffer the consequences (see rule 1).
  4. We've lived longer than you, so maybe we have good reasons for doing something you don't like,
  5. If you disagree with us, we're willing to listen, and if you have a good argument, we might change our minds.

What's Here?

  • some of the things I wish my parents had told me,
  • some of the things I learned the hard way, and hope to spare you from,
  • some of the lessons in life that took me a long time to learn and might help you get on with life faster than I did.

    Lesson #1 - Learn how to be a friend

    One of my biggest regrets was not having more friends. The skills one needs to make friends and be a friend are best developed with sisters and brothers, so being an only child really hurt me in that area. I would have been better at making friends if I'd listened more and talked less, and if I'd been more generous with my time and money.

    Learning how to make friends will help you in school, at work, and in life.

    Lesson #2 - You can't know everything

    I grew up with a bookcase full of National Geographics. If I read them all, I thought, then I would know everything. (For good measure, I even started to read the dictionary). What a waste of time! First, you can't know everything. Remember, very few people can win two Nobel Prizes. Second, not everything is worth knowing. For example, you can buy magazines at the grocery store checkout line that keep you up-to-date with the latest Hollywood gossip, but why waste your money and time on that?

    But In some ways I haven't changed. My undergraduate thesis was on different methods of modeling society. I wanted to understand the reasons for the rise and fall of civilizations. In graduate school one of my dissertation ideas was to determine the relationship between income inequality and social revolutions. My favorite subjects are still the history of civilizations, and the Industrial Revolution. And, as you know, I spend way too much time reading newspapers and books. Let's hope you can learn from my example and not to go overboard. Which brings me to...

    Lesson #3 - Everything in Moderation

    Too much of anything is bad, except good health. Life should be a balance. Spend some time studying and some time playing. Exercise some times and be lazy other times. Go out with your friends, but also enjoy staying home and watching TV, or just reading a book. Don't overeat, but don't starve yourself either. Live a simple life, but splurge on occasion. A well-balanced life is the most pleasant life of all.

    Lesson #4 - Have Realistic Dreams

    When you were younger, you wanted to be a princess. Now that you're older, you may dream of becoming a ballerina, an actress, or possibly a gymnist. While it's fun to dream, you should be aware you're setting yourself up for a lot of dissapointment. How will you know when you've spent too much time chasing a dream? And even if you were to achieve your dreams, the career of an actress, ballerina, or sports star is extremely short, sometimes less than ten years. And for a TV actress, it may last for just one or two seasons, before the show is cancelled. So make sure you have a long-term plan prepared for what you will do afterwards. And be sure to save most of your money, instead of spending it, because you'll be unemployed soon enough. Remember, fame and fortune are fleeting. And your competition will be stiff. There are many unemployed actors and actresses waiting tables in Hollywood and New York. Talk to them and listen to their stories, before you decide.

    I have a foolish story to tell you. Even when I was in graduate school, I had big dreams. I told my friends I wanted to be the person who whispered in the ear of the President. How foolish! I thought if I was smart, people would seek out my advice. But that simply isn't true. Only if you work on a political campaign and become known by others, can that ever happen. Even Nobel Prize winning scientists don't get a chance to whisper in the President's ear. In fact, the current president doesn't pay much attention to scientists, generals or other world leaders. He listens only to his own circle of trusted advisors who have been with him for many years.

    Lesson #5 - Plan Your Future

    Decide what you'd like to do, and then make a plan of how to get there. Make your dream happen. Some people know early on what they want to do, and others take a long time to discover it. But if you don't know what you want to do, then plan a way to figure out how to find out.

    When I got to college, I was certain I knew what I wanted to do (a dual major in computer science and eletrical engineering), but after I started doing it, I changed my mind. So, I took a lot of different classes to find out what I wanted to do. When I discovered I liked Political Science, I set off for graduate school to get a Ph.D. in it. But I didn't get far in that field, so I tried to join the Peace Corps to achieve another dream of helping the poor. However, I ended up with a hernia, which didn't impress my Peace Corps Recruiter. Only while I was recovering from hernia surgery did I discover Economics.

    Lesson #6 - Have Confidence

    The hardest thing for a teenager to learn is that confidence comes from inside. It doesn't come from the clothes you wear, the cut of your hair or what group you hang around with. Anyone that judges you on those things is very shallow and doesn't know what is important in life. However, since lots of people are shallow, it's good to know how to fool them :-) So learn how to fit in, but don't take life seriously. Trust your feelings. You'll know what's right if you take a quiet moment and think about what's important to you, and the kind of person you want to be.

    Lesson #7 - There are No Simple Answers

    Very few things are black and white. Complicated issues have several dimensions. Don't believe anyone who says there are only two choices. Complicated questions usually don't have clear answers. Every solution will have advantages and disadvantages. The key to finding a solution or deciding what to do is listing all the advantages and disadvantages, weighting them (i.e. how important is each to you personally), and then adding them all up.

    Lesson #8 - Your Time is Valuable

    When I was young, I didn't much about the future. I didn't realize that each moment would never come again. Now that I am middle aged, I wish I had filled my Saturdays with more than cartoons. I wish I had filled more of my summer vacation with trips and friends, rather than books and computer games. But I remember the short-term pleasure of computer games and books -- they were a world unto themselves, an escape from the moment.

    For examples of how short life can be take a look at this ethical will written by a 29 year old who died of cancer.

    It's hard for me to manage my time. With two children, I can rarely finish the projects I start. And once I leave it, it's hard to find time to go back and finish it.

    Lesson #9 - It's How you Treat Others, Not What You Believe

    What's important in life isn't what you believe, but how you treat others. You can spend a lot of time discussing religion, whether you have to be "borh-again," what happens after death, whether babies go to Heaven, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but it's a waste of time. No one knows (although a lot of people claim they know). Instead, spend your time helping others. Be nice to everyone. Why should it matter to you what they believe? People will judge you on how you treat them. If they judge you on what you say, how you look, or what religion you believe in, then they haven't yet learned what's important in life. But don't try to teach them, just be nice to them.

    Lesson #10 - Keep Everything in Perspective

    Reality is often an illusion. Don't be certain. What you see depends on where you stand Your life is long, each moment is small. Live life as if you just recovered from cancer

    distinguish the important from the unimportant don't worry about little stuff

    "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

    The Meaning of Life

    The meaning of life is the experience of living it -- fully and completely -- and that means trying to reach your physical, mental, and moral potential, and to help others in their journey. I found my answer in Jonathon Livingston Seagull. The complete experience of being a human also means being a parent, and doing your best to help your child grow to adulthood and realize their potential. Observing nature indicates that the purpose of life is to reproduce, and provide your offspring with the resources they need to grow and mature. Do your best. The meaning changes at different stages. accept that you wont change the world but your life is very meaningful to the people closest to you.

    For a fuller discussion see my Meaning of Life web page.

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