Typically folks compose messages like these when they are on their deathbeds, or after some significant life event caused them to re-evaluate their priorities. I think of Tim Russert, whose untimely death at the age of 58 was a source of great sorrow, but who was fortunate enough to have penned two books on fatherly wisdom before he died.
I am neither dying nor going through a period of deep personal discovery; instead, I just had a moment of insight: you never know the exact time of your death until it happens, and I would be saddened to be one of the unlucky people who fails to pass on to his children a written summary of his thoughts on what is important in life.
So these words are for my children, though if they inspire anyone else to do some housecleaning or self-inventory, this will be an added bonus. Feel free to leave any other words of advice you think children should know in the Comments section.
1. Be honest. I'm not talking here about pretending your friend's hideous haircut is beautiful, or some similar act of interpersonal kindness. Instead I mean the kind of honesty where people know you are reliable, truthful, and dependable: you don't embellish your accomplishments, you do what you say you will do, and people know that your word is like gold. Moreover, you never screw people over for your own personal aggrandizement, no matter how great the gain.
2. Look out for the less fortunate. While we never lived like kings, you never lacked for food, shelter, and love, and I expect that you remember that this puts you ahead of at least 90 percent of the human beings on the planet. Be generous with your time, judiciously direct some of your wealth toward worthy charities, and never let it be said you stood by and did nothing to help a fellow human in serious need.
3. Be faithful. It is true that at least one of you - if statistical patterns on American marriages hold up - will have to go through the process of divorce. However, that does not mean that you should cheat on your spouse; moreover, faithfulness is a desirable trait in employment and many other life endeavors. A clean break after an honest effort to repair a relationship is the best way to live your life when work and personal relationships sour.
4. Violence, bitterness, and rage are usually cancerous and rarely productive. I have been guilty of each of these at one point in time or another in my life, and there is little to be gained from allowing yourself to wallow in these destructive modes. Let go of anger before it burns holes in your stomach lining or poisons your relationships.
5. Be unselfish. There are plenty of greedy bastards in the world, and frankly I expect more out of you. Let other vehicles into traffic, let old ladies go ahead of you at the bank, and don't eat the last of the salsa when dining out. Your unselfishness will become a virtue, and you will be rewarded many times over in ways you cannot fathom. Trust me on this one.
6. Be flexible with rules. I'm not telling you to break laws or work rules, but rather that you find ways to meet the spirit of a rule when dealing with customers, associates, and strangers. Being a slave to rules and regulations only means that you are an uncaring, unthinking automaton, not a person who is generally trying to make the world a better place.
7. If it's not yours, don't take it. We all know not to steal, but I am thinking instead about those ways in which we rationalize the acquisition of all sorts of ill-gotten items. I remember finding $50 on the floor of the bank when I was 16 years old, and how I stuffed that dead president in my pocket faster than Tatum O'Neal diving into a pile of Bolivian marching powder. Yet even to this day I feel guilty about that impulsive decision: what if that money meant some retiree had to go hungry, or if that lost $50 caused someone to have a car repossessed?
8. Make amends for any stupid, harmful, or selfish acts you commit. Related to the previous advice, even the best people sometimes ignore their consciences, or fail to think through the consequences of their actions. When you know the person you harmed or hurt, make it up to them in some equivalent fashion, and don't ask the aggrieved party - just follow through. In addition, anonymous acts of restitution can mean that your intentions are in the right place, since publicly admitting guilt might mean that you simply want recognition for your remorse. If you no longer know how to contact someone you have harmed, make a donation in kind to a related charity. That person you hurt might never know, but you will know of your atonement, and you can kiss goodbye a heavy dose of guilt.
9. Enjoy the simple pleasures and natural beauty around you. I've known some unhappy people who never seem to rest, who spend thousands of dollars on products like the ubiquitous fat burner, and who cannot appreciate the everyday joys around them. These are folks who travel the world seeking strange environments, higher highs, or continuous infatuation, when all along the happiness they sought was in their own homes.
10. Work hard. Yes, you will sometimes work in places where slackery is the norm, or where working hard brings no extra financial reward. Too bad - work hard anyways. The last time I checked, almost no one in human history has been fired for working too hard, and extra effort usually translates into a feeling of self-satisfaction. As a side note, also remember this: if the course of action you are contemplating seems difficult, it is probably the right decision. Easy solutions tend to be the ones that get people into trouble.
11. Read quality books. This is especially important in the age of instantaneous digital gratification, when book-reading slowly gets replaced by text messages, on-demand video, and other empty-headed sources of entertainment and knowledge. Yet the lowly book has served humanity well for countless generations, and your knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, and science will benefit you better than any YouTube bum fight or episode of Total Request Live ever will.
12.Regularly attend a house of worship. There will be times when you are not feeling especially religious, and you think that religion has nothing to offer you, but you should still go to church. If nothing else, kneeling before God teaches you some humility, and every religion offers useful advice on how to be a worthwhile person. Besides - you can benefit from being around a people who seek deeper meaning to this vale of tears we call life, and the bars are not open on Sunday mornings, so use this time wisely.
13. Avoid being a judgmental, falsely pious twit. If we ran a highlight reel of all of the worst moments your life, you would look just as contemptible as the ignorant schmuck you saw on tonight's news in the latest segment of televised human idiocy. Balance your derision with an ounce of recognition that we are all capable failure and incompetence, only most of us go through life without our darkest hours becoming public knowledge. Thank God that you gained wisdom from your selfish escapades, and extend compassion to the recipients of ridicule, for it may be your turn some day.
14. Remember you are loved. Yes, I sometimes holler, and I can get too absorbed in my work, but never, ever doubt that your mother and I love you more than anything else in the world, and that we will give you as much help as we can. Now, don't expect us to bail you out every time you dig yourself in a financial hole, but we have experienced much in our first decades of life, and we can probably help you solve problems you thought were insurmountable. If we can't, at least you'll know where you can get a hot meal and a hug - the world can be a cruel place, and your family members are your best allies against the woes that heap upon you.