19 November, 2000

Dear Friend,photo of a man

. . . Three boys are about to become young men. I've known them since they were born, so it's going to be difficult changing the way I think of them, to think of them as "men". After all these years respecting them as tender souls who looked to me as a role model, now I'll have to learn to tolerate them as equals. It's a daunting task.
. . . Thanksgiving weekend, the boys and their families will make a retreat to Big Bend National Park. Like holy men wandering in the desert, these boys will spend time alone, contemplating what it means to be fully human. Having done that, and having endured various rites of passage dreamed up by their families, the boys will be recognized as men.
. . . I've been asked to write something for them to contemplate. I'm supposed to say something that will make a male teenager reflect, something that will make him cogitate on the question, "What does it mean to be fully human?" Trouble is, I don't know what might be the verbal equivalent of being run over by an Abrams tank.
. . . Instead, I'll tell them what they already suspect: adults are ignorant. Adults know very, very little. Some adults are even ignorant of their ignorance. They think they know how to live and what's what. Most of us know better. If we act AS IF we know what we're doing, that only means we're good actors. Actually, we know we don't know much. You know what I mean?

photo of another man. . . Being an adult is to be responsible for actions based on insufficient information. Some times these are life and death decisions. You assume she's using birth control. She isn't. Bingo -- new life! You think you can drive just fine. In fact, your blood alcohol level is 0.35 and climbing. Bingo -- new death!
. . . These, of course, are cliches. I'm not really worried about these young men getting very many girl friends pregnant or killing very many pedestrians with their cars. I'm more worried about how they will face life in a state of ignorance. It's a state that will last the rest of their lives.
. . . You who are already adults know what I'm talking about. There isn't time enough in the world to get all the information needed for any knowledgeable decision. And, for many decisions, what you want to know cannot be known.
. . . You love someone and want to make a life with them, not knowing how both of you might change over the years. You choose a career not knowing how you and the work might change over the years. Such ignorance even affects the really important decisions men make, decisions such as which automobile to drive, which laptop computer to buy, which beer to drink, and which football team to bet on.
. . . Doing well in life means going ahead without being sure where events might lead. It means living in faith. We choose based on belief and the few facts available. Luckily, we were made to fit the universe. Most of our bad choices aren't fatal. Civilization has withstood bell-bottom jeans, polyester pant suits, and wife-beater T-shirts. It has withstood Fascism, Communism, and television. It will withstand the mistakes of these three men, as will their families and most pedestrians.

photo of a third man. . . The benefits of recognizing one's ignorance are manifold. If you know you don't know, you aren't surprised when everything falls apart. Knowing you are ignorant is one of the hallmarks of humility, the only known cure for depression. When things look their darkest, remember, you really don't know what's next. You can't be sure the future will be bad. You CAN be sure you don't know.
. . . If you know you don't know, you won't be suckered by some ideology that explains the world, life, and women's fashions. What you will do is say a prayer of some kind every time you make a decision, knowing the outcome is unforeseeable. You live trusting in God or the universe as you come to understand it. You live in faith. We all do.
. . . Most of us, knowing the depths of our ignorance, suspect even greater depths are there, unplumbed. We believe we are at the mercy of powers over which we have no control. We suspect that even if we had control, we'd botch it.
. . . This is where courage comes in. You can't make decisions in ignorance without courage. This is where humor comes in. The situation's ridiculous, hilarious! And, this is where humility comes in. You can't survive mistakes without it. You can't live with other people's mistakes without it.

. . . These three boys are now men. May they learn from the mistakes they survive. May they make courageous decisions that teach them more about the world than they thought possible. And may they live to raise sons and daughters of their own, a fitting punishment for the mistakes we will endure over the next twenty years.

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Text and photos copyright 2000 Danny Nelson Schweers