One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to root them in reality. That’s an odd statement, I know, and I’ll explain it momentarily, but after many years spent trying to figure out what makes a positive difference in a life… and especially in those few crucial moments upon which lives turn… I’m convinced that this is central.
In critical moments, when all else has been swept away, we are thrown back to our root beliefs, and whatever stands in our personal holy of holies will determine our choices. In those moments, whatever we’ve enthroned in ourselves – whatever we’ve planted and encouraged to sink deep roots – will carry the day.
If, then, we’ve become rooted in authority, we’ll do what authority directs. If we’ve become rooted in fitting in, we’ll fit in. If we’ve rooted in hierarchy, we’ll obey whichever hierarchy is dominating that time and place. None of these are creative; they are the responses of placeholders and servants.
But if we have rooted in reality, we’ll be able to observe reality…. to compare, remember and choose between not just the options presenting themselves, but whatever additional options we can imagine. And this is how humanity moves itself forward.
When a “moment of truth” falls upon us, what has been cultivated in us turns the tide. And there are few better gifts a parent can give their child that to start rooting them in reality.
Centers of Reference
Over our lives, we develop specific routines… routines built around whatever we’ve accepted as the most essential to us. These can form haphazardly at first, but by the time we’re adults, specific assumptions and expectations have rooted in us.
Humans are complex creatures, of course, and we carry all sorts of assumptions and influences. Still, we have a very few that stand in our holiest place… our most central place. And what’s crucially important is that we control what remains in that place. We do this, not with our words, but with our choices, including all the secret choices we make. And please don’t think that by “secret choices” I mean dark choices. I mean all our choices, the good mixed equally with the bad.
What we sow into ourselves is what ends up standing in the holy place of our core assumptions. We literally train our inner parts with our daily choices. I won’t try to establish that scientifically today, but all of us of a certain age have seen it many times: Our upbringings affect us, our environments affect us, but it is the choices we make that give us our final shape.
Through nearly all of human history, people have looked to overarching patterns when seeking to understand. Here are a few examples:
- For thousands of years people looked to gods, keeping them unassailable and trying to fit facts and possibilities into their model, beneath them.
- Many people presently look to theologies in the same way. (This is not to say that no divine being may exist, but it is to say that no theology should be treated as a god.)
- Many people elevate governments to their highest position, fitting everything in below them.
- People place sources of shame in the center of their consciousness, hoping that by remaining ever-aware of the shamer, they’ll be able to avoid shame.
- Many people place causes and movements in their holiest places, fitting ideas into and around them… then reflexively (unthinkingly) attacking whatever threatens them.
- Many people have embraced idols: great men or women that they hold to as a center of reference.
What should stand as our center of reference, however, is simply reality. Or said another way: Truth. And by that I mean raw, naked, concrete truth, not the truth of the higher pattern.
There’s nothing wrong with holding outside references, and in fact a great deal has been preserved or improved by doing so, specifically when people were being manipulated by others. Having something ‘outside’ to look at – a distant star to guide by – matters to us. But even then, in our most essential deliberations we must look at the real world, not to something distant.
If we do not look to reality, we end up trying to think through layers of abstractions and images, which slows and distorts our thinking. Words, symbols and models are not the real world, after all.
Another problem associated with models is that we too easily accept bundles of ideas as valid, rather than examining them one by one. This also fills us with distortions and filters, again slowing and distorting our thinking.
In the end, all of these replacements for reality discourage us and lead us toward surrender.
Rooting Children In Reality
Having, I think, made a fairly good case why referencing reality is better than looking to abstractions… to patterns… I want to get to the nuts and bolts of this. People need to know precisely what to do.
Our first and most essential step is to recognize this in ourselves and in the world. Once our eyes are open to this distinction, we’ll stumble upon it frequently, deepening our understanding as we go.
Here, to help, are some primary points. I’ve taken these from the work of Abraham Maslow, who make a career of studying the best and healthiest human beings he could find, and trying to define the differences that made them better. The healthiest humans do these things:
- See reality rather than symbols.
- Seek substance rather than image.
- Follow their own decisions rather than authority.
- Take responsibility rather than evading it.
- Avoid distractions.
- Work to deserve self-approval.
- Embrace autonomy.
- See long-term concerns instead of short-term concerns.
- Face and fix mental conflicts as they arise.
- Judge success by before and after results, not by comparison to others.
- Expect people to change over time, and to help them do so.
These are precisely the things we want to build into our children. And so, when answering questions, we should go – first and primarily – to the real world, not to what other people have said about the real world.
Even on questions that we can’t answer, such as “Why does everything fall?” we should begin by referring to reality, rather like this:
Well, you’re right, everything does fall. First of all, we know a lot about how that happens: We can use math to know exactly how fast something will fall, as well as many other things. We also know that on our planet, everything falls toward the center of the Earth. But exactly why everything falls is harder to understand and explain. There is a theory that seems to be right, but I’ve never understood it well enough to be sure.
Likewise for questions of actions being good or bad: stay with reality. I fact, I’ll recommend that you use these definitions, which have served me well over many years:
Good is that which creates benefit.
Bad is that which creates harm.
Once you’ve said everything you can on the reality level, you can move along to the ideas of others. But even then, don’t portray the others as authorities or oracles. They are or were other humans with ideas, and their ideas are right or wrong depending on how well they match reality.
It you do these things, you will, at length, root your children in reality, while also rooting yourself in reality more deeply than you had been.