Advice columnists are like financial analysts. The overwhelming majority can’t beat the market — which, for the analyst, is an S&P index fund and, for the columnist, is your typical friend or relative.
And like your friend or relative, sometimes the advice is very good, and sometimes … not so much. As an instance of the latter, we have the ‘advice’ of Salon’s Cary Tennis in a column titled “How to protect my children?”
The letter writer, “Mom of Three,” is “a happily married woman in my mid-40s, with three children ranging in age from 8 to 15.” She has a good job and her life is great. She says, “I’m not sure what advice you can offer me, but I feel compelled to write”:
I love my family dearly, and my children bring me great joy. So what’s the problem then? I worry that I’ve brought them into a world whose future holds overpopulation (for which I myself feel a bit responsible) and global warming. My children have such bright futures ahead, which may be completely devastated by these global crises.
I feel guilt at having brought them into the world, and yet I can’t imagine not having them in my world. I feel so hopeless that I am unable to make the world a better place for them. My happiness in the present is marred by my heartache thinking of their future.
How do I cope with these feelings?
Fair enough question. And similar to questions I’ve thought a lot about both as a father and as someone who spends a lot of time speaking with college students.
The full response by Mr. Tennis is too long to repost, but you’ll get the painful gist of it here:
Dear Mom of Three,
Your heartache is the heartache of all parents. Let this heartache be with you and do not be unkind to yourself because of it. It is not only the heartache of all parents. It is the heartache of all humans.
All humans feel this same heartache as we see that those we love we cannot protect and that everything we know and love will one day be gone. We are all filled with occasional sorrow when we stop to glimpse the fact that all that is familiar and safe, all that is beautiful, all will be gone as we also will be gone and those we love will be gone, and all the torments also, all the things we are catching up on and taking care of, all the things we are dreading and disapproving of and wishing we didn’t have to deal with, all those things, too, will be gone, and all the evils we despair of and all the tragedies whose lessons we use as guideposts, all that will be gone, the lessons of politics and philosophy, the works of art, the music, the novels, everything will be gone. Everything. Nothing can outlast the ceaseless churning of idea and matter and time. And because everything will be gone none of this will matter, either, none of what I say or you say or what we feel, and that is the farther assumption, the one we often do not get to, that since we will die and everyone we know will die, none of this worrying will matter in the least, and so, if we accept that all this will be gone, we can accept that all our worrying is just the fretting away of precious moments, a vain and fruitless mental activity over which, indeed — and this is the important part — we have some measurable, demonstrable control!
… You will be forgotten. I will be forgotten. This whole thing will be gone. Yet I think that our consciousness will remain. This I have experienced firsthand. So I am not worried. Nor am I as crazy as I used to be. I am merely more certain that I can do nothing about anything….
… Meditate on these things. Just meditate. Just sit and let these things enter your consciousness, and if there is strife and conflict in your relationships with your husband and your kids, see what you can do to lower the conflict. Let them be. They are going to go. They are beyond your control already. You are just a passenger now.
I know what you’re thinking, “Dude, chill out!” Or, maybe, “Dude, you’ve chilled out so damn much you’re frozen.” Either way, you’re probably thinking he may not be cut out to be an advice columnist and indeed that he needs an advice columnist more than she does. But I digress.
For me, what’s of interest is that he completely missed the point of the question, treated her specific concern as if it were existential angst, and gave a not terribly germane reply.
But what if we actually tried to answer her question? What is a mother to do who feels certain responsibility, guilt, and heartache for bringing her children into a world that may be devastated by overpopulation and global warming, who feels hopeless about her ability to make the world a better place?