We prioritize reading in our household. With our oldest we are currently teaching her to read on her own which is very exciting for me; I thoroughly enjoy the time I get to spend with her in so doing. Our youngest is finally showing an interest in books and he’ll bring over book after book expecting you to read, but usually he is not able to sit through the entire book before he’s off to go fetch another one! We try to prioritize books that will challenge and expand their worldview and concepts of life and reality as they know it. We like the Olivia series, Angelina Ballerina, and of course, Dr. Seuss books. If there is one book that is my personal favorite to read to my kids it is Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss. The book is a fascinating exploration in making the most out of life, and explores deep topics such as obligation, responsibility, freedom, and opportunity. In what follows, I’ll take some excerpts and give you some thoughts–at least what rapidly churning through my brain every time I read this to my daughter!–on what I believe is a rich and powerful narrative that kids can understand.
The Freedom of Today
"Congratulations! Today is your day. You're off to Great Places! You're off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go."
Today is YOUR day. Often times we forget that with the coming of every morrow, presents itself a new to-day. More succinctly put: every day presents itself an infinite number of new opportunities. I think of the freedom of French Existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre. Our hero, in his case, is thrust into the moment, into today, and this is the joy and tragedy of freedom. In a word, we always have a choice. Not only that, we are responsible for every action we take. I also think of Heidegger (who of course influenced the French existentialist thinkers) and his philosophical enquiry into Dasein or the reality of “being-in-the-world.” Every individual, according to Heidegger, experiences Geworfenheit, or a thrown-ness, that is, being thrown into existence. As the child grows in consciousness, he becomes aware of this reality. As Schelling puts it, it is when–as he grows in consciousness–the child first uses the word “I” that man separates himself from the presentations of the world and becomes an object to himself. Yet this self-consciousness, according to Sartre, creates a nausea and anxiety that simply is absent from the animal kingdom. The question for our hero is, however: what are you going to do about it?
“As soon as a child begins to speak of itself by the word ‘I’, a new world appears to open up for it. In fact this is very natural; it is the intellectual world that opens to the child, for whoever can say ‘I’ to himself uplifts himself, by that very act, above the objective world and steps out of the intuition of others and into his own.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, System des transcendentalen Idealismus (1800) pp. 373-74.
You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care. About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there." With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street. And you may not find any you'll want to go down. In that case, of course, you'll head straight out of town. It's opener there in the wide open air. Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And then things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew. Just go right along. You'll start happening too.
It’s painful to me to see the lack of common sense in my culture, let alone my generation or the younger generations. Without painful life experiences, however, there simply cannot be genuine development and growth. Our hero has not only the wherewithal to go, but additionally has the good sense to carefully check his options, rule out some–based on intuition and experience–and proceed with others. And it doesn’t take much! Just some brains and some brawn and you can carry straight on!
But if the options in front of oneself seem to all not be so good, then there is of course another way. I love this part of the book because it’s at this juncture that the narrative opens up for our hero, and only because he didn’t wait for someone to come along and grab his hand. Rather, he created new opportunities for himself when the status quo wasn’t working. When all the streets before him looked like dead-ends, he simply left town. This is where I think Sartre’s radical freedom is so apropos. It’s embarrassing when our generation is content to complain about their situation in complacency. Furthermore, they are quick-to-the-draw in pointing their finger at someone or something else to cast blame for their pathetic predicament. Sartre’s emphasis on personal responsibly vis-a-vis our actions is poignantly needed here. There can never be growth into maturity without personal responsibility for every action you do or do not take.
The Power of Opportunity
OH! THE PLACES YOU'LL GO! You'll be on your way up! You'll be seeing great sights! You'll join the high fliers who soar to high heights. You won't lag behind, because you'll have the speed. You'll pass the whole gang and you'll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you'll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
I’ll never forget when I realized the power of seeking opportunities. What I mean is that often times we fall into the trap of going to school, doing well, graduating, getting job, and then winning “the game of life.” While this is most certainly because we have been taught and conditioned to think this way, it’s liberative when you are able to break free from this myopic mentality. Indeed, a whole world of infinite opportunities unfolds itself to you. Knowledge truly is power. The more you know and the more of “who” you know is the lock; and self-knowledge is the key.
Except when you don't. Because, sometimes, you won't. I'm sorry to say so but, sadly, it's true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you. You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You'll be left in a Lurch. You'll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you'll be in a Slump. And when you're in a Slump, you're not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.
Everyone that is reading this undoubtably has felt that they were in a slump. For myself, there was period of of my life during undergraduate university when I legitimately struggled to get out of bed each morning and suffered from bouts of melancholy and depression. To put it simply: I felt alone. And as Dr. Seuss says, “un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” That is for sure an understatement. Looking back at this season of my life and contrasting it with where I am now, I can stay that it took a lot of hard work and was a slow progression in order to feel like I was again on the path towards self-improvement.
First, I would say aligning myself again with God, and moving in his power and righteousness completely changed my perspective. From there, I was able to focus on relationships, and trim the ones that were toxic and embrace the positive ones. Approaching each day with an ‘attitude of gratitude’ (as my 5th grade teacher Mrs. Mack taught us) and gratefulness can change the mental trajectory of your life. Second I turned inward, and developed values for myself– principles that I desired to live by and to this day I still repeat them. Moreover, I set out goals for myself that I wanted to accomplish and desires that I wanted to fulfill. And I did it. Even when everyone was telling me that I wouldn’t be able to do it, or that my plans or goals were unrealistic, I proved them wrong. I would encourage everyone reading through this post to book up a copy of Ray Dalio’s Principles. You will thank me later.
You can get so confused that you'll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place... ...for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or the waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting. Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for the wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting. NO! That's not for you!
I love this part of the book. Our little hero makes it out of his slump which is an incredible feat. But he finds a new obstacle which is even more sinister. The Waiting Place. Everyone knows people stuck here. They are complacent, lazy, or worse…angry! They are waiting for their partner to do better or waiting for their boss to give them a raise. They are waiting to strike it rich in the lottery or waiting for their “big break.” The waiting place can be summarized by one word alone: inaction. It’s simply the inability to reanlyize the situation, find another way, route, or opportunity, and take decisive action that leaves them in the waiting room. It’s the difference between a mediocre life and a life of fulfillment. There is no greater feeling than when you devise a plan, analyze various outcomes, take decisive action, and ultimately accomplish your goal.
The scene that always comes to mind when I read this is a part in Ayn Rand’s Magnum Opus, Atlas Shrugged in volume II, nearing the end of the book. Dagny Taggart, the protagonist of the novel and CEO of Taggart Transcontinental, is riding one of her own railcars to Colorado when it breaks down. Everyone aboard is of course inconvenienced but no one seems to offer a solution. They are content to grumble and demand a fix, yet are content simply to wait. Eventually they phone another Taggart Transcontinental railcar and request a diversion to come pick up the passengers, but the operator refuses, as he does not want to take the responsibility for making the decision to re-route from his directed course. Finally Dagny takes action, and utilizes her position, with some threats, and is able to get the train to change course and head towards them. This powerful image–the grumbling, waiting, complaining passengers in the face of a decisive, strong-willed female CEO doing what it takes to ‘get the job done’–has stuck with me ever since I read this novel almost a decade ago.
TODAY IS YOUR DAY
But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike, And I know you'll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are. You'll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life's a Great Balancing Act. Just never foget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.) KID, YOU'LL MOVE MOUNTAINS! So... be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea, You're off the Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!
I remember when I first learned the latin phrase Carpe diem. I was in ninth-grade world history class. My teacher, the eccentric history buff and wrestling coach, was pontificating to our youthful minds about seizing the day, money and greed, power struggles and more. Truth be told, the majority of it went straight over my head. Yet it is true, that with years can come wisdom. We see our hero press onward despite multiple obstacles including enemies, physical exhaustion, and even a failure of tools and resources (who likes leaky sneakers?).
One line I really like is “[you’ll] face up to your problems whatever they are.” Recently, I have been attempting to inculcate my daughter on the meaning of responsibility, and how that means you have to take ownership of all of your actions whatever the consequences. This lesson was of course reinforced with the applicable Molly-Lou Mellon book about responsibility! The balancing act of life, however, continues to weigh down on us physically and mentally. The challenge of life is to ensure that you never mix up your priorities, and that your values and principles guide you as you your carve out your life in freedom, through struggle, accomplishing your goals as you proceed, yet never letting this…moment…right now, slip through your fingers. It is the balancing act of the past as memorable and the future as desirous, yet enjoying the present wonder of the world that Dr. Seuss calls a dexterous and deft skill. This is the challenge of life and this is what makes us human, all too human.
The world is full of beauty and wonder as well as terror and evil. There is a cosmic agonism and an individual struggle as well. It is a myriad and panoply of goodness, excitement and wonder through an infinite amount of opportunities just waiting for you to seize them. Don’t settle for average. So, what are you waiting for? Get on your way!