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J's Dilemma

A letter which speaks for itself!

December 4, 1999

Dear J______:

What a dilemma! Here you have been resisting temptation, not drinking to excess and avoiding drugs totally, first for the sanctimonious reasons of the young and more recently simply to remain in control. And now, for your pains, you find yourself viewed negatively, as fraudulent, by younger folks.

I think that there are three responses which may suit the occasion:

In the first place, despite propaganda, you made the choice of abstinence yourself. We all make such decisions, listening to the voice of moral sentiment described by Emerson and Parker. That is how it should be: part of growing to be fully human is awakening to the inner voice which guides our moral judgments. And having heard that voice, it should simply be enough to speak the truth, as you know it: not simply truth to power but truth to all.

Control to a degree, is essential, else we act thoughtlessly and then come to regret our actions. Self-congratulation, in the form of sanctimonious feelings, again if not carried to extreme, is also essential. It reflects our awareness of our own inherent worth and dignity, an awareness which we need if we are to treat others equally and fairly.

However, you found yourself in situations in which moral agency and witness did not seem sufficient. In fact, you found yourself face to face with one of the greatest human fallacies. It is one thing to say, "DonÍt criticize me unless you have walked a mile in my shoes," but quite another thing to say, "Since you donÍt have shoes, donÍt talk about mine." There are a lot of things in life about which we can and should hold opinions even if we havenÍt (or perhaps canÍt) experience them. We know what we want a President to be or not to be, to do or not to do. Most of us have never been or never will be President; I canÍt even consider the possibility, because IÍm not native born. Yet no one would question my right to express such opinions nor would they ignore my views due to lack of qualification. I could list many, many other situations: suicide, speed skating, singing opera, eating fugu and so on.

One of the problems with the young is that they know everything and havenÍt thought through the consequences of their wisdom: would they, for instance, refuse to have a fracture set by a doctor who had never broken a bone? I doubt it!

The answer, I think, lies in doubt and authenticity. Doubt can be expressed about even the most strongly held position, since our still, small voice speaks only to us and cannot be heard by others. Thus, "Many people have tried drugs with little or no apparent effect but I have never done so because..." And this lends increased authenticity to such apparently judgmental statements: as a teacher of mine once said, "Never say never or always!"

But, in the last analysis, authenticity is the deciding factor: either we speak and are heard authentically or we are not. Part is in the speaker and part is in the hearer. And, donÍt despair: the lack of immediate positive response is often deceptive: I have more than once had the experience of people coming to me and saying, "You know, when you said such and such, it made no impression on me. But I got to thinking about it and..."

The third point is one which you may not wish to read -- so skip the rest, if you want. But, in your email to me, as in previous communications in the last year or so, I find a pattern. You, like the rest of us, are growing older, a day each day. You are now old enough that, while not obviously in the parent generation of the young people you deal with, you are too old to be an older brother. They are not comfortable with people who are ïinbetweenÍ and you have probably, because you may not have noticed, been unable to adjust your approach to them. While a university teacher, I went through the following phases in my relations to students: a bit older and wiser, over age, old enough to date them, still creakier, old enough to be their parent and, now, more recently, old enough to be a grandparent. Looking back, I see that I was able, but with difficulty, to gradually alter my approach, so I could maintain my authority and authenticity. Not easy to do! I am just finishing co-teaching an honors seminar course in biomedical ethics at Villanova, to kids 17-20, and I was reminded, after a seven year layoff, just how hard intergenerational communication is. Welcome to the future!

I donÍt know if these random comments illuminate your dilemma at all, but they are the best I can do at this time.

All the best,