The Better Letter: Dear Abby

Some pithy and practical precepts for my brand-new granddaughter

I have a special affinity for the television series, The Wonder Years (1998-2003), because the protagonist Kevin Arnold, along with his friends Paul and Winnie, was exactly my age. The story begins in the summer of 1968, when the kids and I were entering seventh grade, with the narrator looking back on his childhood with the perspective of both time and context.

The show was a coming-of-age story about a suburban family that went about their everyday lives against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

Kevin’s parents hoped that by moving to the suburbs and rearing their children carefully they could stave off the terrors and the blight of the world outside their suburban enclave to keep their beloveds close, safe, and protected. But the real world kept encroaching around the edges. Kevin’s sister gets involved in the peace movement. His brother joins the army. Winnie’s brother is killed in Vietnam. The ground beneath them is constantly shifting.

Kevin and his friends are still kids, though. At one point the narrator says, “Outside our house, it was 1968, but inside, it might as well have been 1953.” Kevin’s parents know how much the world was on fire in 1968, but the kids can’t really understand it, because they’re kids and have enough trouble just getting through the day. 

We want to protect our kids as well and as long as we can. I’m thinking that way even more than usual this week as the world is on fire and I have a brand-new granddaughter. She, my dear little Abby, is the focus of this week’s TBL.

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Dear Abby

My darling daughter gave birth this week to an eighth grandchild – and fourth granddaughter – for my wonderful wife and me. She and her mother are doing beautifully. Today, I write for her. I am also writing to her but, of course, she won’t be able to read it for a while (even though she is obviously brilliant). I hope you will get something from it, too.

Dear Abby (also, her siblings and cousins Halle, Taylor, Nate, Caroline, Will, Ben, and Aiden):

I have every confidence you’re going to want to change the world. You should. Dreaming big starts with acting small. If you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself. 

God has given His people – that includes you! – a mission statement: “He has told you … what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It is often difficult to figure out how to do that.

Jesus provided a great place to start: “Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.” John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, offered his own great rule (which may have been created by followers from his sermons): “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” 

Today, I want to make those ideas less abstract and more practical for you.

Grandy teaches fifth grade. She opens each school year with Wonder, R.J. Palacio’s rare gem of a novel. I am certain you will read it one day. It features August Pullman, a 10-year-old boy who is ordinary except for his jarring facial anomalies. Homeschooled all his life, Auggie heads to public school for fifth grade and he is not the only one who is changed. Over the course of the year, his teacher, Mr. Browne, offers the students a series of precepts, one each month, which he describes as follows. 

“Like a motto! Like a famous quote. Like a line from a fortune cookie. Any saying or ground rule that can motivate you. Basically, a precept is anything that helps guide us when making decisions about really important things.”

So, my lovely girl, here are my precepts for you to consider to help you to change the world. There are 18 of them, one for each year until you are legally a grown-up. These have worked well for me, even though I have failed to live them out all too often. I encourage you to amend this list and add your own as you discover them. 

  1. In Wonder, Principal Dyer teaches an important lesson, emphasized by Mr. Browne to his students on the first day of school as the first of his precepts: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” It is my first one, too.  

  1. Most people will care more about being right than being kind, even (especially!) when they’re wrong. When that happens, the kind thing is to forgive freely. As your Uncle Michael (who has red hair like you) preached on Sunday, “when in doubt, give them grace.” Grace is amazing (given and gotten).

  1. You will naturally and rightly want your life to matter. That’s the way people are. Focus on what motivates you and why. Live on purpose.

  2. Develop good habits, like making your bed, being polite, being dependable and on time, paying attention, and getting your chores and assignments done early. You’ll be a better person for it and life will be easier, too. 

  3. In any group or organization, figure out your role. For example, Grandy and I like to think we did a pretty good job rearing your mom. But, it isn’t our role to be your parents. Our job is merely to love, serve, and support you, absolutely and unconditionally — to keep giving you standing ovations.

    If we tried to do your parents’ job, we’d create conflict and make things harder for you (and them). We’d also make it less likely that you’d come to us when you have problems or difficulties. It helps to know you have people to lean on who love you no matter what.

  4. Rely most on those who have your best interest at heart, who put you ahead of themselves. Lots of people will tell you they do, but they usually want something from you, to sell you something, or both. Know who’s really on your side.

  5. “Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” Read the whole thingLove wins.

  6. You have grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more who love you like crazy. You have been blessed abundantly. Count your blessings regularly.

  7. Good things cost – money, time, effort, opportunity. Those good things, like love, skills, education, and friendship are worth the required effort. With grit and determination, you can do hard things.

  8. You will always be tempted to settle for the easy or the immediate thing. But the best things take time. Be willing to forego good to wait for better. Don’t settle.

  9. Take responsibility for your learning and your life.

  10. Be accountable for your actions and their consequences.

  11. Every elementary school teacher hears from parents astounded that their child lies. They usually ask something like, “Where did s/he learn to lie?” However, we all lie naturally. You will, too. We need to learn to tell the truth. Do that, even when it’s hard. Honesty really is the best policy. 

  12. Older people regret things they didn’t do more than things they did that went wrong. Be smart and careful, but don’t be afraid to take chances.

  13. You will fail, often. That’s okay. Learn from it. Build on it. Work to “fail forward.” Reggie Jackson hit 563 home runs. He also struck out an all-time record 2,597 times. Nobody remembers that.

  14. We all need help. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. And be sure to give as good as you get. 

  15. Malala Yousafzai was a 15-year-old in Pakistan when religious extremists tried to kill her for advocating that girls like her should get an education. She survived but underwent several operations to recover. In addition to her own schooling, she continues her work for the right of girls to education, for which she won a Nobel Prize.

    One person can make a big difference.

  16. In chapter 23 of To Kill a Mockingbird, another book I highly encourage you to read when you’re older, Jem tells Scout that there are “four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.” Other people think there are also even more kinds of folks: Rich, poor, privileged, stupid, and many more. Scout replied with the God’s honest truth, “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

I love you, sweetheart.

Your adoring Grandbob

P.S. I encourage readers with precepts of their own to send them to me: rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com.


Totally Worth It

Today is Juneteenth, the annual holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the U.S. It has gained new resonance during the current protests against racial discrimination and police brutality. Several companies, including Nike and Twitter, have made it an official company holiday, and several states, most recently New York and Virginia, have made it or are making it a state holiday.

The market is acting like we’re back in the high life again — very nearly back to levels from the beginning of the year.

Toxic toads. The sweetest thing I saw last week. The most inspiring thing. The most impressive thing. The most important thing. The bravest thing. The craziest thing (not in a good way). The great jigsaw revival.

In his latest newsletter, Matt Taibbi offers a critical look at his fellow progressives. A 97-year-old former janitor from New Jersey who died in March left his relatives a treasure trove of vintage baseball memorabilia that is expected to fetch millions at auction. The New York Times published a long interview with former Daily Show host Jon Stewart about the state of our country and the world writ large. Check out this lovely piece collecting the thoughts of 40 doctors on the front lines against COVID-19. What Maya Moore gave up in the fight for social justice.

Cultural change in real-time.


Benediction

Take 6 is an American a cappella gospel-jazz fusion sextet formed in 1980 on the campus of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. They have been nominated for a staggering 23 Grammy Awards and won eight. Their harmonies are simply amazing (and I can attest that they can pull them off live – not just with studio help). Take 6 features on this week’s benediction, Lamb of God.

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe, forward freely, and share.

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Issue 18 (June 19, 2020)