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a birthday letter
by cecil bothwell

Dear Matt,Today is my birthday and next week is yours and I just this minute realized that I am five times your age. Wow!

Think about how full your years have been: playing clarinet in the school band; camping with your Mom and Dad; your reading—which I’ve noticed has latelybranched off into science fiction; rag-tag football and soccer; the magic tricks you learned last fall; playing fetch with Scotty; your best friends and worst enemies ... (I could add to this list for an hour and you would still find things I’d missed). So think about all of that, and multiply it times five.

It’s hard to imagine that all those experiences can fit inside a human head, but somehow that happens. Maybe that’s the biggest magic trick of all. At the same time, I can’t help but realize that I’m never going to get close to five times as old as I am now. The truth is that neither you or I are very likely to reach eight times your age and although life expectancy is higher for you than it has been for most children through history, my life expectancy is lower than it would have been for a man my age in the Roman Empire. That’s because what scientists call our “life expectancy” is based on averages.I know you studied averages in math class, but there is something your teacher probably didn’t tell you. Averages are imaginary.

The reason a scientist would say both of our life expectancies are higher than almost any other people in history is because childhood diseases and poisonsand accidents don’t kill as many kids as they used to. The average person is more likely to survive childhood. Back in Roman times, a lot of children died when they were babies and many more died before they were your age. But the old geezers, the ones who got to be as old as me, were more likely to make age 90 than I am. The average looks better today, but the truth is individual andsometimes very different.

And that is something to remember: numbers can lie.

Something else to remember is that humans tend to see the world in terms of opposites as if the world was divided into two teams: us and them; friend or enemy; night or day; black or white; winners or losers. It’s like those fish you draw when you’re doodling. A big fish swallowing littler fish and an evenbigger fish swallowing the big one. We have sayings like “eat or be eaten” and many people think that describes the world.

But it turns out that the reason human beings have been such successful animals is because we cooperate and the people who divide everything into oppositescause a lot of problems. When we were all gatherers and hunters, tens of thousands of years ago, the people who worked together were the ones who survived.

Back when I was a teenager, a woman named Jane Goodall set up camp in Africa in a place called Gombé and spent years studying our cousins the chimpanzees. What she found was that chimps are only successful when they cooperate. If one of them gets on the bad side of the others in his tribe, he is driven away and usually dies if he can’t join another tribe. You could say that humans have been cooperating since before we were even human. Getting along with other people is very important.

Along the way we invented language and that made cooperation even easier.Saying what we mean in a way that other people can understand it, and being able to understand others may be the most important thing we learn. That’s whyyour English and Spanish classes at school are so important—so you will be able to share ideas with other people and learn what others have said or written.

But just like with numbers, words can be used to lie. Lies really mess up cooperation because the liar and the person who believes a lie can never understand each other. The communication is broken. Probably the worst part about a lie is how hard it is to keep lying when you have to lie to cover up another lie and then lie again and then remember who you lied to and who you didn’t, In the end you end up lying to yourself about all sorts of things, including why you lied in the first place. You can end up not being sure about what you believe.

Besides, every time you look in the mirror you see the face of a liar and it isn’t pretty. People who tell the truth never have any trouble looking in the mirror and they have a lot easier time knowing what they believe.
Another thing about telling the truth is that it makes it a lot easier to know when someone else is lying. Unfortunately some people lie to take advantage of other people, so they can get more money or more power. If you are a truth-teller, it is easier to protect yourself from those who might try to cheat you that way.

When you think someone might not be telling the truth, a good trick is to watch what they do and compare it to what they say. If Bob says “Let’s share” and then always takes the biggest piece of cake, it’s a sure sign that Bob is moreinterested in winning than sharing.

Because there are big advantages to all of us in working together, we have developed a strong tendency to cooperate, to go along, even to put up with some hassles in order to survive. In some ways that’s really good, but it also makes us easy to enslave. Throughout history, humans have forced other humans to work for them, often people of another race or nationality. I know you’ve read about slavery in school and how slave masters used whips and chains, even killing slaves who tried to run away. But what you probably haven’t read is how often people have submitted to slavery because survival seems more important than freedom.

Sometimes letting another person run your life can seem easier, too, or more secure. Just like it’s comforting to have your Mom and Dad buying you food and clothes and a place to live, even when we’re grown up it can be nice to have things taken care of. Slavery is like that for some people, and so are unequal relationships.

Sometimes when people are in love or married, one person is richer or stronger or more bossy and the other person is poorer or weaker or tends to be obedient and one ends up being like a master and the other like a slave.
Usually they are both pretty unhappy and that’s one reason some people get divorced. Being equal can be hard work, but it’s a lot happier for both people when neither one is the boss and neither one is a slave.

Every person’s life is worthy of respect in some way, even people who seem to be bad guys. One way or another we are all trying to get by, and treating others as your equal is another good rule to remember.

Of course, those people who divide the world into us and them and black and white tend to think that they are right and other people are wrong. Being right can be a useful survival skill, say when we pick the right mushroom to eat (and don’t get poisoned) or stay out of the wrong cave (and don’t get eaten by a saber toothed tiger).

But being right can become an end in itself and sometimes people would rather be right than be loved. Some people would even rather be right than be alive. People fight other people and even go to war trying to prove that they are right and someone else is wrong. And there may be no better recipe for unhappiness than a relationship between one person who insists on being right with another who is willing to be enslaved.

Being wrong is okay, and it’s okay to admit that we are wrong when we are wrong. Thomas Edison, who invented lots of things including the first lightbulb and the first sound recording machine, said that the most useful tool inhis laboratory was his trash can because he made a lot of mistakes before he got things right.

Now I will end with this.

Trust yourself. You are the only person who knows what’s right for you. Your parents and friends can help out, give you their best advice and, like me, tell you what worked for them. But you are the expert on you. Don’t ever think that anybody knows better about you than you. Don’t do things you know aren’t good for you, and do do things you truly love. The final answers aren’t found in books or religious doctrines or teachers or gurus or movies or songs or out there on the Internet—they are in your heart.

I don’t know how much of what I have written to you will make sense today, but I hope you hold on to it—either save these pieces of paper or save it in your head —and think about it from time to time. This is what I have learned infive times your lifetime. My birthday wish for you is that when you reach my age, you too will be able to look in the mirror and see a happy man.Affectionately, Cecil

Cecil Bothwell has won regional and national awards for criticism, humor and investigative journalism. He is the founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, former managing editor of Mountain Xpress and co-author (with Betsy Ball) of Finding Your Way in Asheville, to be released in June 2005.

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