Listening, Being Listened To

I turned 20 about a month ago. Some people tell me that this is the best time of my life. "It's your job to enjoy these years," they say. Other people tell me different things. One of my professors said that he flunked out of junior college three times between the ages of 18 and 22, and what I should do is buckle down and work hard in order to secure myself a future.

I have always received mixed messages from my elders, and this explains my ambivalence toward advice given by people who are older than I am. But, of course, there are also people younger than I. If this weren't so, I probably would not have noticed something important.

I was kicking back in the park, enjoying the peacefulness and eating lunch when I detected a faint noise becoming louder and louder. It was an annoying, screeching sort of music, and before I even looked, I had a general picture in my head of what the person holding the stereo probably looked like. I was generally right. He wore all black, except for a bunch of safety pins stuck in his clothes. His hair was a multicolor combination, like peacock feathers.

On his face was a look of pure contempt for everything he saw. His face held the same emotions that mine had held a few years earlier.

I wanted to get inside his head, find out what he was thinking, his outlook, his attitude. He sat down on a bench not far off and listened to his music. I tried to mentally transport myself back into the state of mind he was caught up in. I started to think of all the advice I could give him that might cheer him up, ease his mind. I'd tell him it's not all bad.

Then I remembered what happened when someone older than me tried to force-feed me some sort of profound advice about life.

I could always see it coming a mile off, and if I didn't just get up and walk away, I had an "off" button that was activated when I heard phrases like, "You know what, kid?" or, "I'd like to share a little something with you ...," and the like. Eventually, I had to work through my own adolescent problems, just as he'll have to work through his.

I let him be.

BY the next day, I'd completely forgotten the whole thing. I was caught up in my own problems. The first chance for me to fail at inspiring a person younger than myself didn't happen. I'm not the type to attempt to coerce people into doing what I want them to do because I know it's best for them, I thought. Besides, it's much richer for them to find out for themselves, I said to myself.

A couple of weeks later, I walked into my chemistry class. My professor, normally a tolerant man, fell into an irascible mood because most people couldn't answer his questions about the chemical formulas for polyatomic ions. We were falling behind. He asked what the formula was for ammonium hydrogen carbonate.

No one volunteered, so he started to call upon us in turn for the answer. We didn't really take much mind of his bad mood. How could he be so upset about a bunch of amateur chemists who didn't know the answers to his useless questions?

Then, ping! an epiphany hit me. I was the kid in the park, and my professor was me. Most of my classmates seemed impervious to his pleas, but I was paying full attention. He spun off onto things that had nothing to do with chemistry. "The government will take advantage of you, and you won't even know it!" he ranted. He probably sensed his attempts were futile, but he kept at it. "If you don't take care of yourselves, someone else'll do it for you, and you may not like how they do it."

I knew my professor's diatribe had nothing to do with chemistry or the American government. It had to do with the pathos of seeing other people make mistakes or suffer unnecessarily. I wasn't taking advantage of all that the world offered. He didn't care about our learning chemical formulas, he cared about our taking advantage of what we have. I'm sure he was looking back at his life, and he saw all of the things he could have done.

Life, to me, is like a mountain we all climb together. All the people more experienced than you are higher up the mountain, and all of the people less experienced than you are lower. And everyone is trying to warn the people below them to watch it, to take advantage of what they've got.

Oftentimes, the warnings are to no avail, because you're unwilling to listen to the boring advice of your elders.

This insight into what is really being said when someone is passing along advice enigmatically gives me hindsight of the future.

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