I was blessed, in many ways, to be raised in the 1970s and 1980s by hippie parents. My folks were academics. Socialists. They grew pot in the backyard. Mom played guitar and sang union songs with me before bed. Dad had a photo of Fidel Castro shaking his hand, on the piano in the living room. I never had religion, other than Marxism, and like so many other kids in our social circles, it was clothing and discipline optional much of the time. This all helped to make me a free-thinking, confident and generally happy and creative person.
But now that I am reaching middle age, with a soon-to-be teen son of my own, it has really hit me that there are several basic life skills and strategies that I simply never learned — or, more precisely, that I’ve had to learn now, just before it is too late. Here are five.
1. Get an evergreen and useful college degree instead of a weird one.
To my parents, traditional jobs – you know, the ones that everyone needs someone else to do – were repressive, and harshed one’s buzz. If I’d ever told my folks I wanted to be, say, a lawyer or a dentist, they would have probably cried and wondered where they’d gone wrong for me to sell out in this way.
It never occurred to them, probably because their “square” and boring parents who were doing those jobs often sent them extra money and bought them things like cars, that there was value in being “boring” and responsible.
I appreciate that they supported and encouraged me to “follow my bliss,” but in the end this impractical mindset led to, well, to me now – middle aged, financially struggling, with a weird bachelor’s degree and a nearly obsolete master’s degree, neither of which will help me find a decent job.
2. Go to your local public university. It’s better than you think.
I did well enough in high school (3.7 gpa) that the Univ. of New Mexico sent me a letter, offering me a full-tuition scholarship, as part of its efforts to keep bright locals in the state. I should have taken it, and my parents should have insisted that I do so. That didn’t happen.
What did happen? I bought into the hype that the best colleges were Ivy Leagues, on the East Coast. MAN was I wrong. Some of the dumbest people I ever met were at Columbia.
Meanwhile, lots of people who went to UNM and majored in useful evergreen degrees are doing great, thank you very much. And I’m still struggling.
3. Faith is Important and It’s Okay to be a Christian.
Study after study proves it: Religious people are happier. Atheists love to tell you this is because they’re idiots, and ignorance is bliss. For a long time, I towed that line too, because it was how I was raised and there are few intolerances as unyielding as the one atheists hold towards faith.
Unsurprisingly, my hippie parents were often respectful of non-Christian religions, the more foreign they were the better, but could never tolerate Christianity in the same way. (I found this to be the case in the Unitarian Church as well, which is one of the many reasons I eventually left it.)
But faith matters. It is hope. It is love. It is awe. It offers refuge, community, support and grace in times of difficulty. It offers communion with something greater than oneself, and is beautifully humbling. Many times in my career and personal life I made massive mistakes due to my arrogance and self-righteousness, things that might have been squashed if I’d had any sort of spiritual/moral education as a child. Even if my parents didn’t believe God was real, I wish they’d given me the choice to make that decision for myself instead of letting me know I’d be shunned if I were ever to be so foolish as to become a Christian instead of, you know, a Hindu or pagan.
* For the record: While my father remains a staunch atheist, my mother returned to the Catholicism of her upbringing when faced with cancer.
4. Respect and love others, even if you think they’re awful.
My parents raised me during a time in American history when it was considered cool to moon police cars, spit on soldiers, and make fun of anyone who didn’t agree with you. This was considered “progress.” I understand why this rebellion appealed to my folks, given how differently they’d been raised. I learned early on that being “in your face” in confrontations was desirable, even cute. I was rewarded for it. I got very good at it. And I have spent many years confronting and battling the world around me.
While I do continue to have a powerful commitment to social justice and equality, I now know that such aims are not best accomplished through combative, insulting, arrogant tactics. Snark is no substitute for diplomacy. One of the most powerful and beautiful things I’ve learned from my faith is to truly love my enemies, to pray for them, to respect them, to honor them as my equals even if we don’t agree. It seems simple, but believe me, it is very hard to love, to forgive, to respect, when you have been raised to detest. But this new approach is a million times more effective, not only in helping others, but also in helping me to feel happier, more at peace and loving.
5. The world owes you nothing. Whatever you get, you will have to earn.
I grew up feeling entitled to say, do and be whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, without regard for the needs of my greater society, friends or family. I felt that I was special, and the world owed me everything I wanted, because that’s what I’d been told all my life. Granted, it is lovely to be supportive and encouraging of your kids. But in my case, I was rarely disciplined and, like so many kids of my generation, told I was wonderful for doing pretty much nothing at all.
None of this prepared me for the real world, where hard work, discipline, compassion, humility, kindness and diplomacy are the keys to success in the personal and professional realm. I have learned these lessons the hard way, through setbacks, failures, public humiliations and attacks. At first, I felt sorry for myself, and wondered why the world was so unfair. But then I came to see my difficulties for what they were – the gentle, direct lessons of a loving God that needed for me to stop putting myself first.
6. Save your money.
Hippie parents often inherit large sums from their “square” parents, who (according to their hippie children) were boring, patriotic robots who repressed themselves by working hard all their lives and saving everything they had. My conservative grandparents went so far as to buy their own cemetery plots and prepay their own funerals, just to save their children the hassle.
The children of hippie parents will not be so lucky; we will inherit nothing, and that means we will have to keep working until we die. Many of us will have to pay for our parents burials. We should not make this same mistake with our own children. We should save, so that we can leave them something when we’re gone.