How often I hear from college students and readers about regrets that they hadn’t considered until adulthood what makes for a good life and the meaning of happiness. “Only now do I realize how lucky I am to be alive!” “Why wasn’t I exposed to philosophical thinking at an earlier age?” “What if mental clarity had been my guide all along?” “Is it too late to create a life I can happily call my own?”
One of my favorite discussions with children revolves around their awareness that they have a life that is uniquely their own, a life for which they are responsible, partially now and completely soon enough. Their futures (and ours, of course) are there for the owners to grab. What’s possible?
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Poet Mary Oliver asks this stunning question in “The Summer Day,” and children thrive on the assignment to write their own poems that begin with the phrase: “With my one precious life, I….” Oliver showcases in verse the wonder of the world and her amazement that we are part of it all. A Maryland teacher shared with me her recent experience exploring the future with her philosophy club members. These children contemplated and discussed what it means to be responsible for their lives as they listened several times to the poem and its meaty promise of possibility. (“This is the best 30 minutes of the whole week!” testified one satisfied child.) Let’s entertain Oliver’s question, with a promise to come back to it for further reflection, and feast on some poetic excerpts from fourth and sixth grade child philosophers. “With my one precious life:”
“I will stroll through my brain…undo the undone…think what cannot be thought…create the uncreated…challenging my skills and abilities… be positive when others are negative….”
“I will…climb the highest tree and think, dream, and watch… run through the largest forest and listen to the noises around me…cartwheel through the largest park…walk in a little river…walk on the biggest iceberg…jog through a valley with colorful butterflies…and I will definitely do all these things with my best friends….”
“I will become the super cyborg surfer president of the universe dude….”
“I will get good grades (doing all right so far)…go to college (got a while to go)…live in the woods and meet a majestic deer (check)…become a marine biologist (already started studying)…get married (Dad said I have to be 29)…die a peaceful death in a bed of Doritos and popcorn (in 88 years)....”
Her eighth graders wanted to play with possibility as well. “With my one precious life:”
“I plan to be crazy every chance I get…never regret…to not care what people think…to wear shoes without socks….”
“I plan to do the impossible…have feelings that were never felt…fill the world with generosity…be free to live.”
“I plan to rescue dogs from animal shelters…save the rainforest…own a farm…stay close to my family (no matter where they are)….”
“I will pick up a round piece of wood / it is perfectly shaped to my specifics / I put it in my bag / I’m ready to play / some call it America’s pastime / I call it life…baseball.”
Hats off to the two teachers offering the art of clear thinking to these students in a lively philosophical circle. How beneficial it will prove in later years for the children to know now that they can carve out good lives. Kids revel in a world that holds possibilties. Adults need to throw open the doors to the future.