Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Worth of Ideas

I once heard a quote along the lines of, "An idea--just an idea--is worthless if you don't do something with it, if it doesn't translate to action." A more famous variant comes from Thomas Edison's "The value of an idea lies in the using of it."

What do you think? Is the sheer idea, independent of direct action, worthless?

In the moment, the statement didn't bother me that much, but it did a great deal upon my future reflection. I'm reminded of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's famous "Just Words" speech during his gubernatorial campaign, in which he said in response to his opponent, "Her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is all I have to offer is words," he said. "Just words. 
We holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — just words. Just words. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just words. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words. 'I have a dream’ — just words."

Deval Patrick's powerful response, garnering tremendous applause, highlighted the power of words; I think it's also time we highlight the power of ideas. Sure, there's a lot already being done; after all, is dedicated to "ideas worth spreading" and they are clearly widely respected, with ever increasing reach. 

Yet still, we oftentimes overlook the inherent value of ideas. Isn't everything we hold dear (or not) an idea, somehow? Isn't love an idea, if we isolate it from merely the biological feeling; isn't hate an idea, too? In some sense the bonds of family are ideas--the idea, the knowledge somehow that we love and are loved unconditionally is one of the most comforting things there is, yet do we necessarily always translate that into action? (Come on, you know you haven't called up your grandparents.) 

I may be biased because I'm a huge TED fan and organize a TEDx conference here in Redmond (dedicated to the "ideas worth spreading" of youth), but I think there's also further objective evidence to support the power of ideas. In our wars overseas in recent memory, we've focused (at least out loud) on "winning hearts and minds" as much as fists.

Overlooking the value of ideas in their organic sense discourages intellectualism, and moreover, the joy of simply thinking. My best conversations haven't actually been the ones about the urgent problems or solutions right in front of us (much as I love politics) or the actions to be crossed off of to-do lists. Rather, they've more often than not been about issues that transcend action (or at least, actions by me alone). War and peace and love and hate, good and evil and humanity and nature, even, sometimes, the universe--problems I can never solve, places I can never go, us crazy people whom I sometimes can't understand. 

We all have philosophers within. To dispute the value of ideas, or set up an inappropriate comparison of superiority/inferiority between action and ideas, is to be nearsighted. It denies the beauty of the world that's larger than us. I find it simultaneously strange and humbling to realize what thin threads we are on the tapestry of history, how shallow our footprints on the sands of time can be. I believe surely in leaving those footprints and in the value of action. I mean, one of my favorite quotes is Horace Mann's rousing "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." But I also believe keenly that ideas have value all by themselves; for where will we achieve those victories, if not first within our minds? 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

the oppression of attention

Who doesn't love attention? We clamor for it as kids, throwing temper tantrums incessantly. We fight with our siblings. We conduct daring feats and do stupid things. Yet somewhere along the road this morphs into closing our doors, demanding our personal space, and yelling, "Just leave me alone!"

 I'll admit, I used to have little empathy for this mindset when I saw it evidenced by my older sister, Adrianna; to me, she was just distancing herself from the rest of the family for no reason. Now, however, I feel like I can relate a bit. These past couple of weeks have been highly unusual ones in my household. Adrianna's actually gone at music camp in Michigan, so I am for all intents and purposes an only child. You might think that I'd relish all the undivided attention from my parents now, but instead, I feel a certain oppression. This might sound ungrateful, so let me just say right now that I love my parents and value the time I spend with them. But I also feel that it may be a wider problem--one of desire for independence clashing with protectiveness and a misplaced definition of love as dependence--that causes and explains the "leave me alone" mindset many teens can relate to.

 At fourteen, I feel the pressures of impending adulthood and a sense of responsibility that I feel should be matched by my parents' trust; I'm growing older and I'll be off to college in two years, since I skipped grades. Yet at the same time, it's plausible to posit that my mom feels the time she has left with me ticking away and wants to capitalize on it. The sense of impending loss is undoubtedly ominous--to the both of us (I'll have to do my own laundry?! Just kidding). However, it's also undeniably a part of growing up. I need to be allowed to make my own decisions and mistakes, take leaps--and fall--without receiving too much help, because it's what I'll be doing for the rest of my life.

 In many ways this is what young people did for many years. You might have heard stories from your parents or grandparents about their thrilling adventures in their youth. When he was my age, my dad was taking trains around the East Coast or breaking his teeth on ill-advised bike rides. My mom was running away from home. In the olden days, fourteen-year-olds took on heavy responsibilities as well as risks (seriously, just read Little House on the Prairie). Yet in today's world, it's easy for parents to hover over the shoulder in more ways than one; nowadays, parents monitor children's activities on social media (like in the infamous example of Tommy Jordan, the father who shot his daughter's laptop after seeing her negative post on Facebook); stay in constant communication through Skype or texting; and even extend their influence beyond the ages children typically gain some modicum of independence. Professors in college tell anecdotes of parents calling them up to complain about a son or daughter's subpar grade. I feel that this infantilizes young adults, and that this seeming "protection" can only have negative ramifications later on. It reminds me of the ethos of the Lana Del Rey song "Without You," particularly one line: "I can be a china doll / If you want to see me fall." We may be coddled, dressed up, given every advantage--in short, prepped for perfection--but there are cracks in the porcelain. Will we break when we fall?

 (Of course, I want to add a quick disclaimer here that backing off from the parental hover doesn't mean being negligent. If teens are facing serious issues--i.e., around mental health or drug addictions--then they need attention, no matter how much they ask to be left alone.)

 Of course, my mom isn't a legitimate example of a helicopter parent. She's never shot a computer, incessantly chatted with me on Skype, or yelled at a teacher about a grade. Okay, like many parents, she can get borderline creepy when she has a camera (there was one stalker-ish photo through window blinds once)...but perhaps the most clear exemplification of my mom's feeling comes in the form of things she's said--often in a joking way, but probably with a kernel of truth--along the lines of, "I miss the old Adora" or "What happened to the little Adora?" Sure, I miss "the old Adora" sometimes too (who doesn't want to be able to innocently run around in the mud as much as they used to?) but I feel that these quotes belie a certain clinging to a persistent memory that no longer exists in reality. Imagine if I said things like, "I miss my old mother." I wonder how my mom would feel.

 So how do people grow up in ways that minimize conflicting feelings of independence desired versus dependence missed? Perhaps as the children start to fly from the quintessential "nest," parents can find some new "children" of sorts to lavish attention on. Excellent examples come from senior citizens who invest themselves heavily in volunteering and charitable causes. I think it's important to define the difference between attention and love, after all. As children, we have a tenuous idea of love; we often try to quantify it with how much we feel seen and heard. Now, I want the independence that comes with being sure of my parents' love, and not needing to feel them watch me. Besides, I know I'm not such a little kid anymore that I'm going to get jealous of whatever my parents start to pay attention to next...I mean, really, can you imagine fighting with a good cause the same way you used to fight with your siblings? So, Mom and Dad, don't take it the wrong way: leave me alone. Believe me: those are the new three little words parents everywhere should want to hear.