Primary source of unhappiness in any person’s life is trying to be someone other than the person his Creator wants him to be
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Three years ago this month, Olivia, one of my three Southern belle, drop-dead gorgeous daughters, gave birth to her third child, whom she named Finn. She framed a copy of this column, as she did those I wrote to commemorate the births of her first two sons.
Assuming that the child will someday read this column after its author has departed, I asked myself, what message should grandfather convey to grandson?
Seeking an answer, I thought about advice I often give college students: Use a minimum number of words without diminishing communication’s holy grail: the essential meaning.
A century ago, Cornell University English Professor William Strunk, Jr., gave similar advice to his students. For their use, he published a little booklet entitled The Elements Of Style. Estimates are that it has since sold over ten million copies.
A guiding principle from this book is foundational to my composition teaching approach: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”
With this in mind, I challenged myself to communicate to Finn, in the least number of words possible, a message to live by. Draft one:
“As you face each day, remember that life is an endless problem-solving process, but that for every problem there is a solution, and the more you attack problems head-on, the better problem solver you become. With the certainty that courage is the chief virtue, and cowardice the worst of sins, when problems — personal or otherwise — stand in your way, don’t run from them; don’t try to circumvent them: The best way out is always through.”
But then, I thought … surely there’s a better way to convey this message, using fewer words, without diminishing the essential meaning, and I realized that I could have compressed all that verbiage into one word: courage. So, I junked the problem-solving theme, and sought a new tack.
I asked myself, Granddad, what one thing do you hope will be most abundant in this child’s life? The answer: happiness. But then I recalled what Mark Twain once said: “Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined. The two functions work together harmoniously … on the give-and-take principle. For every happiness turned out in the one department the other stands ready to modify it with a sorrow or a pain — maybe a dozen.”
Agreeing with the old riverboat pilot, I thought about ways my grandchild can reduce the suffering-machine’s function. I’ve observed that a primary source of unhappiness in any person’s life is trying to be someone other than the person his Creator wants him to be.
With that in mind, the message to my grandson became clear … in just two words: Be yourself.