One more excerpt from my interview with Albert Borgmann. There was a point in our conversation when I suggested that ideal focal things and practices would be appealing but unattainable for the typical household. Again, this post is a little longer than usual, but, again, I think it's worth your effort. We begin with my lead in....
Your description of what constitutes a good life—a life oriented by focal things, concerns and practices in the context of a household, of family life—is very appealing. At the same time I think people would say that reading, engaging in conversation, taking a walk, writing a letter, playing a musical instrument or a game such as chess, preparing a meal, or even just sitting at a table together for an extended period of time seem to be no match for Nintendo, instant messaging, Web surfing or listening to a CD in the privacy of one’s room. As parents, we feel we just don’t have what it takes. We’re no match for the hyperreality that is so readily available through all the devices that inundate our homes.
The first thing to say to such parents is that they should love what they make a focal thing and practice. They need to be inveterate runners or chess players or musicians, and if they don’t have such a thing, they should consult their aspirations. Parents must find that love of doing something in particular. Most of us had something that we loved— we have simply let it go, and our lives are now reduced to doing what has to be done and are filled with periods of doing nothing much at all. It’s the death of the focal practice if it’s done from a sense of guilt or obligation.
So this kind of work must spring from love. If you love it, your children learn to love it. What children best remember from their childhood and most likely re-create in their adult life is what their parents loved. For example, my father loved gardening, and as children we would help him weed or cut the grass. None of us, while we were children, loved gardening. But now, in adulthood, all four of us have vegetable gardens. Nobody told us to do this—we just found ourselves doing it. So you have to find something you love.
The second thing to say to parents concerns thresholds. The threshold to Nintendo games and television shows is low, and so you move across that threshold easily. The rewards from that are low as well. It’s well established through research that when people get up from two hours of watching television—and there are similar results with people playing Nintendo games or working on a computer for two hours—they don’t feel well. They feel worse than they did at the beginning. So low threshold, low rewards. Focal things and practices have a high threshold. The threshold is high morally, not materially. It’s not as if people have to exert themselves strenuously or face some danger before they can sit down at the table. It’s right there, within reach. But there is a moral threshold. It’s a bother, it’s a pain. There is a high threshold, and so it’s difficult to get across it. But once you’re across it the reward is high as well. After a fine meal you get up with a glad heart. After playing tennis with your kid for a couple of hours both of you feel good.
Obviously you have to begin with your children when they’re small, and then you have to live and practice for them the thing that you love. And then they’ll take it up as well. You should expect it to be hard, but there is something on the other side of that high and difficult threshold, and those are high rewards. The rewards are not invariable. Sometimes the meal will be a chore from start to finish. But such episodes will not call into question an established practice.
I think this particular exchange we had was the highpoint of the interview. In my early years as a parent, I paid far too little attention to the things I love to do and even less to passing those loves along to my children. I think this is one of the wisest pieces of advice I have ever received on parenting. More broadly, I think it is the wisest advice on how to live well in this technological age.