Not in the Manual

Typically, when you’re in your teenage years and you endure your first break-up–especially if you’re the one who’s been jettisoned–it’s injurious to your entire being. It’s sufficient, and still real enough, to make you overuse variations of the word “you” just remembering it years later. A first break-up, especially for the eighty-sixed, is systemically catastrophic because it’s uncharted waters.

It’s part of growing up.

But then you have other relationships with different outcomes and, sometimes, you become a parent.

As a species, the comprehensive way in which we care for our young is astounding. Some species are good to go in almost no time. We require 18 years, according to the law; in my case, according to the Chief, the process took 56 years. For all I know, the jury could still be out.

As a parent, some things come instinctively–feed and protect your kids; teach them to speak, to read. Other parenting skills are learned–and I’ve heard parenting described as akin to learning to play the violin in public. Parents teach their children what they know and have themselves been taught.

But when their children enter into their own first romantic entanglements it’s uncharted waters all over again. For both generations. The kid inevitably goes through their break-up and the parent–who as a teenager has been through it, too–is powerless to help.

It’s not in the manual.

It’s as if the parent has learned nothing from previous experience. Maybe it’s this kind of quirkiness that in part explains our requiring so long to mature.

Sure–we parents pass down the “wisdom of the ages.” We can address our own unique take on the universal experience in such a way as to imagine it sage advice. Yes! But about money, education, decency, common sense, responsibility, etc…

But the heart wants what it wants, right? I think that dates back to a letter of Emily Dickenson’s. Here’s a quote from Paul Thagard, Ph.D., a Canadian philosopher and cognitive scientist who posted a Psychology Today article in May of 2015:

I think that the meaning of the saying, “The heart wants what it wants,” is that emotions such as love are not under conscious, cognitive control. For example, you cannot simply decide to fall in love with somebody, no matter how suitable. Similarly, you cannot just decide to stop loving somebody, no matter how hopeless.

Which is to say there is no manual and we’re all at sea.

Regarding our own five kids, I expect the Chief and I have fared equally so well as other parents. All you can really do is be there for your kids. It never feels like that’s enough, though. Watching your child experience heartbreak is no bueno.

Watching them inflict it is no picnic, either.

Except for watching mysteries with our oldest. He rented out his house and went to live with an old flame in Texas. When that didn’t work out he asked if he could live with us for a while. He was home for 10 months–during the course of which I discovered I wasn’t the only one in the family who likes a good mystery.

For the first time–finally!–I had a partner in whatever case there was to solve, ranging across time and geography. We’d trade being the lead detective, exchange jokes, theories, observations and red herrings. All good fun –and, fortunately, fictitious. We didn’t, collectively, make too many collars.

It turns out, though, there is a manual for solving mysteries–it’s just that each chapter is particular to each style. You wouldn’t, say, solve an Agatha Christie riddle the same way you would one penned by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Not that any of this does anyone any good.

And now the Kid–our youngest–has just undergone her first break-up. No sleuthing for her, though. She disdains the genre.

But she does enjoy a good auto repair show. It’s like watching an expert actually enact the particular make’s manual.

Somehow, it’s therapeutic. And maybe–maybe a whisper of perhaps–that is enough.

Joseph Oldenbourg

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  1. Yeah, that dame Dickenson could write. But let’s not ignore the wise counsel of Rosetta Howard:

    Men are just like streetcars
    Goin each and every day
    Men are just like streetcars
    Going each and every day
    If you miss this one here
    You’ll get another one right away
    You may stand on the corner
    But you won’t have to stand there long
    You may stand on the corner
    But you won’t have to stand there long
    Before the men will ask you little girl what are you waiting on

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