In childhood, we have no concept of permission.  If a tube of Elmer’s Glue looks interesting, we squeeze it on the floor and put it in our mouths.  If we want to be a princess, we put on our frilliest dress and steal our mother’s pearls.  If we want to build a blanket fort, we grab sheets from the linen closet and pillows from the couch.

However, as we get older, we learn the proper conduct of the adult world.  We can’t simply get up in the middle of class to go to the bathroom; we must ask first.  Similarly, we can’t speak whenever we feel the urge; we have to raise our hand.  If we disobey these rules, we get an “oops” slips and detention.

Much like school, home is governed by rules.  We must call our parents and ask permission before we can go to our best friend’s house after school.  We must get their signature before we can attend a field trip.  We must ask before opening our dad’s tools.

Growing up means becoming intimately acquainted with the most demoralizing word in the English language: “no.”  

“No, you can’t eat ice cream before lunch.”  

“No, you can’t go to your friend’s house.”  

“No, you can’t put aside studying for your geometry test because you’d rather scroll through Facebook.”

We learn that the things we desire are wrong, inappropriate, inexcusable.  It’s wrong, for example, to indulge in ice cream before a meal.  It’s wrong to scroll through social media when we have homework.  Our parents, our society, and our school teach us that our dreams and desires are meant to be delayed, if not indefinitely postponed.  We can only have the decadent hot fudge sundae after we eat our chicken and kale.  We can only update our status after we find the missing angle of a triangle.

In many ways, delaying the gratification of a desire is an important life skill.  If we want to achieve any worthwhile goal, there will be times when we have to be patient and exercise self-control.  We could never lose weight, for example, if we succumbed to every urge to eat chocolate cake instead of stick to our meal plan of lean proteins and vegetables.

However, as we get older, we become too skilled in the art of self-denial.  Rarely— if ever— do we indulge in our wants.  We become too strict, too stern, too punitive with ourselves.  Obsessed with a lovely winter coat we always see in the department store window?  Oh no, we could never treat ourselves to something so unnecessary and expensive.  Daydream about strolling through Provence’s rolling lavender hills?  No, we could never spend thousands of dollars on something so frivolous as a single vacation.

Over the years, we come to believe that what we want is fundamentally wrong:

It would be “wrong” to leave a marriage of twenty years, even though most nights our “marriage” consists of two sorrowful strangers sitting in silence at the dinner table.

It would be “wrong” to date the out-of-work actor with nothing financial to offer when we could date a man with an impressive job and six-figure income.

It would be “wrong” to leave our stable job to join the PeaceCorps.

It would be “wrong” to abandon our family and friends to become a Buddhist monk.

It would be “wrong” to take a watercolor class just for fun.

Though we look like adults, in many ways, we’re still scared little children.  Despite our suits and brief cases, home mortgages and our 401k’s, we long for someone wiser to give us permission, to tell us what we want is “ok.”

It’s ok to leave the job, the city, the relationship.

It’s ok to pursue an unconventional career as a sculptor or photographer or filmmaker or freelance writer or multimedia artist.

It’s ok to risk everything and start your own business.

It’s ok to change careers at 35 and fall in love again at 57.

But as Alain de Botton writes in What They Forgot to Teach Us in School, his delightful new addition to his part-practical, part-philosophical series the School of Life, “There won’t ever be signs that completely reassure or permit us around a majority of courses of action in adult life.  There is no cosmic authority to allow or frown, to get angry or to punish us.  We are on our own.”  There’s no one who can give us definitive answers to life’s mysterious questions: “Yes, you should leave your girlfriend.”/ “No, you should not enroll in medical school.”  We’re no longer in school: there’s no ringing bells to tell us when to head to class, no teachers to give us lessons, no advisors to inform us what classes we need to fulfill graduation requirements, no lectures and assignments to give meaning to our ultimately meaningless existence.  Though this is terrifying on the one hand, it’s also liberating.  As Botton writes, “We’re answerable only to our best understanding of ourselves, to our self-knowledge and to our noblest intentions.”

One thought on “Alain de Botton on Permission

  1. Thought provoking post. I agree, we’re often still scared children on inside. Often we cling to security out of fear. So we choose unhappiness over uncertainty. I love that Botton quote ““We’re answerable only to our best understanding of ourselves, to our self-knowledge and to our noblest intentions.” Great post 🙏

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