On the occasion of Cornelia’s twelfth birthday 2.0

Last spring, the second graders were learning about Thomas Jefferson, and Summerly came home to tell me that one of her teachers had read to them the list of twelve pieces of advice he’d given to his granddaughter. She didn’t remember specifics, but after they went to bed I looked this up, thinking it was just the kind of thing I might find useful, or at least interesting. Here’s what I found on the official Monticello site:

According to the site, Jefferson gave this list to his granddaughter, Cornelia, when she turned twelve. It’s important to remember the context here; this advice was compiled over two centuries ago, and the world looks drastically different now than it did then. Racially, socially, politically, practically, technologically, psychologically, ideologically: our perspective today is unrecognizable as compared to the conceptual landscape of the early nineteenth century, and rightfully so. Having said that, and with no disrespect to old TJ (well, aside from the whole Sally Hemings and slaveholding bit), I politely beg to wildly differ, and I can’t help feeling a little sorry for little Cornelia, who no doubt incorporated these pompous postulates graciously provided by her august and influential grandfather into her life as she two-stepped into womanhood. In her memory, here is a line-by-line response for girls in modern times:

  1. Unless it’s something you really want to do today, if it’s not one of your carefully-considered topmost priorities, it can most likely wait until tomorrow. Sometimes it helps to write it down for the next day to aid intentionality.
  2. If you can handle it without feeling overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted, lonely, under-appreciated, or desperate, handle it if that feels right and doesn’t do a disservice to yourself or others in the long run. Otherwise, recognize and express that you would like help, even if you don’t absolutely need it.
  3. It’s theoretically a good idea to avoid debt, but if you have no choice, look into options for financing, and shop around for a credit card with a low APR and airline mile options. Never miss a monthly payment, and bring your balance to zero as soon as you can. Also, it’s usually wiser to pay a mortgage than monthly rent.
  4. This one is perplexing due to the comma splice and the dual meaning of the word “dear”, but here’s a fresh take: usually you get what you pay for, but sometimes you pay for what you get. Definitely include gift receipts when that’s an option.
  5. I’m not sure what to make of this one, honestly. There are so many ways to interpret it that instead I’ll say this: keep the change. (I’m not talking about money.)
  6. These couple hundred years have wrought transformation upon the notion of “pride”. The word itself has been reappropriated, rendering its meaning basically bereft of the negative connotations it once implied. Now we use more specific words to express the trappings of excessive pride as insinuated by Jefferson here (words like self-aggrandizing, inflexible, close-minded, uncompromising, or having either a fixed mindset or a superiority complex). Nowadays every person deserves to feel a sense of pride as a derivative of accomplishments earned, however small, as long as we understand that possessing pride is not a contraindication of a sense of humility. If we keep those in equilibrium and act accordingly, harmony is the byproduct of balance.
  7. Ah, another example of the evolution of language is evident here; in recent years the portmanteau “hangry” has crept into our vernacular. If you know what that means, then you know a person can indeed repent from having eaten too little. Never underestimate the power of a banana and a glass of milk.
  8. There will be countless times in your life that you’ll do things willingly despite the fact that they are troublesome. Be cautious about overcommitting, however, and use the word “yes” parsimoniously when the net inconvenience outweighs the net benefit, particularly as it relates to interactions with people outside of your nearest and dearest.
  9. It’s human nature to worry about outcomes, to consider misfortune, disaster, even tragedy. In some ways it’s healthy to allow our brains to explore worst-case scenarios as a kind of defense mechanism against the shock of disappointment or being blindsided by distress because the surprise factor can intensify the negative effects of such an eventuality. It can be comforting to feel prepared, mentally and logistically, especially if you are someone who like to have a plan. However, dwelling on the catastrophe potential of any given situation doesn’t usually do much good. It’s that beauty of fine balance again: don’t be afraid to wonder if things will end badly if it feels like taking out insurance against gratitude, but don’t devote the occupation of your thoughts exclusively to it lest you contribute to manifesting that unwelcome outcome. Think also of how things can end well.
  10. This one makes me laugh. Is it a metaphor? Either way, I think it’s a pretty solid piece of advice, but first make sure that the handle is properly affixed to whatever you’re trying to take. If a handle appears innocuous but might come off in your grasp, thereby compromising the integrity of the whole, maybe try securing what you’re hoping to attain by supporting it from underneath. Use both hands, and lift with your legs, not your back.
  11. Practice tolerance of those who do not share your opinions, and offer them grace in whatever ways you can. This does not mean that you should shy away from confrontation if it’s approached holistically with the objective of learning through listening, sharing, and thinking in equal parts. If we ignore different perspectives or refuse to engage in discourse surrounding points of disagreement, we cannot evolve. If we reject opportunities for interchange, we choose stagnation and avoidance over interpersonal ignition and reactivity, the fission and fusion that further civilization. Conflagration yields new growth. My answer to “can’t we all just get along?” is yes, we probably can. But we shouldn’t. Not all the time. It certainly won’t make us happy.
  12. The dozenth canon has withstood the test of time. This one is easier said than done, however, and I’ll also add that taking deep breaths while counting doubles down on the effects of this strategy. And while you count, it can’t hurt to reach for a banana and a glass of milk or, if you’re counting to 100, consider swapping out the milk for some ice cream.

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