I address you as son and not “Ryan,” because at core I’m your father, not your friend. Father and son are roles that come with expectations. My job has always been to prepare you for self-government: to ensure that your heart, gray matter, and grit are properly formed. If I did my job properly, someday you will be the kind of man who is there for his family, as I’ve tried to be there for ours. (You have called our relationship “the Alpha dog and the chew toy.”)
Now you have headed off to college, a new chapter in your life. Your future is in your hands. Your mother and I are here to advise and enable you. Still, your own choices will shape your future more than anything else.
The challenge of college is not the problem of too little time, but too much. Can you manage your time? Can you balance limited-but-serious work with an exhausting social calendar? My advice: never miss a class, take good notes, and make yourself known to your teachers. But college is about more than showing up and getting by; it’s about developing your human capital. Successful people possess something that the market values. These days, unless you’re a model or a martial artist, what’s between your ears will drive your earnings. So get in the habit of reading and thinking. Read intelligently within your discipline as well as outside of it. Make your way through Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics. It’s a wonderful introduction to the discipline of free minds and markets. Let your professors see you reading it. If they have something good to say about it, find out what they teach. But whether they like the book or not, ask them what they recommend that you read next. It will tell you a lot about them. (By the way, you left Basic Economics on your desk at home. Don’t worry, it’s in the mail.)
I’ve done my best to share my views with you over the dinner table. You have a better sense of your country’s soul than most of your teachers and peers, but now you have to take ownership of your civic education. You say you want to be an international man of finance? Read the Wall Street Journal every day. Start with the summaries of top news articles on the left-hand side. Read the op-ed page and you’ll get an education in thoughtful citizenship. Read the Economist for a balanced—albeit Anglo-centric—take on the world. Watch CNBC for market news.
A few words about your own soul. You’ll be on your own these next few years, and I’ve noticed how you struggle with waking up on Sunday mornings. Don’t forget where you come from and where you belong. As you know, thinking about God is an important part of my life. This was not always the case. When I was your age, I had a sense of what team I was on, but I had more pressing—worldlier—concerns. You have rarely seen me without a book nearby, but I wasn’t always bookish. Everything changed in college. I became me. This is your opportunity to become you.
I see a philosophic streak in you. You always seem to get to the core of things. Remember that Man is the most dangerous of animals. Our free will gives us the ability to act contrary to what we know to be true, good, and just. Our ability to reason lets us rationalize our actions. Try to keep a clear head and a full heart. The Golden Rule is not such a great stretch. You don’t need to be an angel, but learn to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
The truth is found somewhere in between relativism and absolutism. Pure relativism is nonsense. Man is not the maker and measure of all things. We didn’t create the law of thermodynamics, but we have the capacity to discover, understand, and exploit it for our benefit. The same holds true for situational ethics. Relativism works well for slobs and sociopaths—thus its broad popular appeal. Resist it. Absolutism, by contrast, fails to recognize the limits of what we can know and do. Absolutism is headstrong in the pursuit of what it deems the truth. You can compromise with others without compromising your principles. Knowing how to do that is a key to living well in civilized society.
I should say that being a good Christian and turning the other cheek doesn’t come easy for me. When push comes to shove, my inclination is to push back (and sometimes to shove, punch, and even kick). Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors and to forgive those who trespass against us is a daily struggle. But it’s what our faith asks. Man is a fallen creature who rebels against his Creator—because he can—and is redeemed through God’s grace, which he does not deserve.
Son, don’t lose your faith. Rather, make it your own. If you can’t do that, then bet the odds. Pascal, from whom I have learned much, made the case for faith in terms of a wager: If you believe in God and He doesn’t exist, you lose nothing; if you don’t believe and He does exist, you lose everything. I have wagered my life on God’s existence (not to mention his mercy and sense of humor). While faith is a leap, you jump to it from solid ground.
As you know, we are leveraged for your future, so for the sake of your mother—who will certainly outlive me—swing for the fences. Use this time to be curious about what is most important in life. I won’t regret paying a small fortune for that outcome.