by Greg Krehbiel on 31 August 2004
This is the last part of a series of supplements to Dr. Dobson’s “preparing for adolescence” tape series.
The Lessons of the Bene Gesserit
#1 — “Learn from previous generations.”
I’ve often summarized human history as ten billion people walking down a path, falling into a ditch, then turning to the person following to warn them — “watch out for the ditch” — only to be told in anger to mind their own business. It seems that we make the same mistakes over and over and over again.
Imagine how successful you would be if you could go back to age 16 and live your life over again. Think of all the mistakes you could avoid. I don’t mean the kind of trivial success you could have from knowing the future (e.g., “I should have bought Microsoft stock when I was 25!”). I mean the kind of success you could enjoy from having made wiser choices — governing your apetites, saving your money, keeping your temper in check.
We can’t do life over again, except in the lives of those who come after. Of course fathers can’t re-live their life through their children — and they shouldn’t try. But they can pass on what they’ve learned. And a child who can learn to apply even some of that wisdom will be far more successful than the average kid, who says “don’t tell me what to do” right before he falls into the ditch.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the Bene Gesserit are an order of women — somewhat like secular nuns — who have made learning from the past into an institution. A Bene Gesserit novice goes through an incredible regimen of training — a regimen that has been fine-tuned over tens of thousands of years.
Imagine a martial arts school that has been perfecting its fighting techniques for ten thousand years! You would want to be friends with those guys! Now imagine a school that has been perfecting its understanding of art, psychology, medicine, sociology, physiology and martial arts for ten thousand years and you’ll have a rough estimate of the prowess of the Bene Gesserit.
Compare that with humans. Your great grandfather learned a lot by making a living, loving his wife and raising his children. What did he learn? Do you know? Have you benefited from that wisdom?
Why not? Probably because of the inherent arrogance and stupidity of the human race. You’ve heard quotes like this before. “When I was a teenager I thought my dad was an idiot, but the older I got the more I realized how right he had been.” That kind of foolishness has been going on for a very long time, and that’s part of why we never seem to learn. Each new crop of kids lives under the illusion that they can make their own way — that they know better than the fools and poltroons who went before. The result is ten billion people ignoring the warnings and falling into the same ditch. It’s hard to know if God is laughing or crying.
You can’t completely stop this process. There’s something about the teen years that makes otherwise intelligent children suddenly quite irrational. But if you can get your child to lay hold of the lesson of the Bene Gesserit, you might be able to mitigate the damage. If families could pass on even 10 percent of what the previous generation has learned, they’d make enormous progress.
Here’s one practical tip to get this lesson hammered into your child — When you’re on a drive in the car, talk about how cars have developed and changed over time. Remind them that we used to have two keys — one for the ignition and one for the trunk — until Honda had the idea of making one key. And now everybody does that. Or talk about the wipers. Remember when there was no “intermittent” setting on the blades, and you’d have to turn them on and off all the time?
The design of the car is a classic example of learning from previous “generations.” Use stories like that to give your kids a vision of steady improvement. Get them to believe that they really can learn from the past, avoid mistakes and do better.
#2 — “Learn to control emotions.”
The lesson of the Vulcan is to control emotions in the sense of suppressing them. The Bene Gesserit have learned to use emotions in a rational way. Like the Vulcans, they learn to control emotions by subjecting them to the mind, but unlike the Vulcans they don’t merely suppress them, they manipulate emotions to serve a greater purpose.
The Bene Gessert sometimes seem like conniving, manipulative monsters, and they are. But there’s a lesson for the wise observer. Emotions can and should be used to advantage — like a coach who learns what to say to motivate a team, or a Lt. Colonel who prepares his men for battle, or a husband who brings home flowers.
Children need to learn to recognize how emotions affect them and others, and, in turn, how they can do things that will affect emotions — their own and others’.
I believe that divorce is killing our families in large part because people haven’t learned this lesson. It’s almost as if our culture believes in Cupid, shooting people with love arrows — except that the love can wear off. And they feel powerless against this, as if love is some fickle god that comes and goes. We “fall” into love and “fall” out of it as if we had no choice in the matter.
This will sound mercenary and crass, but we can choose to fall and stay in love, and we can choose to avoid love. We simply have to be thoughtful enough to know what will engender the right feelings. For example, love can be nurtured through acts of service.
This attitude of being captive to love’s random whim is rather amazing because all our courting rituals scream at us that we can affect emotions by carefully chosen actions. Why does a man bring flowers to his girlfriend? Why does he write love notes? Why does he give gifts? Because these actions can affect emotions.
Romantic love is only the simplest and most obvious example. We are not subject to our emotions. Our emotions are subject to us — if we have the wisdom to make intelligent and informed choices.
The second lesson of the Bene Gesserit is to pay close attention to emotion. Notice what affects you and others. Learn how to nurture good emotions and kill the bad. The goal is not to be a manipulative Bene Gesserit witch, but to rein in your passions so that they serve you rather than you serving them.
-- 2004-08-31 » Greg Krehbiel