Freedom, vulnerability and human connection: advice to my kids for what comes next

Dear Hendrix and Rose:

The stories we tell ourselves are even more powerful than the ones we tell others.

Done right, they center our place in the world. Who are we?

Sometimes, we can overdo them. That’s usually when we think we’re the center of the universe. Why are we?

Stories give us the certainty to push on. When we think about what will happen next, it can seem dark. But a story can shed necessary light. It can be one about how we persevered in the past. It could be a tale that gives us a sense of purpose now. It can even be a fable that helps us practice seeing wrong from right.

When we’re ready to share, even the simplest stories can be useful signals to people we don’t know. They might see our narrative as an invitation to express what they have in common with us. By doing so, it can create trust. It’s a sense of safety. You go to that house of worship because your grandfather used to pray there? My family goes there too! You dressed for Halloween as a character from your favorite movie? I’ve seen that film three times! You’re a big fan of that sports team and watched that amazing victory last night? I have season’s tickets and was there in person! Let’s get together again. Let’s keep talking. Would you like to work on this with me?

Great stories are good starting points to achieve remarkable things together. They have inspired strangers to trust each other. This can lead to them to make a public declaration that starts an entirely new country. To write a powerful set of essays that can launch a new faith. Or to organize an event where one speech can mobilize a world-changing movement. These fresh initiatives are stories in themselves. They become sacred narratives that motivate us to be less selfish or, even to put ourselves in harm’s way. 

Sometimes, we can think our story is so important that it should be the only one that matters. We may even be prepared to take the lives of others so that it drowns out their version of the truth. “What we believe is so powerful, we should dominate you.”

Yes, stories can sometimes kill. They can also make complex things too simple. They can confuse us if we’re forced to listen to too many stories at once. Often, one story can say exactly the opposite to another story. That’s a problem if we do use stories to signal important information to others. They won’t trust us in such a chaotic situation. When that happens, we find it harder to work with each other. We also can’t make important decisions about big problems we all face. That’s because we can’t agree on the story that helps us understand the problem itself.

We hope that some of the technology that has been created in your lifetime will help clear the confusion. There’s also a chance it could make it worse if these new machines force their automated decisions upon us.

So, here are some stories to inspire a very simple choice you could make now: to ride a bike as often as you can.

Sounds simple, right? Maybe too simple? Perhaps it’s not as easy a decision as you might think. For your parents, it was obvious when they were growing up. They would rely on their own two feet at first. They would learn to walk, and then use a bicycle. But then as soon as possible, they would earn a driver’s license and get a car.

Why was that so?

They were taught that three things truly mattered as they became adults. First, to have Power, which provides speed and access to special things. Second, to achieve Scale, which multiplies the amount of effort we put into something without tiring us out. And third, to extend our Reach, which helps us push past our natural boundaries. A car has all of those things, with its powerful engine, a full gas tank, and paved roads to get us pretty much anywhere.

Even the cars your parents chose, told a story to others about who they really thought they were. These vehicles were a visual signal about the colors they liked. How did they choose to spend their money? Did it matter more that they appeared as practical or successful? Did they prefer to power through obstacles, or expertly navigate around them? All this would determine the acquisition of either an economical, reliable car. Or a stylish, expensive, late-model one.

But that was another world. By the time you become adults, your choices could be more challenging. Funnily enough, you will have more options. But you could also have less freedom than your parents ever did.

You can already see it on your way to school: scooters, powered skateboards, e-bikes, ride-share, self-parking vehicles. Many people don’t even own what they’re driving or riding. Maybe that’s because it’s more convenient. Maybe it’s less expensive. But without a doubt, it will transfer our own small amounts of Power, Scale and Reach into the hands of a small group of people who will massively grow their own Power, Scale and Reach. Let’s call them, They.

If this truly comes to be, They will control how you get around. We should not give Them that much power. That is why this is a post about freedom, vulnerability and human connection, intended to inspire kids over the age of ten or so. That would be You. It’s also about the joy of riding a bike. Within that joy, lies your independence.

Biking is the opposite to Power, Scale and Reach. 

Really, it’s about (1) Self-Propulsion. You can only go so fast. (2) Constraint. You’re forced to get creative in how you overcome your natural limits; (3) Solitude. The boredom of spending time with yourself will take you places You wouldn’t normally go.

Most adults don’t have to bike.

You should bike.

Even when you don’t have to.

Because you can.

[This is the first in a collection of short meditations on freedom, vulnerability and human connection (a.k.a “bicycling”) titled “There’s Glass on the Bridge”]