The Marginalian
The Marginalian

How to Grow Up: Nick Cave’s Life-Advice to a 13-Year-Old

“Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Bertrand Russell counseled in his timeless advice on how to grow old. There is a lovely symmetry between this orientation to the winter of life and the natural state of its springtime — in youth, curiosity unfurls centripetally from the self to the world, touching more and more facets of it with that electric jolt of discovery when everything is new and interesting and dazzling with delight.

How to harness youth’s centripetal curiosity as a creative force for bettering the world is what Nick Cave — himself an insightful reckoner with the art of growing older — explores in answering a 13-year-old boy’s question about how to live a full, creative, actualized, spiritually rich life in “a world ridden with so much hate, and disconnect.”

Nick Cave

In consonance with W.E.B. Du Bois’s advice to his teenage daughter and with David Bowie’s idea of perfect happiness, Cave writes:

Read. Read as much as possible. Read the big stuff, the challenging stuff, the confronting stuff, and read the fun stuff too. Visit galleries and look at paintings, watch movies, listen to music, go to concerts — be a little vampire running around the place sucking up all the art and ideas you can. Fill yourself with the beautiful stuff of the world. Have fun. Get amazed. Get astonished. Get awed on a regular basis, so that getting awed is habitual and becomes a state of being. Fully understand your enormous value in the scheme of things because the planet needs people like you, smart young creatives full of awe, who can minister to the world with positive, mischievous energy, young people who seek spiritual enrichment and who see hatred and disconnection as the corrosive forces they are. These are manifest indicators of a human being with immense potential.

This openhearted curiosity, this aura of astonishment, becomes an antidote to the spiritual poison most corrosive to the world — cynicism, that supreme enemy of hope. At any stage of life, the refusal to succumb to cynicism is among our greatest triumphs of the spirit. It is certainly our mightiest force of courage and resistance to the cowardly denouncements of possibility that pock the countenance of humanity.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

Cave’s urgent words to the boy speak to the tender, hopeful, openhearted child in each of us — for, in the plainest existential sense, we are daily beginners at life:

Absorb into yourself the world’s full richness and goodness and fun and genius, so that when someone tells you it’s not worth fighting for, you will stick up for it, protect it, run to its defence, because it is your world they’re talking about, then watch that world continue to pour itself into you in gratitude. A little smart vampire full of raging love, amazed by the world.

Complement with philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s advice on life and Rebecca Solnit’s lovely letter to children about the value of reading, then revisit Nick Cave on self-forgiveness, the relationship between vulnerability and freedom, and the antidote to our existential helplessness.

Published April 20, 2023




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