Mill and My Resentment Towards My Parents

The picture above depicts the collection of John Stuart Mill’s books, and it was sent to me in the form of a postcard to thank me for my generous financial contribution towards its preservation.

I often say that Mill was responsible for my intellectual enlightenment—a contribution that he has made to my life for which I will be forever grateful—but I don’t think I’ve ever really explained why his work was so influential to me. This is certainly because I, for the longest time, could not understand it myself. I mean why are any of us the way that we are? Who knows? Despite the difficult nature of this question, I think I now have part of the answer.

As a child, my parents forced me to do many things. Not only did I have to play soccer, basketball, tennis, football, and a number of other sports, I also had to learn how to play piano and violin, as well as attend Kumon, which is a Korean after-school program that focuses on math, and attend Chinese school. Being that I had the typical second-generation Asian-American upbringing, I, of course, also had to take SAT classes, because what kind of first-generation Asian parents would not force their kids to take SAT classes?

This went on for many years, and I sincerely hated it. I especially hated being forced to play piano and violin. And I made this very clear to my mom, who, in response, said, “You’ll learn to like it. Your sisters didn’t like piano in the beginning either, but now they do.” This answer infuriated me, because I knew I wasn’t my sisters, and they weren’t me. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to end up liking those instruments. In fact, I took it upon myself to keep a calendar where I crossed out every single day that I still hated piano and violin, with the ultimate goal of having physical proof that my parents were wrong, that, after years of being forced to play, I still hated it. During my bouts of anger, I even fantasized about smashing my violin against the piano, but I never did it.

It took me many years to figure out that what I felt towards my parents was resentment, and honestly, to this day, I still resent them. Don’t get me wrong, I know my parents tried their best; I just disagree with how they raised me. I won’t go into the details of what I would have done differently, if I had been them, but suffice it to say that my particular upbringing made me realize how important autonomy was for self-development.

When I say self-development, I mean the good kind of development—passionate self-development. That’s what was missing in my childhood. I had no passion in what I was doing, because I fundamentally didn’t value any of the activities that my parents forced me to do. And the fact that they forced me so comprehensively made it less likely for me to eventually engage in those activities autonomously.

From my parents’ perspective, I can understand why they did what they did. Let’s face it, children don’t want to do many things that are ultimately good for them, so my not wanting to play piano and violin was to be expected. But to me it was really bad. I was extremely angry and resentful, because I felt that I was being significantly wronged somehow. However, without being able to justify why I had such strong feelings, my attitude remained immature. I was just another kid pouting and stomping his feet.

So I think Mill was influential to me because his writings validated my feelings. He made it very clear how important self-development was for a full human life, and thus, made it very clear how wrong it was when it was stunted. Essentially, Mill convinced me that I was justified in feeling what I felt. This was a liberating and empowering experience.

Despite how much I disliked my upbringing, I know it made me the man I am today. In fact, I think it’s possible that my passion for philosophy wouldn’t have been discovered, if my parents hadn’t force me to do so many things. So in a sense I’m grateful for what they did. And perhaps by focusing on that aspect, I can eventually let go of my resentment.