NOT LONG AGO, I heard something on the radio: “Happiness consists in doing what you like and liking what you do.” Of course, it didn’t mean that we should do just whatever we like, regardless of the rights and feelings of others, but that we should identify what we would really like to do, and strive to do it. Not many of us, it seems, ever manage to do this, which is a pity, as we have more opportunities for it than most of us realize.
My search—the search for diamonds—is often frustrating but also very rewarding. Needless to say, I don’t find diamonds every day, but I know they are there, deep inside people, and when I’m able to indicate them to their ‘owners’, I feel fulfilled, and all my frustration pales in comparison to the success; in fact, the frustration validates the success. The robes I wear allow me access to people that I otherwise would not have, and let me touch them, one here, and one there. These days, it is known as ‘job satisfaction’, and although there are setbacks and periods when I think I’m wasting my time and had better quit, I get enough of it to keep me going.
“Our son is lazy”, the man said, “and doesn’t like to study. When he comes home from school, he goes into his room and turns on his music, but leaves his homework until the last minute instead of doing it first and getting it over with.”
“His grades are poor because of it”, said his wife; “and we are afraid he’ll fail his exams. He is our only son, and we have high hopes for him and would like him to become a doctor. We are not rich, so must make sacrifices to help him succeed. But he won’t listen, and we don’t know what to do.”
They had come to enlist my help in what they perceived to be a problem. But I had met their son several times at the Buddhist Society where he was active, and come to know him as an honest boy who was willing to help others, not a silly boy who spent his time hanging around the streets in bad company; I told his parents so.
“You are lucky to have a son like this”, I said, “even if he is not a brilliant student. Not everyone is good academically, and some who are, aren’t good otherwise. Maybe you are placing too much emphasis on academic success, and disregarding other forms of success. Would you rather have him good academically but poor socially, ambitious for himself to the detriment of others, as is often so? Of course, it would be better if he could be successful all round, but if he cannot—and how many can?—you must love and support him—and take joy in him being your son—anyway. Support him and love him, but do not try to force him into something that he has no aptitude for. He knows the importance of study, I’m sure—how can he not, when it is being rammed down his throat all the time? He is already under terrible pressure from the education system and the crazy competitiveness among students, without you adding more to the burden; the pressure on kids these days is so great that some cannot stand it and opt out by committing suicide. If you try to force him, it will only make him feel miserable and want to rebel. He needs your support and approval, however he is. Perhaps you should consult him about things instead of feeling that you know what is best for him; maybe you do know what is best for him, but he should still be treated responsibly and consulted, as it is his life, not yours. It is vitally important for you to see this. It is not right to compare your son with others’ sons, for they are they and he is he. And while it might be true that he can do better—it is true, and not just in his case, either, but in everyone’s case, yours and mine included—he could also do worse.
“A flower opens in its own good time; if you force it to open, you will destroy it, and then regret it. When you married and planned a family, you did not place an order specifying what kind of children you would like, did you? And you had no way of knowing what kind of children would come through and how they’d turn out; was it not a tremendous gamble? There are lots of well educated people—the greatest criminals are well educated; that is how they can commit their crimes and get away with it!—who don’t give a damn about others as long as they succeed and achieve their ambitions.
“You must also be clear in your minds about why you want him to excel in his studies. It should not be in order to hold him up later as “Our son, the doctor”, as that will merely be an ego-trip, like showing off a pedigree dog or horse. You should just be proud of him as “Our son.” If he has the inclination to become a doctor himself, well and good, but if not, and you pressure him to pursue that line, his heart will probably not be in it, and he will become one of the mediocre doctors that the world has already far too many of. If you really love him and want him to be happy, help him to find what he would like to do with his life.”
They listened patiently and didn’t object to what I had said. But to put their minds more at ease, I assured them I would have a word with their son.
He came to me the next day, knowing that his parents had been to see me and why, so was somewhat prepared for what I would say. What he expected to hear from me I don’t know, but I began by telling him what his parents and I had said to each other the day before, and added that my words should not be taken as an endorsement of laziness. I emphasized that his parents loved and cared for him, and were concerned that he would waste his opportunities, and for his own sake, he should settle down to his studies.
He responded to my words so: “I know they love me, and I love them, too, but I’m just not so good at studying as they want me to be. They always compare me with others, saying, ‘Look at so-and-so: how well he does in school. Why can’t you be like him?’ It hurts and makes me feel so bad, as if I’ve let them down or betrayed them. I know it’s important to study, and I do what I can, but it’s just not good enough for them. They don’t understand me.”
His eyes had filled with tears as he said this, and when he could hold them back no longer, they rolled down his cheeks. I said nothing about this, so as not to embarrass him, and continued talking as if I hadn’t noticed. But really, I felt honored that he trusted me enough to weep before me, when he probably would not—could not—have done so with even his best friend. I took his tears as a gift, and far from considering them a sign of weakness, saw them as a sign of courage. I gave him my ears, and he gave me his tears, and I’ve told his story here for others who are under similar pressure to conform and perform to the standards and expectations of others. I want to encourage them to understand both themselves and others. Actually, as I often say, I feel children have more responsibility to understand their parents than their parents have to understand them, knowing, as I say it, that it imposes another burden on young people, but one that I think they can and must learn to bear. Moreover, by putting it like this, it provides them with a different way of looking at their situation. And why do I say it? Because there is so much new information now—more than there has ever been throughout history—that most older people will never come to terms with, while the young are born into it and absorb it naturally. This is the way of Nature: each generation takes over from the preceding one, and, in turn, must pass things to those who follow. There is no shame in recognizing and accepting that this is the way it has always been and always will be.
A woman once came to see me and told me she had been having nightmares, and asked if I could help her.
“When did they begin?” I asked.
“About six months ago”, she replied.
“Can you think what might have caused them?”
“My daughter”, she said.
“Tell me more”, I probed.
“Well, she is eighteen now, and is in the habit of coming home late from school, and instead of doing her homework, she goes out with her friends whenever she likes, without telling me where she is going”.
“Have you told her that her behavior is causing you nightmares?” I asked.
“No”, she said.
“Because she wouldn’t listen to me; she never does”.
“Do you scold her?”
“Sometimes, of course. It’s hard not to”.
I asked her if she knew what was a bird’s nest, and she said everyone knows that. “But what is a bird’s nest?” I persisted.
“The home of the bird”, she replied.
“No, it’s not; birds don’t have homes. A nest is a nursery where the young birds are raised after hatching from the eggs, and when they are old enough to fly and fend for themselves, they leave the nest and go; they don’t stay there forever.
“Likewise with young people”, I went on; “they must also leave the nest and go, and in learning how to stand on their own feet and make the break from their parents, they need all the understanding and help they can get, as it is seldom easy. You did it, but perhaps you don’t remember it now, as you are in the same position that your mother was then, and the immediate situation often obscures the past. Do you think it was easy for her to let go of you after giving birth to you and raising you for so many years? She loved you just as you love your daughter, and if life continues in the same way, your daughter will love her children in turn. Why don’t you talk with her about this, and let her know you are with instead of against her? Maybe it will make a lot of difference, while scolding might only alienate her further. I offer you this as an alternative; anything’s worth a try when so much is at stake, no?”
I was 18 when I left home to set out on my travels. I thought I was grown up and knew everything (something common in youth). Looking back on it now, I see I was so young and knew almost nothing, but it was where I had to begin. It was hard, and if I had known what was ahead of me, I don’t think I could have gone. But what would have happened if I had stayed in the warmth and security of home? Would I have found what I think I have found? Discovery—finding that we have wings and can fly—is not easy and pain free. I was lucky, however, in that my parents supported me and never opposed me, even though they could not understand what I was doing and maybe didn’t agree; I am grateful to them for this and many other things; it made the going easier, and led me, eventually, to the joy I experience when I see that I’m able to touch others in ways that make a difference. That’s job satisfaction!