HAVE JUST SEEN something on TV about a man whose 28-year-old son committed suicide, leaving a pathetic letter that cried out for love. The father feels remorseful that he never―as far back as he can remember―told his son that he loved him or gave him a hug, and that is something he will probably feel bad about for the rest of his life.
All too often we do things that we later regret, and leave undone things that we should have done. Thus, remorse haunts us like a ghost, and becomes a burden hard to bear. Yet it has a positive aspect, if we will see it as a teacher, reminding us that though the past has gone and cannot be changed, the present is in our hands, to mould as we will, and to fashion the future therefrom. We need not go on making the same mistakes, over and over again; it is possible to learn from them, so that the future might be so much better than the past, and our mistakes will thus turn out to have been useful.
Though it is by no means anything new, it is much in my mind recently how many people concentrate on amassing more and more wealth, to the exclusion of other concerns, and in the process neglect their children. I am thinking especially here of refugee migrants, who arrived in the West with very little, and had to make a new start. Many of them accepted the challenge wholeheartedly and energetically― some of them doing two or even three jobs at the same time; the economy, a few years back, permitted this, and many people were able to prosper to a remarkable degree.
Some people claim that they are working so hard for the future of their children, but this is not always true; it is often for their own material benefit. By working so hard, and spending little or no time with their children, they fail in their sacred duty as parents. Do they, perhaps, think of their children as mere possessions, like cars, TV's, video's, etc., that have no life or feelings of their own? The words of Jesus echo down the centuries, warning of this: "For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?" Many parents not only lose their souls in their mad scramble after wealth, but also lose their children, and I am writing this now in the slight hope that it might alert just one or two parents to the necessity of spending time with their children, doing things together with them, learning from, with, and about them, discussing things with them, discovering and enjoying them, and treating them as human beings with minds of their own whose opinions and ideas deserve, at least, to be expressed and heard, if not always acted upon.
I know of parents who are so busy working that they almost never sit down to eat with their children, and it has gone on for so long that neither parents nor children seem to feel there is anything unusual about it. Food is cooked and left where anyone may help themselves to it at any time. This is a recipe for further estrangement between family members later on; unless the incongruity of it is noticed and remedied, it might become incurable.
Another cause of problems in migrant families is language. Some parents make little effort to learn English, while their children absorb it automatically at school and from TV, etc., and it becomes their first language, with their mother tongue a poor second. I recently asked a Vietnamese teenager what language he talks to himself in. "Talk to myself in?" he said. "What do you mean?" "I mean, what language do you think in? For thinking is really like talking to ourselves." "Oh, mostly English," he replied. He neither reads nor writes Vietnamese, and even his spoken Vietnamese is not very good.
And just now, as I was writing this, another teenager dropped by to show me some of his homework, and was visibly pleased by my approval. When I asked him if he had shown it to his parents, however, he answered―as I suspected he would―"No, I never do; they're not interested." How sad, I thought; even though they would probably not understand very much, they could at least show some interest, just to encourage the boy and make him feel good.
I know several Vietnamese fathers who habitually shout at or talk loudly to their teenage children, and seem unable to sit down and discuss anything quietly and reasonably with them; I have the feeling that they are somehow afraid of their kids, and that this is because of the culture gap. Having grown up in Vietnam, and come to the West while their children were very young, they have worked to establish themselves while their children went to school here and absorbed the culture from the environment. So, while the parents' knowledge of English and the ways of their new country increased only very slowly (and there are some people who didn't bother to learn any English whatsoever, in all the years they have been here. I find it hard to comprehend how they could absorb so little from the bombardment of TV and other sources; surely something would stick), the kids took to them like ducks to water, leaving their parents far behind. Now, no doubt the parents feel some pride in the achievements of their children, but at the same time, the father's traditional role as unquestioned head of the family might be rocked and eroded by the superior knowledge of the kids over theirs in some areas. But how else should this be? The conflict that develops over this is both productive of suffering and pointless. Frequent shouting is counter-productive, because it alienates the kids; they 'turn off’, pay no more attention, and might even do the opposite of what is expected, just to be contrary. If their fathers realized this, they might switch to another tactic. And do not all parents wish their children to do better and achieve more than they them selves did? Is that not what all their sacrifices are about?
It is true, too, that young people, flushed with the exciting discovery of the treasury of knowledge and information that is readily available to them in forms and quantities unheard of before, and bursting with hormones, energy, and enthusiasm, often feel that they know much more than they do. On the other hand, their parents, whose fire and youthful ardor has diminished (and in some cases, sunk down to the ashes and almost died out), are so involved either with trying to make ends meet, maintaining a balance, and worrying about the future, or in acquiring as much material wealth as they can, and worrying about the future, that they have little time and interest to pay much attention to what their children are doing. And, because of the vast amounts of new technology and information that young people grow up with, the generation gap―which is a very real thing―becomes wider than it really needs to be, and though parents and children live under the same roof, it is as if they inhabit two different worlds.
Now, how important is it for parents and children to communicate? Everyone must decide about this for themselves. But if there is a problem regarding this, and if it causes sufficient discomfort, there is a way to resolve it, though it might be somewhat difficult and unpleasant.
There is a choice to make between the problem and the possible solution: which is more unpleasant and difficult?
By looking at the problem―whatever it may be―by analyzing and identifying it, then sitting down to discuss it with all parties concerned, in a spirit of willingness to listen to everyone's point of view, and by bringing things out into the open, they can often be seen in a different light and the preposterousness of some of them may be revealed and given up. Needless to say, this requires honesty and fearlessness, and a readiness to accept responsibility for one's share in the problems, and this is seldom easy or nice.
Moreover, it seems that many of us are fond of our problems, and wouldn't know what to do without them; it is a kind of symbiotic relationship: we depend upon our problems, and our problems depend upon us, and we would have nothing to complain about if we didn't have them. So, strange as it might sound, we might not be interested in finding solutions to our problems, as peace is 'boring', and we prefer to live in strife; it is far more exciting. If we are unwilling to try to work out our problems, we have no right to complain, but must put up with them.
A saying that we sometimes apply to others is: "A leopard cannot change its spots," but though this is true of leopards, it is inappropriate of people. We reserve the right to change ourselves and expect others to accept the changes in us, do we not? How come, then, that we do not always accord the same rights to others, but expect them to remain as they were at a particular time―and it might have been only a very brief and passing phase―in their lives, so that we might remember them as such, and love or hate that image of them? On one hand, we might say of someone, in exasperation: "He's always like that! He'll never be any different!" as if we know that person so intimately and well that we can see his entire life laid out and revealed before us, like a map. And on the other hand, we might accuse someone else: "You've changed, and are not what you once were!" as if he had to remain forever frozen in time, like a photograph, just to suit our view of him.
Both these ways of looking at people are distorted, and arise out of ignorance of the Law of Change, and such ignorance causes us to hold onto and try to prevent things from slipping away from us; this results in suffering. Of course we change, and even if we wanted to and tried to, we could not remain the same; life does not and will not permit it.
If we knew more about the ceaseless process of change, we would not cling so much to the images of the past, and would frequently update our perceptions of people and things. Often, however, we do not really live with people but with the images of them that we have carried with us from the past. Many people marry images of a person rather than the actual person standing beside them at the ceremony. And often, the images are years out of date, and bear little or no resemblance to their objects (if they ever did). There is great need, therefore, to frequently renew our acquaintance with people who are near to us―parents, spouses, children, friends and even enemies―to discover new and exciting things about them that we might previously have been unaware of, to refresh ourselves thereby, and to put aside the old images as no longer fitting. We are not like statues or old photographs that stand still in time; we move.
We can live in close relationships for many years, and still know little about each other, still misunderstand each other. We sometimes hear of someone waking up and asking him/herself. "Who is this person beside me in bed? What am I doing here with her/him?" as if they were complete strangers. I recall looking at my parents one day at the dining table and thinking: "Who are these people?" as if I'd never seen them before. It was a strange experience, but one which can be explained. You see, when we grow up with people it is easy to take them for granted, without knowing or understanding very much about them; so we stop learning and are left with little more than an image.
Another time, when I met my parents again after not seeing them for six years, I was surprised at how much they had aged, when I should have expected it.
I know a Vietnamese family who came to Australia about twelve years ago, leaving two of their four children behind in Vietnam, unwilling, perhaps, to 'carry all their eggs in one basket' during their escape from Vietnam by sea. These two children were finally able to reunite with their family three years ago, and had to learn about their parents anew, with different eyes and ideas than those of their siblings, who had accompanied their parents and grown up with them without a period of separation. It may be assumed that they see their parents quite differently, and the two newcomers might have a clearer and more accurate view of them than the others.
There are always new things that we can learn about anyone― though sometimes with a bit of a shock―and we should not presume that we know someone merely because we have been closely associated with him/her for a long time; we might know many things about him, but we can never know all there is to be known about anyone, as we are just too complex. The mountain is clearer to the climber from the plain, than half-way up its slopes. Therefore, there is room for discovery, is there not?
Sometimes, when people fall in love, they think they will be very happy if they can get married; but, after achieving their desires, the bliss seldom lasts long before disillusionment sets in, and one partner finds out―if he/she had not known before―that the other snores at night, has smelly feet or body odor, an annoying habit of not replacing the cap on the toothpaste, or some other petty faults, while the other is appalled to wake up and see his wife with curlers in her hair or her face covered in some kind of gook. Then the complaints start to fly: "You're not the man I married! Had I known you better, I would never have tied myself to you! I hate you!" Or, "You're lazy and don't keep the house clean or take care of the kids! Besides, you're a lousy cook, and my mother is far better than you!" Thus, ill-will grows where bliss was expected. The chances of finding someone perfect to be one's partner are extremely remote, and even if one found such a person, it would probably be awful living with him/her, as one would be made so much more aware of one's own faults and imperfections. So, we must learn to compromise, and accept a reasonable amount of imperfection in others―as long as it's not deliberately cultivated―just as we like others to make allowances for our idiosyncrasies, without rejecting us.
It is not uncommon to hear teenagers―though it is not restricted to them, by any means―complaining that no one understands them, and that they can't talk with their parents. Well, communication is a two-way thing, and both sides have a responsibility to work towards getting to know each other better. Yes, it might be that parents do not understand their children (it would be more surprising if they did), and I feel that this is much more likely with refugee families where the children are more westernized than their parents, having grown up in the West, while their parents will probably never understand much about Western culture (supposing that anyone can understand this confusing and chaotic life style we have created). But do kids understand their parents? That's another thing, isn't it? Actually, they have a greater responsibility to try to understand, because their knowledge is, in many cases, more extensive and up-to-date than that of their parents. We cannot reasonably demand or expect other people to understand us, but, it is within our capacity to try to understand others. I once advised some teenagers who were concerned about their parents not taking time off from their work to talk with them enough, to unite and 'go on strike' by not eating, if necessary, until their parents agreed to do so. A bit drastic, perhaps, but if it can help to correct the situation, why not? The fact that these kids didn't try to apply my suggestion―or any other means, for that matter―doesn't mean that others cannot or will not, and I offer it here as just one possibility of breaking up a log jam.
Now, more than ever before in human history, we are entering uncharted territory, and every step takes us further and further into the Unknown, where there are so many new and complicated things; unlike in times past, when things changed very slowly, and there was a settled pattern to life, we have no maps from anyone to guide our every move and, consequently must feel―and often grope―our way along. Ebullient youth are always better able to do this than older people, and the future always belongs to them; but they, in turn, as they grow older, must gracefully surrender the lead to those who come after them, in the natural order of succession. Kahlil Gibran, in his famous book, THE PROPHET, wrote something about parents being like bows from which their children, like arrows, are shot forth into the world; the simile is very apt.
When we act a part in a play, we must know not only our own part, but also much of the parts of the other actors, as our part is intimately connected to and bound up with theirs. Anyone wishing to play the part of Romeo, for example, must know the parts of Juliet, her relatives, his friends, enemies, etc. And in order to do this, Romeo must be Juliet and the others―must put himself in their places, and feel how they feel; the same goes for Juliet, and all the others; it is not just a matter of learning one's own lines and performing one's part, for these mesh-in with, are connected to, and depend upon all other parts of the play; nothing exists in isolation.
Likewise, in 'real life' (which is also a drama, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, at times dull and monotonous), we must consider not only ourselves―and cannot/do not―but must take into account the other players all around us, as our role depends upon them. Imagine a play with only one actor, or a world with only one person.
"He who cannot do what he wants,
let him want what he can do."
(Leonardo da Vinci)