Learning from My Family
by Robert Traer
Invaluable lessons can be taught by the members of every
generation. Most important is the essential role of forgiveness in all
As a young man, I took to heart a Confucian teaching: "If you want
peace in the world, seek peace in your nation. If you want peace in
your nation, seek peace in your city. If you want peace in your city,
seek peace in your family. If you want peace in your family, seek peace
I thought that if I could find peace within myself, I would be a better
peacemaker in my family, my city, my nation, and the world. I did not
understand, however, how much I am who I am because of my family. I
thought I could achieve peace in myself as an individual, and then help
everyone else. After many years, however, I have learned from my family
that peacemaking is more complicated than that.
As a Husband
After I married, I found that my wife, Nancy, sees the world very
differently than I do. When I would place the two candles on the mantle
in order to make them symmetrical, she would move them so they were
asymmetrical. Similarly, as we hung pictures on the walls of our new
apartment, she wanted two pictures hanging side by side to be at
different heights, whereas I would have hung them at the same height.
Two years after we were married, Nancy and I taught for a year at the
Canadian Academy in Kobe, Japan. She had studied at Doshisha University
in Kyoto before our marriage and had learned flower arranging as well
as Japanese history and language. Being in Japan with Nancy helped me
to understand how she sees the world, for I saw in the way flowers are
arranged in Japan that asymmetry was preferred to symmetry.
I also discovered early in our marriage that Nancy and I have different
ways of orienting as we travel. I navigate by street names and numbers,
whereas she remembers interesting features of the landscape and the
colors and aesthetic characteristics of buildings. The directions I
give seem logical to me, but I have to admit that the directions she
gives are more interesting.
I slowly realized as well that when I asked Nancy a question which she
didn't want to answer, she would change the subject or respond in a
vague way. After many years I saw that her indirect response was a
subtle way of trying to help me understand an important lesson. Often I
was posing choices that she felt would not really help us resolve a
problem. By not responding clearly to my questions, Nancy gave me a way
of learning on my own to accept our differences.
In a new book entitled Doing Ethics in a Diverse World,
I suggest that efforts to resolve public moral controversies will
likely be more effective if we try harder to understand how others view
the world. Seeking greater peace and justice requires understanding one
another and learning to appreciate the different ways that individuals
and cultures make sense of human experience. By reflecting on these
differences, we will learn more about ourselves as well.
As a Father
My children have also been my teachers, but often I didn't learn my
lessons until they were grown. My youngest son, James, who is now
twenty-three years old, recently told me that as a small child he had
dreaded going swimming with our family. He explained that when his
mother and I threw him back and forth between us in the pool, he choked
and swallowed a lot of water. "I couldn't figure out why you were
trying to drown me," he said.
At first I thought he was joking, but as I asked him questions, I
realized that he was sharing with me a feeling he had had since he was
a small boy. His mother and I had simply been trying to help him learn
to swim. Moreover, I had always assumed that all our children enjoyed
our trips to the local swimming pool. Clearly, however, this was not
Not long ago my youngest daughter, Emily, who is now twenty-eight years
old, told me that she was devastated as a young girl when I said she
"wasn't any good at playing soccer." I didn't remember making any such
comment, and I wanted to believe that she had misunderstood me. She
insisted, however, that I had said this. Even now, as I think about my
conversation with her, I am upset with myself for having given her such
a negative impression of her athletic ability. How could I have been so
These conversations with my grown children have taught me two lessons.
First, when people have very different memories of the same event,
debating whose memory is "correct" is not helpful. A person's memory
combines the facts remembered with the feelings the person had about
what happened. Each memory is important, for memories like these remain
in us and shape our self-understanding as we have new experiences in
life. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn. It means accepting
that I am not simply the person I remember myself to be and think I am,
but am also the person others remember and know. To know myself, I have
to learn how others have experienced me and think of me. To do that, I
have to talk with them and listen to them.
It is, of course, impossible to know completely what others think of
me, as there are too many people and too many experiences. So, the
second lesson I have learned from my children is that my life is not
merely my life, but instead it is what it is amid the changing nature of all my relationships. As the Buddhist teaching of pratitya-samutpada [dependent origination] suggests, this awareness is liberating for those who realize it.
The critical comments of my grown children have shaken my self-image as
a caring father. Yet, I am grateful for their honesty, as they have
taught me not to rely on my perception of myself. My family members and
friends know me better than I know myself, so to know who I am I need
to listen to them. The lessons I have learned from my children give new
meaning to the Confucian teaching about seeking peace in the world. I
have come to realize that I should not expect by myself to find peace
within myself. Instead, seeking peace must begin with deepening our
relationships by becoming more accepting and humble.
As a Grandfather
I am staying now with my older son, Elie, and his wife, Jenn, in order
to help care for my four-year-old grandson, Noah. Elie and Jenn work
long hours at the hospital where they are physicians, so I care for
Noah in the morning before taking him to preschool and then in the
afternoon after picking him up. Happily, I am learning a great deal
from being with my grandson.
First, being with Noah has reminded me how hard it is to predict what
someone else will want. Sometimes when I offer to read him a story,
Noah is delighted. On other occasions, he isn't interested at all. My
offers seem to me to be always the same, but nonetheless they have very
Our inability to predict what others will do is expressed in the Hindu
tradition by a story from the Bhagavad Gita. A warrior named Arjuna
concludes that war is futile and refuses to fight, but Krishna, a Hindu
god, persuades him that he should do his duty as a soldier and go
forward into battle. Krishna also tells Arjuna that he cannot know
whether the consequences of not fighting will be better than what may
come by doing his duty. We are, the tale reminds us, mere mortals.
If we take this story to heart as we make ethical decisions, we should
not expect to decide what is right simply because we think that the
consequences of an action will be largely beneficial. We need to
identify and then do our duty, and not merely presume that we can
predict the future.
Being with my grandson has also reminded me that stories may have
different levels of meaning. Recently, I read him a Native American
tale about a "man" from the "bear people," who out of love for a woman
allows her people to kill him so that her people can have food to eat.
In return for his sacrifice, the "man/bear" asks only that her people
give thanks for taking the life of any bear.
With concern in his voice, Noah asked me if the man (depicted in an
illustration as wearing a bearskin) was actually being killed. I
replied that the story was "make-believe" but nevertheless expressed an
important truth. We live in and depend on the natural world. Therefore,
we should be grateful for the wild animals that share and help to
maintain our natural habitat, and we should also be thankful for the
lives of the animals that we kill for our food.
At times we need to look for new levels of meaning in old stories.
Gandhi interpreted the ancient story of Arjuna and Krishna in a way
that transformed its meaning. He suggested that the story calls all of
us to do our duty to live truthfully and that this means "fighting"
nonviolently for what is right.
His experiments in applying this ethical presumption to resist the
oppression of British colonial rule over India influenced Martin Luther
King Jr. and the civil rights movement that struggled against
segregation in the United States. Moreover, the examples of Gandhi and
King gave hope to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and
thus helped to sustain a largely nonviolent movement there against
No one could have predicted that a new interpretation of this ancient
Indian tale would have such far-reaching consequences in the twentieth
century. We cannot know before acting what all the consequences of an
action will be. Therefore, Gandhi argued, we should do our moral duty
instead of simply trying to calculate what action we think will yield
the best results.
Gandhi also offered us another important lesson by finding in a
traditional tale of violence a moral imperative for nonviolence. His
creative interpretation of the story from the Bhagavad Gita should
inspire us to look for new meanings in the stories of our religious
traditions--new meanings that express higher standards of ethical
Finally, being with my grandson continues to help me understand how
important it is to listen to others. The other day, as we walked
hand-in-hand, he said I was walking too fast. My immediate response
was, "You are walking too slowly." Looking down at him, however,
reminded me that his legs are much shorter than mine.
"You need to walk with me, grandpa," he said, emphasizing the word "with." He is right. If I expect him to walk with me, I need to walk with him. I need to appreciate his experience. If I want him to listen and learn from me, I need to listen and learn from him.
Members of my family have taught me many lessons, and I am grateful for
their patience with me, as I have often been a slow learner.
The most important lesson of all--which I have learned from all the
members of my family--is that forgiveness heals much of the harm that
we do to one another in our relationships.
My wife has forgiven me for trying to change her, rather than
appreciating her different way of seeing the world. My children have
forgiven me for the times I have made life harder for them. My grandson
continues to reach for my hand as we walk together, and he is patient
when I forget and walk a little too fast.
Being forgiven is the greatest lesson in life, because it enables us to
continue learning how to be more loving by being more forgiving.
Robert Traer served as general secretary of the
International Association for Religious Freedom from 1990 to 2000. He
is the author of several books, including Faith, Belief, and Religion and Jerusalem Journal: Finding Hope, and co-author of Doing Ethics in a Diverse World with Harlan Stelmach. Dr. Traer teaches courses on ethics and religion at the Dominican University of California.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2007 issue of Dharma World.
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