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An Open Letter to My Grandchildren
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-05-19 09:06:27
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An Open Letter to My Grandchildren
(written in May 2015)


Dear grandchildren, on April 31st 2015 you, Colin, came into this world to join my other three grandchildren: Sophia, Nicholas, Adriana.  I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, My own paternal grandfather hung around 27 more years after I was born, saw his great-grandchildren and died at the age of 93; so the genes are good, but that kind of longevity is not guaranteed to anyone. I never knew my maternal grandfather, nor did I know my paternal and maternal grandmothers. My father, on the other hand, hung around for only 26 years after I was born and died at the relatively early age of 55.

That’s the way the cookie crumbles in life sometimes. We don’t choose how long our journey will last. All we know for sure is that we are on a journey as soon as we are born and it will inevitably end. Life itself ought to be a preparation for that end. Indeed, it is quite possible that by the time you read this open letter and have had enough experience of life to truly grasp it, I may not be around anymore. But, should this letter provoke your curiosity, know that there are many other writings of mine on various humanistic themes, scattered about. A Google search can easily retrieve them. Some of them are actual hard cover books. They are mostly reflections on the heritage we have inherited and the kind of world we live in and and how best to navigate life.

Indeed, there is no point in trying to change things we cannot change. A big part of life is the wisdom to know the difference between accepting what cannot be changed and courageously changing what can and should be changed. Woody Allen once quipped  that all one needs to do with ninety per cent of life is showing up and everything else just happens.” Indeed, showing up is already an initial choice not to merely go with the flow, with taken-for-granted assumptions; showing up signifies engagement with life and its challenges, the beginning of responsibility for the life one is living, for indeed, as Socrates said many centuries ago “the unexamined life is not worth living.”


A grandfather running toward the future with his grandchildren

As you will find eventually find out, your aging “nonno” taught philosophy which he considered a vocation more than an occupation by which to make a living. Part of philosophy is to advise the young, or better, to investigate with them, what it means to be human and how to live as such; in short, how to live meaningful lives by searching for what is true, beautiful and good. Philosophy as the search for meaning begins with Socrates doing just that and then becoming a martyr to philosophy by being condemned to death for doing it. That may partly explain the philosophical approach of this open letter, but I’ll not be using too much philosophical jargon and I’ll try to say a few very simple things simply expressed. Not to do so is to run the risk of this letter never being read, and that would be too bad.

My first advice to you is not to give any advice, unless people ask for it.  Even then, you may need to figure out whether they really want your advice or merely want you to agree with them (as is usually the case). Admittedly, this advice not to give advice is a paradox and a self-contradiction.  When, as will sometimes happen, you are caught in contradiction, you can always quote Walt Whitman  ["Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes"] or Emerson ["Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"].  Where the rules are clear-cut, consistency is good; where they are not (which is most of the time), consistency may be the sign of a closed mind.

As I have advised my students and your mothers, even if not always consistently, cultivate openness of mind.  Indeed, it is a rare quality because most of us harbor inflexible biases without realizing that we do.  You should, of course, develop a set of values to guide your behavior, and for that you’ll have the example of your parents who wish what is best for you, but you should be wary of inflicting your values on others, or expecting others to agree with you. Tend to your own garden; what other people grow in theirs is not your concern, unless their actions harm others and impede the common good.  What others believe is their own business, even if it's diametrically opposed to some of your own most cherished ideas.  Besides, your ability to change other people is either highly limited or nonexistent. If you believe in a Higher Power, that Higher Power is your own, as is everyone else's Higher Power. You have neither the obligation nor the right to proselytize.  The best you can do is develop your own sense of spirituality, follow it with all the integrity you can muster, and let your example speak for itself.

Seek knowledge.  Knowledge is good, but wisdom is much better: that is to say, the ability to use that knowledge well.  Do this when you are young because your ability to absorb and, especially, to remember will deteriorate sooner than you expect.  Recognize, too, that the power of intellect is limited.  "Smart" doesn't account for a whole lot, and it isn't synonymous with "good" or "happy" or even "successful." Although book knowledge is useful, what really matters is what you learn and interpret from experience. Wisdom is always better.

Observe the world.  You can observe a lot just by watching. Remembering your own childhood, you may have noticed that children's powers of observation are quite acute.  One reason for this is that, to children, the world is literally wonderful – full of wonder.  I see that in all of you,  my grandchildren. You see a lot because much of what you see is brand-new. Socrates also said “philosophy begins in wonder.” And philosophy is not primarily love of knowledge but love of wisdom as the etymology of the word powerfully suggests. After a while, though, we start to take what was once wonderful for granted – the changing sky, the seasons, the taste of food, the many sounds that we hear each day.   We allow distractions that are not really worthy of our attention to divert us from "smelling the roses"

Try to recapture the sense of wonder whenever you can. In other words, cultivate and love the poetic. Develop the art of listening.  Courtesy requires that you listen to what other people say, but you should go beyond this.  By listening carefully, you can develop a sensitivity to language and an understanding of how people think and feel.  A sense of the magical power of words can benefit anyone, not just writers and editors.  And one does not need to be a psychologist to understand the complex internal choreography of thought and feeling that underlies people's words.

Listen also to the wordless world.  Though the world of words may inform your intellect, that which cannot be expressed by words will inform your spirit.  Give every form of music a hearing, especially the wordless music that expresses what words cannot, whether in the form of an inspired symphony or the sounds of the natural world.  This kind of listening requires no intellectual understanding; it resonates within a part of us that is beyond intellect. It is the sense of the poetical. God is the primordial poet and that’s why “in the beginning was the Word.”

Try to at least start doing these things when you're young.  Resist the natural tendency of youth to live too much in the future, believing that the future is forever.  While you cannot expect to be wise and young at the same time, you can avoid the fate of those of us who treat life as a three-act play, doze during the first two acts, and wake, when the play is nearly over, to discover that this is the only performance. Numerous metaphors have been used to describe life.  Among them is the metaphor of life as a battle.  Try not to think of life in these terms because, if you regard life as a continual struggle, it will become one, and you will have little joy.  It is far better to think with Dante that life is a great journey  wherein the difficulties are hills to climb.  The hills are there for a reason (even if you don't know what that reason is), and the sense of satisfaction after climbing the hill is almost always worth the effort.

But perhaps the best metaphor is that of life as a river.  If you let the current carry you, you will be far better off than if you try to swim against it.  This does not mean that it is an effortless ride; some parts of the river will be hazardous, requiring great skill to navigate safely. Here again, show up for the journey but do not just go with the flow, do not let the under-currents carry you where you should not go.  You will need to learn when to ask someone else to help with the paddling and when to stop paddling altogether.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, you should take time to see the humor in it all.  The world is a funny place, and funniest of all are the creatures who walk about upright on two legs, believing that they run the place.  You should not take it too seriously, and that includes what I have written here.

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John G Ferrera 2015-05-20 09:36:05
Excellent idea for children and grandchildren. Thank you Dr Paparella. We'll make sure to put it to good use. John g ferrera

James Woodbury2015-05-22 23:04:13
Dear Emanuel.
I look your letter to your grandchildren very much. A short and sweet comment, I hope! James

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