Essay Archives > An Open Letter to My Grandson

When this was written, I had only one grandson.  Now, since I have three of them, the title should probably be "An Open Letter to My Grandsons."

By the time you read this and can understand it, I may not be around anymore.  That's the way it goes, and there's no point in trying to change things we cannot change.  A big part of life is acceptance, or, as someone said, "All you can do is wash up and show up; everything else just happens."

My first advice 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).

Obviously, my advice not to give advice is 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.

Cultivate openness of mind.  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, 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.  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.

This principle applies to religion as well as to morality.  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.  Knowing stuff is good.  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 from experience.  Observe the world.  As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."  (You probably have not heard of Yogi Berra; he was a baseball player and manager who had many curious sayings such as this one.)

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.  They see a lot because much of what they see is brand-new.  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," as the cliché puts it.  Try to recapture the sense of wonder whenever you can.

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.

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.  We do not, as far as I know, have the chance to rerun our lives.

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 struggle, it will become one, and you will have little joy.  It is far better to think of life as a journey in which 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.  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 important, 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.