My Family and the Root of Loving-kindness

It’s really very simple, but not at all common. As I stood in the midst of aunts and uncles, cousins and their children, my parents, a great uncle, and my grandparents, it struck me how imminently kind my family is. Ranging in age from 2 to 90, we live in different parts of the country, work different jobs, hold a variety of religious and political beliefs. Even those who couldn’t be there were in our minds and hearts, explicitly. I hadn’t seen some members of my family in twelve years, and yet it was like we hadn’t missed a day. I was, of course, both child and adult. We tease each other to show affection, discuss difficult topics to try out ideas, but always treat each other with respect. It is really a testament to my grandparents and the men and women who married into the family that we are all so good to one another and only want the best for each other. My family is remarkable and, I have come to learn, rare in its ethos.

The Dalai Lama says we learn compassion from the care of family; it is a seed that grows within us. If we were not this fortunate to be cared for lovingly by adults as children, then we have to learn compassion by making a concerted effort, but it can and must be done, he says. I have been given so much that if I don’t make a simple effort on some basic level to be kind, then shame on me.

Unconditional love is the greatest gift. It anchors you in life; it makes you strong. You know who you are because of those people, and you carry that knowledge with you and act from there.

But, there’s a catch. Unconditional love and an amazing family like mine does not prepare you for envy, greed, or animosity. It does not teach you how to protect yourself. It conditions you to believe that reason will prevail. It does, however, nurture the tendency to feel compassion for your enemies, who clearly do not feel that they were unconditionally loved and therefore project that hurt onto others.

It is a shocking contrast to come from a circle of unconditional love back to a court case in which the adversary makes primal lifelong claims of ownership on others, claims the financial resources others work for, and maligns anyone who stands in her way.

Love makes you vulnerable, and it does not prepare you for deep hatred and greed. Aristotle says that compassion for the other requires, among other things, the feeling that what has befallen the other is no fault of his or her own and that you might yourself land in a similar situation. More and more, I discover I am an Aristotelian at heart. If everyone who had a childhood that involved basic care but not unconditional love set out to control others, take their money, and set themselves up as the moral authority around the concept that what threatens their tenuous sense of self and stability is wrong, then this would be an even more chaotic world than it already is. As we know, many people teach themselves compassion and learn by example after childhood. I am not sure why some people manage to make this transition to a sense of self that enables them to move kindly through the world and why others cannot.

I know that unconditional love has granted me a great deal of strength, even to deal with the vulnerability that comes with an open being-in-the-world. It anchors you, but it doesn’t teach you how to build walls. The impulse is to see yourself as connected, so you are always vulnerable to the aggressor.

My grandfather turned 90 and looks 75. My grandmother is not far behind, and both showed us the way. My God, I never realized how rare that is. I thought that’s the way the world is for the most part. Thank you, family, for all that love and all that strength. Pema Chodron teaches that the bodhisattva (a compassion-warrior) draws on the root of loving-kindness (like my family) to send it out into the world and to find the strength to extend loving-kindness to enemies (you-know-who).

Right now my mode of operation is more like a story told by Rolf Gates in a yoga class last month. Sometimes the best way to get to the other side of a moving body of water is not to paddle like crazy, but just to point the boat in the right direction. Then you will arrive safely and with accuracy on the other side. I’m pointing my boat, and my family (not a sailor amongst us) showed me how.

ps. Lest you think my family is a bunch of pushovers and wallflowers, think again. When I was in first grade, I beat up a little boy after school because he had sucker-punched me the day before on the playground. All my parents said was, “Wanda, little girls don’t usually beat up little boys.” Now, the gender politics aside, we don’t promote violence either. Always do your best, protect yourself but don’t be the aggressor, and be aware that most are less fortunate than you and act accordingly. The motto might go something like that.


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