Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pointing at the Moon

I am sure that I am not the only parent ever to have tried to point out something new and exciting to their young child, only to have the child stare attentively at their outstretched finger instead. This used to happen to me when I was driving with my son in the evening and I would try futilely to get him to look at the moon in the sky outside his window.

For Zen Buddhists, the image of pointing at the moon expresses the futility of using language to express reality. We spend our time looking at the finger, limited human language, and never get to experience the moon, the reality toward which the language points.
I would like to reclaim fingers and moons for myself, and instead consider how we as parents, when trying to teach our children to be good and giving people in the world, need to remember that while our children may see the moon we are pointing at (our beliefs, values and tradition), they also are getting a pretty good look at our finger (how we ourselves choose to live those values out).


Reflecting back on my own childhood and youth, I know that my parents did a wonderful job of passing on their values and beliefs to me (and my brother). Thinking about it more closely, I can only remember a handful of pearls of wisdom that they spoke to me directly.
Included in that handful would be my Dad’s advice to always be early for work. He would tell me about jobs he had had that involved a punch clock. It is burned forever in my psyche that if you are to start at 8:00 a.m., your punch card needs to be punched at 7:50 a.m., giving you enough time to get to your post, settle in, and be ready to start work at 8. Even though I work a job that has strange hours, and I am mostly accountable to myself and not a punch clock, I still remember that lesson every time I think about when I need to be somewhere for something related to my job.

It is likely that I really learned this lesson over years of listening to him leave to catch the 6:30 a.m. bus downtown to work (while I was still in bed).
Then there is the wisdom that my mother shared with me when, in Junior High, I was moved from the soprano section to the alto section for the first time in my life. I was devastated about what that would mean for me as a singer. My mother pointed out to me that being an alto is actually harder than being a soprano, and said that the best part about being an alto is that you make the music sound even more beautiful and most people won’t even understand why. As an adult I have taken that lesson to heart when I have tried to be more humble and to do good things not for the recognition but because they make the world more beautiful, without anyone needing to know why.

It is likely that I really learned this lesson from watching my mother give much of her life to volunteering and serving others, shying away from recognition or accolades and doing the right thing for people at the right time simply because it is how we are supposed to live in the world.
As much as I try to keep this idea of pointing at the moon in mind as I raise my son, I long for him to have at least a few pearls of wisdom and advice that he remembers me giving him and that he takes to heart. In those moments, I find myself holding his head to look right in my eyes, as though I am trying to do some kind of Vulcan mind-meld with him - REMEMBER.

I did it just this past summer when we were on our annual canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. We were on the last day of our journey, making the long push to get back to our launching point, and we were all ready to be home.
While we were pulling up to one of our last portage trails we came across a fellow explorer, as often happens on these trips. He was just setting out on a solo trip, and he pointed out that he was going to have to double back to the other end of the trail to get the rest of his gear, and he would be happy to carry something for us. We typically pride ourselves on our ability to carry all of our gear in a single trip, but seeing the wisdom in accepting the offer, my father-in-law gave over some of his load to this stranger.

As the exchange was taking place, I knelt down and got my lips as close as I could to my son’s ears and described to him what was happening to make sure that he understood what this man was doing. I pointed out the generosity of this offer and told him that this was exactly the kind of man that I wanted him to be when he grew up – someone who would offer kindness and generosity to strangers. (Okay and maybe I also hope that he will be the kind of man who goes out on solo canoe trips in the Boundary Waters).
I asked him these 6 months later about that moment on the trip, and he had only a mildly foggy memory of it. So, more than likely he will learn to practice kindness to strangers by seeing me, and his father, do it.

The National Study of Youth andReligion, after conducting the largest single survey of teenagers and faith (which included interviews with their parents), found that statistically children do not exceed their parents religiously. No matter how much we might preach at our children, if they never see us in practice it tends not to stick. As I have had Sociologist Chris Smith describe it to me “we get what we are.”
No matter how beautiful the moon, our children will reflect our fingers. This point is made only more poignant to me when I catch a glimpse of my own hand and it looks just like my mother’s.

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