My wife and I are older parents. We like to think we have much wisdom to pass on, but we have to be mindful of negative things we also can pass on.
Age brings healthy skepticism, and raising a daughter who reasonably questions authority will not be a bad thing. However, cynicism often accompanies skepticism, and the last thing we want is a cynical child. Childhood should be about wonder and possibility. Cynicism can quickly kill that. So we have to keep the negativity in check.
A far more dangerous pattern also often emerges with age. Wrongs, suspicion, anger, and mistakes often brew contempt. And there is nothing less childlike than a contemptuous adult. Couples too easily become contemptuous of each other. People actually hold those with opposite views on social issues as enemies. Sometimes even the smallest infraction, left to simmer, years later boils over as hate.
Thirteen years ago, my parents built a vacation home on a lake. Pre-construction, their plan required a variance that would allow them to build the house nine inches closer to their property line than the code allowed. Their neighbor blocked the variance and they had to change their plans.
That code confrontation has led to a lifetime of stress over everything the neighbor does wrong. They even believe he does things just to unnerve them.
The neighbor’s generator comes on every morning at 6:30. It can wake up guests in my parents’ house. While it’s possible the neighbor set this up to be spiteful, it’s much more likely that he just set the timer and didn’t give it a second thought. Maybe a bit inconsiderate, but nothing more.
All my parents have to do is walk next door and ask him nicely to reset the timer. Most likely he’ll understand and have the generator come on later. But instead vitriol keeps them from sensibly and softy acting. They end up miserable many mornings. The problem will never be positively solved.
The problem here is attachment. They are so attached to the belief that the neighbor is a spiteful jerk, because of an action he made 13 years ago, that they suffer today. Attachment to a negative event, and the emotions that fuel it, can lead to terrible loss. And the biggest loss here is that, over the years, they all may have become friends. But contempt prevented that.
This was a big realization for me because I see contempt brewing in myself about some things and some people. I know that meditation can expose our attachments as thought constructs and false, but I never lived the practice until this past weekend at the mountain house. Seeing how unhappy some people end up because of uninvestigated and unforgiven wrongs has led me to sit with all of the opinions and attachments that make me unhappy. This investigation has revealed much erroneous thinking and much poor behavior on my part. In a way, experiencing my parents’ unhappiness has opened up a path for me to be happier.
The meditation required is to get inside the most uncomfortable negative thoughts we cling to. Exposing the attachment to such thoughts and admitting that we have been taking some negative benefit from these beliefs makes us appear less guilty about and responsible for bad outcomes.
Attachment to offense and blame is a way to cede responsibility for our unhappiness. It’s much easier to hold someone else at fault than to find such fault within ourselves. But self-responsibility can set the stage for better emotional health.
Past events and people may have made us temporarily unhappy, but our attachment to bad feelings about those events and people make us suffer still. Contempt is the worst of it. Exposing such attachment to contempt will be the first step toward releasing these awful things to which we cling. Free of such burdens of thought, we can lighten up and improve our lot in life.
If we’re less contemptuous, we’ll be a better example and better parents to our children. And we’ll probably feel a little younger and more idealistic, too. Not a bad lesson to learn while having a generator come on while I was meditating in the mountains.
Family photo available from Shutterstock