Today, I almost didn’t write anything. It’s not because I don’t want to, but sometimes when you’re tired the last thing you want to do is stick to a 40-day regiment of consistent and persistent writing. It’s also because I’ve been keeping something pretty close to the vest for a long time. About a year ago, my grandfather asked me to write his biography. If I would’ve started when he asked me, I’d probably be around halfway done by now. So, why didn’t I? I wish the answer were a simple one. But I’ll do my best to explain it here and try to get into the meat of my post as soon as possible. There were a couple of things that I struggled with: the first of which being the death of my grandmother. It hit me hard, and I know that it hit my grandfather even harder. The second of which is that my grandfather speaks sometimes using terms that are anachronisms of speech, no longer suitable for common parlance.
But in the year of struggling to find how to approach everything going on in my life, I didn’t really find any answers. So, I just begin to listen. And something happened, I began to see that underneath sometimes offensive terminology, no doubt an artifact of serving in one of the most racist branches of the military (Korea and Vietnam era), and merely trying to fit in, there was and is a deep appreciation for people from all walks of life. But many people wouldn’t know this if they were simply turned off by things like word choice.
I once had a very long discussion with a couple of friends of mine about this very thing. One of whom told me that their father is prone to the same thing and that they confront their father on a regular basis in an attempt to retrain how their dad speaks. There’s only one problem, though, my grandfather is literally almost 3 times their father’s age. I was also confronted with something else: many people in my age group have no idea how to relate to the elderly. In American culture, there is not left much reverence for the aged and infirmed, instead, we prefer the vitality of youth. Don’t think so? Look at popular media here in the United States. We often disregard the wisdom of our elders as having little relevance in today’s world. What I learned, is that in cases where this is true, my grandfather is acutely aware of that fact. But all too often, in my youth I found myself unwilling to listen because I used to believe that in all cases (believe me, I know this is still true in many cases, but stay with me here), one’s choice of words does not necessarily produce a clear picture of how that person thinks. I thought that my grandfather’s dated terminology for people that sometimes bordered on the offensive meant that he embodied all of the thoughts that such terminology is said to betray. I was wrong.
Once I let go of that, I realized how complicated a person my grandfather really is. I hope in the remaining time that I have left with him, I can at least take a peek at the core of one of a small handful of people who are responsible for who I am. What I’m trying to say is: learn to listen to what a person is saying, rather than simply how they are saying it. Old habits die hard, and it’s important to learn to truly listen instead of simply reading your own interpretation on to a place where it does not belong. I know some of you will disagree, and I used to save us all the time… But for the first time, I find it to be true: I really don’t care. And I couldn’t be prouder of who my grandfather is, and in turn the person I’m becoming.
Because you know what? Beneath all the superficial things that used to prevent me from really hearing him, I found the source of my affinity for languages, as at one point my grandpa could read and speak five different languages, and I have found the roots of my view that while humanity will always be deeply flawed, there are still worthy of basic human dignity, and love. Those are things that I will never regret.