In May this year, my father and I visited my great-uncles in the region of Haute-Savoie in France. Uncle Jean is 92, and his brother Uncle Joseph is 95 years old. I had not seen them for many years. It is quite moving to see family members you haven’t seen in a long time. We visited my father’s childhood house, a house where I spent a few days in the Summer as a young child. We went to the cemetery where my grandfather and grandmother are buried and paid our respects. We drove on the roads where my dad used to cycle as a teenager, walked in the woods where he gathered mushrooms for his aunts, and explored together memories of a time that once was.
When I spent some time in conversation with my great-uncles around a cup of coffee, I was surprised and impressed by how sharp their minds were. A couple of months before our visit, they had won together a belote championship – well-known card game highly popular in the region of France where people play in teams of 2 – against another 106 players! They competed in 48 rounds before they reached victory. An impressive feat!
I had the chance to spend a couple of hours with them, listening to them share stories of their life. They lived a very communal life with most of their family, siblings, cousins, sons and daughters living in the same or surrounding villages. They worked the Earth, built their own houses, helped each other out, went to Church, followed the natural rhythm of the seasons and made community and contribution the two most important pillars of their lives. They had lots of children and helped their children. They helped other people’s children. They were not the softest or nicest of fathers, but they exemplified respect and honour of family and hard work.
As I learnt about the lives of my aunts and uncles and father through the eyes of the generation before them, something impacted me deeply. Through my great-uncles’ words, I started sensing a simple wisdom that just made my mind stop. Like any common human being, they had had their share of love and loss. They received many blessings and overcame many adversities in their more than 9 decades on Earth. And here’s something they did that was so refreshing for me to hear and witness.
Whatever happened, they just got on with it.
Nowadays we have a habit of gossiping about everything. We spend a lot of time analysing, examining and evaluating other people’s actions, whether these actions impact us directly or not. There is always a tragedy going on, there is always something to complain or despair about. It can be local, national or global. It can happen in our family, our city or anywhere in the world. There is always something that will not fit with what we think life “should” be, or someone who will not behave like we think people “should” behave. Whatever it is and whoever we are talking about, we always have lots to say and comment on and evaluate. This attitude often results in misunderstanding, criticism, ostracism in one form or another, and conflict.
But my great-uncles had a different attitude. They had a way of considering others’ actions and decisions as something I would call “happenings”. There was judgment, in the sense that perhaps they themselves wouldn’t have chosen this, but there was no emotional charge in their judgment. Note that I am not using the term “judgment” with a negative connotation like is widely being used nowadays; I am using it for its definition, which is an opinion based on careful thought. What my uncles voiced was more like a simple acknowledgement of facts, sometimes accompanied by an opinion based on careful thought, and then that would be all. Then they would simply move on and get on with it.
For me this was a breath of fresh air. It was the embodiment of an ageless wisdom: deal with what is in your control, do your best, and be at peace with everything else. Most of what happens is out of your direct, linear control, and much of that is none of your business anyway, so why make it so? Why get so worked up about it?
My great uncles showed me the value of NOT “working through” someone’s problems, of NOT “getting to the bottom” of a challenging situation, but rather letting that be what it is and getting on with their life. They focused on what they could actually have impact over, and didn’t fret much about outcomes or other people’s decisions. We are far too often outraged when reality does not match our opinions about what it should be.
Reality is what it is, and the wise person adapts him or herself to it rather than the other way around. I know, we have this romantic idea that the world changes only because of unreasonable people who will shape it around their opinions. Well, I don’t know how true this is. I’m certain we can find examples either way. We also know what people wanting to shape the world according to their opinions has lead to in the past. The 20th century – among many, many others – showed us with grim clarity the dark paths this kind of thinking can result in.
If I had to choose? I’d say let’s live a little bit more often according to this simple wisdom.
Reality is what it is.
Let’s do our best and get on with it.