Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Walk with Grandfather, 20 Years Ago

On a cool Spring morning in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Grandfather's pace quickened as the hill was crested. His wooden walking staff, at six feet long nearly as tall as Grandfather's slightly stooped frame, cracked with an escalating rhythm upon the granite street as we approached the park.

Grandfather paused before entering upon the dirt path ahead. Reaching down he picked a fresh green leaf from a small tree. Holding the solitary leaf up in the yellow light of the early morning sun, his eyes peered through the thick lenses of his black-rimmed eyeglasses as he sensed the leaf's light green color. His finger gently traversed the texture leaf's spine and ribs. Slowly he turned, handing me the leaf, his gaze now directed at my eyes. Clutching the leaf, I resumed my place to his left as he turned right to resume his daily sojourn down the pebbled path of the park.

As I approached mid-life, I began to sense a lack of purpose in my life. Many wonderful experiences I had enjoyed, such as the birth of my children, my wedding day, and graduations and the sense of accomplishment each had brought forth. I had been blessed with the experience of sailing across the Atlantic and back on a barkentine. I treasured the trophies and awards obtained in both team and individual sports and endeavors - rowing, football, track, and the rifle drill team competitions. Yet, more recently, I began to reflect upon whether the choices I had made led a a life which would be, ultimately, devoid of fulfillment.

So I turned to the wisest man I knew, traveling to the home of my maternal Grandfather, John Ferguson. Born in Scotland just before the end of the 19th Century, he survived a journey as an infant on a sailing ship to South Africa, where his own father, a pharmacist, had decided to settle. Like me he was an avid reader throughout his life, which no doubt had a role in Grandfather's attainment as a Rhodes scholar. He pursued a career in medicine, eventually teaching at Harvard, Michigan, and Alabama before landing his own family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There he taught, undertook pioneering research in blood chemistry, and wrote books and many scholarly papers.

Now long retired, having outlived two wives, he lived alone near the campus of the University of North Carolina. Distinguished with his silver hair and warm smile, he continued to write, and occasionally traveled in pursuit of additions to his collection of 30,000 shells from around the world. His six children and thirteen grandchildren visited him often, though nearly all had scattered to distant parts of the country.

I, myself, had now traveled north from Florida to enjoy once again my Grandfather's company. I knew I would be entertained with a game of shuffleboard on the court nestled in a small garden near his back door. I knew I would enjoy another perusal of his vast collection of books, and that I would savor the Earl Grey tea and biscuits he served each afternoon.

Yet, I was also there to pose him a most serious question. Not long after my morning arrival for a day-long visit, Grandfather senses my unease. Never one to pry, he ate his breakfast mostly in silence, as if he knew an inquiry would be forthcoming.

After the breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast was consumed, I began. "Grandfather, I have come to you with a personal concern." Grandfather's eyes were warm and inquisitive, as I continued. "Each day in my law practice I see clients who have been taken advantage of. It seems as if greed has conquered reason. I see the damages. And I see the resulting suffering. I wonder if I made the right choices. Should I have followed in your footsteps, and become a healer and a researcher? Have I made a great mistake?"

Grandfather sipped the last of his coffee, saying nothing for a while. My heart pounded as I waited; each passing minute seemed like an hour. Rising and clearing his dishes from the table, he said, "Come join me for my morning walk." He then proceed to done his tweed coat and he took ahold of his walking stick.

At 94 years of age, Grandfather would likely outpace many half his age. As we ventured forth into the park, the path proceeding down a slight decline before rising again up another hill, I found myself somewhat winded as I struggled to maintain his pace. Finally, a full thirty minutes from the start of our walk, Grandfather halted beneath a tree at the top of the hill. The crisp breeze of an early April morning cooled us, as he began his lesson.

"Opportunism abounds," he stated, as he gazed over the skyline of the distant university. "It has always been such, and it will always be. At times altruism fails, and greed becomes more prevalent. But not all opportunism is bad; the profit motive drives part of humanity forward. Ethical standards counter opportunism, especially for professions. The relations of men evolve over time, always seeking the proper balance for the times in which we find ourselves. These are things you cannot control. But you can influence where the balance should lie, as humanity proceeds down its path."

I reflected upon his words, seeking to commit each one to memory. There was truth there ... control the things you can control, and do not worry about those matters outside one's ability to alter. Seek to influence the laws and rules and mores which govern the relations of men, in order to better achieve the desired balance between capitalism with no regulation and a society in which ethical standards constrain conduct.

After a time, Grandfather continued, now addressing my primary question. His answer to my concern regarding my career choice was unexpected. He began, "Each week when I go to the grocery store, I make certain I depart through Joan's check-out line. And each week I am greeted by her smile, pleasant demeanor, and expression of gratitude as I complete my purchase. I note that her line always seems the longest at the store, for there are other regulars who also frequent her.  Although it is not required of her, each and every day, with her smile and expressions, Joan makes a positive impact on the lives if others."

Grandfather paused at the top of a hill, his gaze surveying the landscape around him. "One need not be a physician to do good in this world. The sanitation worker performs an essential function, and he contributes as well at the leader of a bible study at his church. The young single mother who lives down the street works hard, and struggles financially, yet still waves as she passes me by in her car in the way to work each morning, and she endeavors to provide her children with a youth full of vibrant experiences and instilled values."

Pausing his teachings for several moments, Grandfather then turned to face me. Looking into my eyes, he said, "Each of us was provided with certain gifts. Those gifts are not all the same. You need not become me, in order to accomplish great things in your life. The key is this ... discover your unique gifts, and use them to make as positive an impact upon as many as you can, in the limited time you possess upon this earth."

Reflecting upon what seemed at once magical words of wisdom from one I so admired, I accompanied Grandfather home, again challenged to maintain his walking pace. With every fourth step his walking can tapped the pavement. After returrning to his home, I enjoyed the rest of the day with him, as he explained shells from his collection and shared biscuits and tea. I enjoyed his company in the warmth if his rustic old home.

Many years have passed since that day, and Grandfather's subsequent passing a few years later. Since that day I discovered that my conversation with Grandfather that Spring morning was the beginning of a journey of self-discovery. These years have been an exploration of the motivations behind our lives, a rewarding search for illumination for insights into the human condition, and a renewed desire for self-improvement aided by self-reflection as well as insights from others in the world.

My journey these past twenty years has been filled with the passion flowing grom the growth of personal relationships. I have possessed the opportunity to share wisdom, and to motivate others, thereby enabling others to succeed. I have also sought further self-illumination through an exploration of wisdom, both ancient and contemporary. And, as Grandfather, suggested, I have used the gifts bestowed upon me to assist in the promotion of a cause (although much work remains to be done).

I have, in the process, found more happiness than I ever thought possible. I discovered a zest for life, which continues to this day. I have found treasure in the many relationships, both personal and professional, I have formed. I have found new depth in the relationships with family. I have given of myself; yet I received back from others more than I ever thought possible.

Thank you, Grandfather, for influencing me so greatly.

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