I am the son of a single mother from South America. Though we weren’t poor, we could not boast of abundance –I was born in a very dangerous neighborhood where drugs and violence were as common as the trees on each side of the road we walked on our way to school and having just enough was the best you could have done there. I lived in my grandparents’ house my entire childhood.
I never lived with my father and so it was my grandfather who took the role of the man I looked up to, he was the fatherly figure for me. My grandfather is a particular man: he had seen the army from inside –military service has been compulsory in my country for decades and by the time he turned 18 and was taken into a military base he learned that becoming a man while wearing the uniform meant being the victim of repeated abuse, both mental and physical. My grandfather had been poor and always told the anecdote of his early years walking to school, barefoot on frosty surfaces in the winter. He also remembered a course he took on interpersonal relationships at the workplace when he became a supervisor at a factory despite the fact that he never made it to high school –a not uncommonly low level of education back then.
My grandfather is a particular man: he supported and raised seven children in a two-bedroom house, in a neighborhood where drugs and violence were as common as the trees on each side of the road we walked on our way to school and having just enough was the best you could have done there. My grandfather was the one male figure I had when I was a child. I remember he always had very bold and concise advice for me. One of the few lines he handed over to me in a few occasions and one that always stayed in my head went more or less like this: “Cuando alguien te de un consejo, tú escucha en silencio, saca provecho de lo que te sirva y y deja el resto de lado.”
I wish my memory was better because I know his exact words made a simpler sentence, yet the meaning of it was a never-ending source of wisdom.
Those words stayed with me somehow, those words came to travel the world with me, they are here now, sitting next to me at my desk while I silently look outside the window into a rather quiet Shanghai that waits for the Chinese New Year to come in a few hours now.
Fernando is my grandfather’s name and his advice was always very bold and concise. What I believe he tried to say was something like this:
“Not everybody will give you the right advice, even though they want nothing but to help you when they do, not all the advice you will receive in life will be the right one for you at that time and in the circumstances you will be. Not everyone will understand you fully, but when advice is offered, your only job at that moment is to open your ears, open your mind and absorb as much you can, regardless of how erroneous the input might seem at the moment; you never understand your own problems when you are in them and your perspective is most commonly misdirected when you get yourself in trouble. Listen patiently and carefully, take what you understand it helps you and be honest with yourself, accept that you are making a mistake when you do and if the person talking to you is not fully understanding the situation, just stay there, let them talk and thank them –you never know when the echo of those sentences will hit you back and finally make sense. Just listen and take what you consider is helpful to your circumstances.”
I wish I had the power of saying as much as my grandfather does with such short and powerful sentences.
A couple of night ago I went to a friend of mine for advice –a man who despite being just a couple of years older than me I profoundly admire and hope I someday learn to act like he does in life. I had been chasing him for over a week just trying to sit down in front of him to tell him that I wasn’t doing well, even though I didn’t know what was that I wanted to say or if I could have asked for help at all. He’s a busy man and being so I know he faces worse problems than the ones I normally create for myself, yet he’s always willing to share a laugh at any point of the day.
We sat down and I just said the simplest and shortest version of what I was going through; I said it without an introduction or make up. My friend looked at me and without much sympathy he showed me his point of view: it was dark and ugly, I looked very bad in it and it hurt. I just stared into his eyes and kept listening as his words started to make sense. He did not have it all right and that was ok, but he did show me the poor image I was offering of my own person while at the same time I was putting my friends in a tight spot they did not deserve to be –I was making a terrible mistake. I listened until the end and came to realize I had been a selfish and self-destructive man.
As we moved through a dialogue where I tried to defend myself a bit for his sentences seemed a bit too harsh and his verdict a little quick pronounced. But then from inside me, the memory of my grandfather told me to take what I found useful and I agreed that I was committing a crime to those who lived around me and cared about me. He ended up his point of view with a piece of advice that I now treasure, one that was bold and concise, just like the ones that my grandfather would drop once in a while in between the walls of that two-bedroom house in South America.
“Take care of yourself, don’t make life any harder –it’s already very complicated” –he said.