I just finished reading a beautifully crafted novel set in Greece where one of the protagonists is a billionaire who adores his only son. And so does his gorgeous mistress. It’s a bizarre situation, because the man’s wife knows he loves his mistress, who has free rein to enter and leave his home as she pleases, and even to openly entertain important guests in his house. This man is so wealthy that his wife has her own plush apartment attached to the main house, and so the two rivals never have to meet and be embarrassed.
Well, the boy enters the lavish room where his father and mistress are enjoying their martinis and chats with both of them in his charming way. When he leaves, the man says to his mistress: I know you love my son dearly, and I can see why, he is special, but I often wonder whether I’ve done right by him.
What do you mean? she asks, puzzled.
Oh, he says, you know I grew up very poor in the local hills. I had to herd goats after my father died in order to bring some money to the table, and I had to pretty much educate myself. No time for fripperies like school! Now some might feel sorry for the hardships I endured, but in truth it was deprivation that forced me to transform. In fact I can honestly say that I owe my present circumstances to hard times, because they taught me so much about life. As for my son, he’s been born into wealth and privilege and everyone treats him like a young god. Never once have I seen anyone scolding or correcting him, although he does get up to all sorts of pranks and has moments when he can be sulky, ungrateful, malicious and arrogant. Worst of all, since my wife and I don’t get along, we compete with each other to indulge his every whim. Thank god he is innately a loving and considerate little fellow, or he’d be spoiled rotten by now, and I bet you wouldn’t be able to stand him.
This passage reminded me of one of Carlos Castaneda’s earliest books, where he and Don Juan are sitting outside a small restaurant. A waiter comes out to dump some waste food into a bin, and a horde of hungry urchins flies across the narrow street to devour it. Carlos shakes his head in pity and his mentor demands: oh, so you think these kids are worse off than your pampered and overfed kids in America? No, no, no, these children who know life in all its richness and have a shot at growing up to be real humans. They are grateful when their stomachs are full and they don’t view having a decent roof or clothes as their due. Also, look how alert, quick, and intelligent they are! And some even share their pickings with the smaller ones, who can’t fight their way through. (I read the book ages ago and these are just recollections).
Now of course it is not just rich parents who overindulge their kids. The local people here are notorious for never correcting their kids, from what I and other “foreign” friends have seen, and there is, oddly enough, a good side to this: for the children grow up confident in their love and don’t seem to be as messed up as those who have never known love at all. I know one wonderful poor mother whose husband works in the main temple here. She is quite sick, with serious diabetes and a weight problem, but she will work 14 hours a day (she runs a roadside food stall) just so she can educate and feed her kids well. Sadly, her kids really are spoiled and rarely help her out, even in their spare time. I once asked her why she drives herself ragged when they could easily pitch in, and she shrugged and said that they were kids, what else could she expect? Actually two of them are male teens and are quite capable of helping her with the rougher work, but she refuses to see this, and so she continues to work herself to the bone. Is she really doing them any favors by spoiling them like this? I don’t think so.
As for me, I have experienced both prosperous and hard times, and I can honestly say that it was my painful times (once I was bitten by a deadly spider and was dying alone in a guestroom in Rishikesh—the pain was so excruciating that I have blanked it out) that made me the strong woman I believe I am today. As a result, I don’t take anyone or anything for granted. I am also infinitely grateful to the woman who forced me, years ago when I lived in Eugene, Oregon, to begin a formal gratitude practice. Because I stayed firm in my resolve to find something to be grateful for in every situation, however dark or ugly, this practice has become easy and spontaneous and I find myself thanking the Divine every single day for all my blessings.
I can well empathize with parents who have had hard times themselves wanting to pamper their kids. But are they doing the right thing? In a world where we see the artificial scarcity created by unjust systems literally starving millions of children, is it good for some privileged kids to dine regularly at 5-star hotels, or to have any material gizmo they want, and have their parents willingly foot the bill? I believe this sort of cloying over-attention actually stunts their growth and blocks the cultivation of qualities this world is starving for—such as compassion and empathy, and not just for the stray animal or project, but for all beings. This can only come through knowing what it is to suffer ourselves; those who have it easy never really grow up. Consider the Devas in the ancient Wheel of Life – they live lives of unimaginable luxury and pleasure and then, one day, the good karma burns off and they are plunged into deep suffering. The only way out of the whole mess of samsara is to enter the Spiritual Heart and to dive permanently into the blissful and immortal substratum of our being, or at least this is what the jnanis teach us, and I for one believe them heart and soul.
Life throws us many challenges and there are critical questions (such as the proper upbringing of our children, who will one day rule our planet) that each of us must consider for ourselves. No point in borrowing another’s point of view, because the mind will change as soon as it is left to its own devices, and fall back into old grooves of behavior. To really contemplate life, we must give ourselves the time to do so, and make this (not salting away assets or seeking the admiration of our peers) a first priority.
I once asked a friend who blindly adores his kids and honestly believes they are god’s gift to this sorry earth if he would be just as slavishly attentive to them if they were someone else’s children. He was offended by my question and did not answer me. If not, I went on ruthlessly, then clearly it is your own ego you are loving, and not them. If you loved them no matter whose children they were, then that would be true love. (You can use this test on any area of your life. Say you are thrilled because you won an award for spreading peace in the Middle East. Would you be just as thrilled if someone else had won it? If not, then it is your ego that is being massaged and not your Self.)
Once we begin to analyze the nature of the ego, our own vision becomes clear and we will automatically do the right thing by our children—and guess what? One day they might genuinely thank us for being so truly loving to them that we insisted on instilling in them values that would stand them in good stead, no matter what life later threw at them.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who forces us to really examine the rules we live by and then to dissolve all that do not serve us as seekers of lasting peace and joy!