The Ancient Wisdom of Grandmothers

Hiji Waterfall, Okinawa
Hiji Waterfall, Okinawa

A few weeks ago I went with my family to visit my grandmother in Okinawa. She is 89, and has been recently hospitalized after having a stroke. I haven’t seen her since 2003 when I last visited, so it was quite the trip.

I never learned Japanese growing up so there has always been a communication barrier with her (and the rest of my Japanese family for that matter). Of course, when you’re a kid, it doesn’t matter too much. But when you get older it becomes difficult to relate to them when you can’t directly to them.

But over time I’ve learned about bits and pieces of her long life and what I do know about her is quite impressive. And though I doubt she has studied all these ancient wisdom traditions, I do believe she has done a good job living their teachings. Here’s what I can extrapolate from her example.

Tragedy, grace, and control

My grandmother didn’t choose to spend a good chunk of her twenties in a war zone, but she had to learn to deal with it anyway. She was a school teacher and was present for one of the most gruesome battles in the Pacific, the Battle of Okinawa. The Japanese army was no friend to the Okinawan civilians either. The Japanese army often murdered the civilians, encouraged them to commit mass suicide, etc.

Now, I get bummed out if I have to stay late at work. To live in a warzone in which your own side might kill you, now, that is something in which you can claim a legitimate grievance.

I’m not sure about all the details, but apparently, my grandmother took charge of a group of school children and went to seek shelter in the mountains and caves. She encountered a Japanese army unit, for the reasons mentioned above, couldn’t be trusted. However, a Japanese officer felt compassion for her and the kids and directed them to safety.

This officer was later killed in the battle. After the war, every few years my grandmother would visit his grave to pay tribute to the man who saved her life.

One of the principle teachings of Stoicism is that you cannot control most of the circumstances you find yourself. It teaches that the true test of your character is how you handle them, both tragic and joyous. It’s clear to me that my grandmother must have exhibited a Stoic attitude, a toughness that allowed to her to keep going, and not just to give up in the face of incredible devastation.

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

Epictetus, The Enchiridion

Christianity (and other Abrahamic religions) teaches that grace is a love and mercy shown by God. While my grandmother wasn’t Christian, she demonstrated sacred gratitude for the mercy the officer showed her by frequently visiting his grave. The more secular among us might attribute her survival and the officer’s kindness to chance, but when you survive something terrible because of the compassion and mercy of another, attributing it to “chance” feels empty. Only a concept as great as God can truly hold our sense of awe and wonder and gratitude we feel to the fact of being alive. We don’t attend attend funerals to simply pay our respects, we attend them to be reminded of the incredible blessing and transience of life.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:16

This barbelled strategy of being mentally tough towards tragedy and expressing sacred gratitude for good fortune is a winning one, much better than trying to influence events so that they average somewhere in the middle.

The humility in work

There is something irritating about the contemporary discourse on “privilege.” We act as if it’s a great revelation that people are born into different circumstances which naturally lead to different outcomes.

Though I’m sure we can have a great discussion about poverty and race and such, I’d like to focus on the particularly middle-class expectation of career privilege.

If you grew up with the expectation of going to college, you also likely grew up with the expectation of having a wonderful career in which you establish a professional reputation in the field of your choice (or, your parents’ choice if they are the meddling type).

This is fine, but it leaves us psychologically fragile to anything that deviates from that linear path (and the middle-class ideal is indeed linear). If you planned to be a lawyer but didn’t get into law school, you feel like a complete failure. Or, more commonly, if you thought you would get a cushy office job after graduating and living in your own apartment but instead moved back home and worked at Starbucks, you feel ashamed.

I’ve experienced this myself.

But my grandmother had none of the middle class privileges we take for granted (other than surviving a war) and she had to create a whole new life for herself. Though she was a schoolteacher at one point, after the war she and my grandfather simply had to find a way to make ends meet. She took on different gigs that presented themselves. She farmed, she did a little teaching, found some office work, etc.

There was no room to get too attached to a particular career identity. It was a humble, but admirable existence.

Hinduism speaks a lot to this type of detachment. In the Gita, there is much talk about performing ego-less work. Hinduism matured in a society defined by the caste system, in which your occupation and socio-economic standing was more or less determined at birth. To teach people how to effectively deal with this, Hinduism teaches that one should perform one’s work without ego, with a sense of detachment, as a way to achieve “Moksha,” or freedom/enlightenment.

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.

The Bhagavad Gita

Though I’m sure my grandmother experienced frustration with her work, I find her willingness to submit herself to work that was beneath her admirable. When I had just moved to DC and was unemployed, I refused to work part-time service jobs. Even though it would have saved me some financial grief, I was too proud. This is something I’m ashamed of, but should I encounter the situation again, I don’t know if I would behave differently.

But, I’m sure we all have people in our lives who embody the type of humility we should strive to achieve. My grandmother is one of them.

Embracing variability

One would thing that after surviving a war, that the major challenges in life would be over. There is something in our brains that thinks because we suffered through something major, we deserve for everything else to be easy.

But this is false. While we shouldn’t expect everything to be terrible all the time, we shouldn’t expect that everything should always be good. There is an unpredictable variability to the way life progresses. We may be riding high for a period of time, followed by a steady mediocrity, and then a sudden crash.

For my grandmother, she experienced her share of variability in her post-war life. She was certainly happy and content for large periods of time. She married, had six kids, built a home, played with her grandchildren, tended to her gardens, celebrated holidays, and enjoyed many of the things most of us hope to enjoy.

But she also had to support a sick and alcoholic husband, the death of a child, worries about money, and recently, her own declining health.

The American attitude to this variability is to try to completely eliminate the negative volatility. We want to eradicate alcoholism, cure disease, eliminate poverty, etc. Our dominant strategy is avoidance and a positive, can-do attitude.

While this cultural attitude is admirable and certainly better than a fatalistic pessimism, it has been robbing us of the tools needed to expect and embrace the inevitable variability we will encounter in our lives.

I believe the Taoists do the best job of embracing this natural variability, which they call the “Tao.”

Accept disgrace willingly.

Accept misfortune as the human condition.
What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called “accepting disgrace willingly.”
   What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
   Misfortune comes from having a body.
   Without a body, how could there be misfortune?
Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things. 
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13

Recognizing that the vicissitudes of life are indeed, natural is a challenge for those of us who have a particular destination in mind. But let’s do our best to recognize, in good times and bad, that we shouldn’t fight against it, but rather, embrace it for what it is.


The role models that our culture likes to present to us (successful entrepreneurs, celebrities, etc.) represent values that the ancients would find completely vulgar. We end up damaging ourselves when we pursue wealth and fame or this general notion of “success” simply because it’s splashed all over the front pages of magazines.

Better that we find people who embody ancient virtues, whether intentionally or not, and seek to emulate their best traits. These people won’t be perfect, nor should we expect them to be, but we should respect those who have lived rich and textured lives and have lessons to teach us through their example and experience.

Perhaps grandmothers would be a good place to start.