I once thought wisdom was the exclusive domain of old folks but I’ve discovered some of my most important lessons have been taught by the very young. One such lesson came from my nephew Jack when he was all of six years old. I was newly sober and still stinging from a number of painful losses. At the time I kept pretty much to myself as I felt like a guy whose legs had been shot out from underneath him. To say the least, social engagements were really tough for me. Then, I was invited to dinner at my sister’s on Halloween.
Frankly, I was at a loss for how to respond. On one hand, just being around her family had always been a comfort to me. They were a joyous bunch and all seemed so perfectly normal, not crazy like so many in my circle. However, what troubled me was that the gregarious Uncle Pat so familiar to my family was gone, I thought maybe forever.
But I could not simply shrug off the invitation. My sister had always been special to me. We were Irish twins, born 11 months apart, she in January and I in December of 1948. She’d been my first friend, earliest protector and greatest supporter. We’d even shared the same crib.
After Dad died she became our surrogate mother when Mom, in her despondency, turned to the bottle to find relief. It was my sister who kept the family train running on schedule. I admired her. She was a brilliant lawyer, caring wife, and a remarkable mother. She was the Rock of Gibraltar of our family while, in my own mind’s eye, I was nothing more than a pebble that had been shattered into a thousand pieces.
I decided to accept her invitation and mask my misery as best I could. I remember standing in front of her house for the longest time trying to muster up the courage to go in. Just as I was ready to knock, the door flew open and out sailed young Jack! “WOW, UNCLE PAT, IS IT EVER GREAT TO SEE YOU!”
I was stunned, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears. How, I thought, could anyone want to see me when I could hardly stand the sight of myself? But six-year-old Jack could not hide his genuine pleasure at encountering his Uncle Pat. Whatever he saw was not what I felt, but his unspoiled honesty pushed aside my own self-absorption.
Jack had not yet been schooled in the art of
- saying one thing and meaning another,
- categorizing people in defined boxes,
- rendering moral judgments on people who were struggling.
To my young nephew I was just his Uncle Pat whom he hadn’t seen for a while, and that was reason enough to be excited. Jack’s greeting lifted my spirits. After I came in he pulled up a chair next to mine and with all the earnestness of a long lost friend said, ”Uncle Pat, tell me about yourself.“
I shared with Jack a few stories, appropriate for the ears of a six year old, of my adventures, my travels and a few of the interesting people I’d met along the way.
As I shared I was struck by Jack’s
- ability to listen,
- focus his attention,
- formulate questions.
I realized I hadn’t been in the presence of a good listener for a long while. How refreshing it was! Somehow, in my journey through life I had skipped the lesson in listening and in so doing missed out on a boatload of wisdom.
I was at a point in life where I was starting over as a newly sober person. My encounter with young Jack persuaded me one of the gifts in starting over, for any of us, is the opportunity to reclaim some lost innocence. And innocence allows us to revel in learning new things through the practice of listening.
“Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.” — David Bentley Hart
Just a thought…
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