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A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he read something interesting, he wanted to discuss it with you. He want to find out what you were reading, whether you liked it, what was your opinion about it.

My favorite times with my grandfather were before dinner when we would sit in the living room and talk about books, or life, or politics, or whatever. In my mind it's always winter (otherwise we would have been sitting outside on the porch before dinner), and he is wearing a v-neck sweater, there is a fire going in the fireplace, and a bowl of nuts on the coffee table between us, and my grandmother is cooking in the kitchen not far away.

One thing that was remarkable about my grandfather was that when I said something to him he really, truly seemed to listen to it and consider it. He'd close his eyes and nod for a moment before coming out with a well-considered, philosophical response to what I'd said. Sometimes it was so philosophical I couldn't understand it. But I knew I had to have something worthwhile to say because he was going to listen to it and consider it carefully.

Once, when I was recovering from a deep depression in my life and searching for a way forward, we had one of these pre-dinner talks, and he gave me the following advice which I have been turning over in my head for nearly 20 years now. It's become kind of a like what the Zen Masters call a koan; a phrase or story that is itself inscrutable but explains their philosophy.

That advice was: "Do what is real."

If he'd been born fifty years later he might have used the ever-popular and over-used, "Keep it real," but I feel like his version is more useful and pragmatic. It's not an unusual or ground-breaking concept, mind you, used as a framework for one's life it can provide a very solid and reliable structure.

How do you do what is real? 

In his mind, I think, doing what is real meant (in no specific order): taking care of yourself, working hard, taking care of your family, enjoying your life in healthy and non-destructive ways, expanding your mind, exercising your body to keep it in good health, and things like this. It means living a life that is governed by the rules of Reality rather than Fantasy.

When, for example, I get frustrated with my job (let's just say, for example) and think about resigning before I have another job I think to myself, "Do what is real." It's not real to quit your job without another one lined up. When I think about taking a big vacation and putting it all on my credit card, when I still have unpaid debts, I think to myself: "Is it real to take an expensive vacation when I'm already in debt?"

The philosophy can be applied even further. For example, I dream of being a successful writer; having a book or books published, having my work seen by others, etc. Is it real to have that dream and not write every day? No. Following the "do what is real" philosophy, one with such a dream should be writing every day. Are you trying to lose weight? Yes? Then it's not real to eat donuts for breakfast every day and not exercise. Do what is real.

You may say to yourself: "Doing what is real sounds boring." This is the wrong way to view it. Being "real" doesn't have to mean you never have fun or never do anything out of the ordinary, never indulge yourself, etc. Quite the opposite. That stuff is all very real! It just means that the outlines, the borders, the structure of your life has to be real, and you need to be in contact with reality, not living a fantasy or living wrongly.

As a mixed-up 20-year old kid (and to a somewhat-less-but-not-much-less mixed up 38-year old man) this advice resonated with me and focused my thinking. And it has, obviously, stayed with me ever since.


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