Much has been written about men’s relationships with their own fathers, and how that has affected their attitudes and behaviors. Less discussed is a man’s relationship with his grandfather, perhaps because these days most boys do not live in extended family households and grandfathers are less present in a growing boy’s life. I happen to believe, though, that in traditional communities grandfathers have played an important role in guiding and socializing young men, and that their absence as an influence is a loss for healthy male development and society generally. In my latest book Every Breath, New Chances: How To Grow Old With Honor and Dignity I posit the existence of what I call the “inner grandfather,” representing the intuitive aspect of the male mind. In that book I present a series of what I call “deep mind reflections” to access that intuitive aspect, and I write, “I feel that [my] deep mind is looking out for me, taking care of me like a kind old grandfather.”
Grandfathers are not usually directly responsible for raising a boy to manhood, and can look on as a boy grows and develops with an attitude of detached loving care. Grandfathers also bring a lifetime of elder wisdom about what it means to be mature man, and at best can be guides for both a boy’s father as well as the boy. I did not know my birth grandfathers personally, and yet I felt their presence and influence in some subtle ways.
My birth mother was the daughter of Greek immigrants who emigrated to New Jersey at the turn of the 20th century to escape the poverty of their ancestral village in the mountains above Sparta. I don’t know much about Christopher, my Greek grandfather except that he came from a lineage of stonemasons, and that his ancestors built the old church in the village square. I know from a first cousin that Christopher was a musician—he played the balalaika—and that during the depression (and Prohibition) he made ouzo liqueur in his basement. I know that my older sister learned from our mother one phrase in Greek that she translated as “Give me an orange, Grandfather.” When I heard her say that I found myself picturing what this Greek grandfather might have looked like. Later I saw a photograph of him and realized that I resembled him a lot. They say that musical talent skips a generation; I have been a lifelong musician and composer, and would like to think that I inherited that music gene from Christopher.
On my father’s side, his father (my grandfather) abandoned the family when my father was a young boy, so all I knew about him was that he was a gambler and left the family destitute. The main adult male in my father’s life was Lewis, his own grandfather, after whom I am named. My father told me many times what a kind and gentle man Lewis was. I think Lewis was a lifeline for my father as a fatherless boy. My father once showed me a photograph of Lewis–a kindly looking man with a long white beard.
Why do I say that our “inner grandfather”—the one we remember or internalize or fantasize about—represents our male intuition? I’m not sure, it’s my own intuition that suggests that. Our inner grandfather represents the internalized thread of continuity from generation to generation, and the archetypal representation of mature male energy. I don’t know if this could be true for men generally; you have to judge for yourself. But for me I associate grandfatherly-ness with kindness, and kindness is a virtue that counteracts the harder aspects of male aggressiveness.
One of the most important influences in my life was my main Buddhist teacher, Shunryu Suzuki. I came to his temple in San Francisco as a spiritual seeker in my early twenties, when Suzuki Roshi was in his early sixties. Most of the people there, men and women, were young, and I joined a cadre of young men—most of us participants in the then-emerging counterculture—who I think were seeking among other things a model of male adulthood that was loving and wholesome. As I got to know my fellow male students better, I realized that many of them had a troubled, sometimes, abusive relationships with their own fathers. And though on the surface we were seeking spiritual enlightenment from Suzuki Roshi, I think beneath the surface we were looking for our inner grandfather, someone old and wise and kind who would just accept us with loving regard. Suzuki Roshi filled the bill. We all loved him because he loved us, and did not criticize us, and accepted us for who we were. He healed our psychic wounds by just being who he was.
As for finding your own inner grandfather, my book Every Breath, New Chances offers some methods and inner reflections. But in the end it is up to each of us as men to find representations within ourselves to manifest kindness to others, and find ways to express our own aggressiveness in a way that does not cause permanent or lasting harm.