My wife and I ran away from home in 1969 when we were teenagers. “Why,” you might ask, “did you do something so foolish?" Which, of course, is an excellent question. But the answer, which is complicated, began when I met my future mother-in-law, Lottie, on what turned out to be my last official date with my then 16-year-old girlfriend. I was a curly-headed irresponsible 18-year-old hippie barely in college at UCLA living in friend’s living room. I sat down with Lottie in the small breakfast nook of their West Los Angeles home for a nice pre-date chat.
"No big deal," I thought somewhat arrogantly. "She's going to love me and then it's off to a wonderful second date." Trude stood in the dining room with what I only later learned was a total look of horror while I proceeded to self-destruct.
It started when I glanced at the pictures hanging in the room and declared, "I don't really like this kind of modern art. It looks like a child could do it." Unfortunately, I had no idea Trude’s grandfather had been a passionate graphic art collector who had donated the majority of his priceless collection to a museum in his name at UCLA.
Lottie almost swallowed her cigarette at my comment. She then asked me a trick question, "Well, Mike, what do you believe in?"
Fortunately, I knew the answer to this one. Paraphrasing the lyrics of a current Beatles tune, I exclaimed, "I believe we should all do it in the road." Which turned out not to be a comforting response for a girlfriend’s mother.
Somehow, she still let Trude go out with me that evening. But I had created a tsunami of trouble. In my defense, this was 1968, a year before Trude and I learned about Bodhisattva Never Disparaging (more on him later). We still thought that anything our parents or society believed in was inherently wrong!
The next day, Lottie forbid me to date her daughter. And, after sneaking around for several months, a now rebellious Trude finally left home with me. What followed was a several-decade long journey back into my mother-in-law's good graces.
This is when a historical figure in India named Never Disparaging enters my experience. He adopted the spiritual practice of bowing in reverence to everyone he met and praising that person's inherent enlightened nature. Of course, people would often react negatively; for instance, throwing rocks at him. But, he never wavered in his conviction. He would just retreat from danger. But, then he would bow to them with respect yet again. Eventually, many of them came to embrace his practice.
Now back to my story. I have always suspected the fact she barely escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager and had severe back pain contributed to Lottie’s difficult personality. Because I loved Trude dearly, it really upset me whenever her mother would say things or act in ways that were hurtful to Trude, which was quite often. I wanted to call or write her to express my dismay at her behavior. But, Trude repeatedly asked me not to. Instead, she remained confident that if we behaved like Never Disparaging, exercising self-restraint and compassion, our relationship with her would improve.
Eleven years ago, on her deathbed, she said to Trude, “Can you believe it? I was wrong about Mike and you!” I have great appreciation for Lottie’s generosity and influence on our lives; she caused us to become better people.
So, if I start to lose hope in this time of corona-frustration and political mayhem, either in my ability to overcome my own problems or the world being able to learn to peacefully coexist, I try to remember, like Never Disparaging, we all need to respect and listen to each other -- not just those who think or act like we do. In other words, focus on our similarities, not our differences. And, by the way, that means not disparaging ourselves, either!
This isn’t easy. But, just complaining about a situation or people doesn’t make things better. Although, if I’m honest, sometimes I wish it did!
Finally, the most important point is that positive change has to start with me. Because, otherwise, what’s the point?
Thanks for reading and please keep staying safe out there!