There is a celebration – a greeting card and dinner out opportunity – for virtually every life event. Grandparenting is no exception and the gifts of grandparents will be celebrated this Sunday, September 8. National Grandparents Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day, was initially proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. The primary motivation for this celebration was to honor the elderly, often living in nursing homes, and recognize the gifts of elders to their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
As a grandparent of two young boys, it is my hope that they will treasure my wisdom and love, giving thanks for the blessings they’ve received and embodying this wisdom in their own lives. To me, however, being a grandparent is a spiritual and ethical vocation that begins with my two little grandsons and expands to honor every child. In a few days, my book about the first year of my oldest grandson’s life, Letters to my Grandson: Gaining Wisdom from a Fresh Perspective, will be released and the writing and editing has been a spiritual adventure.
While the text explores the spiritual lessons I learned in the first year of his life, the reality of grandparenting has challenged me to look at life from a larger perspective and to see my impact extending far beyond my own individual lifespan. As I celebrated my relationship with my grandson, I realized how blessed we were as a family and how fortunate he was to be born in the United States, and the child of parents who could provide him with education, healthy food, health care, a safe environment, and loving companionship. I was awakened personally to the reality that my grandson Jack was blessed with possibilities, denied to many other young children. I began to see other peoples’ grandchildren with fresh eyes and an open heart.
One of my teachers Bernard Loomer described stature or spiritual size as the ability to hold contrasting images in creative tension with one another. Stature is the gift of perspective that takes us beyond our own self-interest to identify with the well-being of others, including generations beyond our lifetime and persons we will never meet. Grandparenting has broadened my perspective to embrace the following: 1) the well-being of children across the globe and 2) future generations of grandchildren. It has opened my eyes to God in the quotidian details of everyday life.
First, the spirituality of grandparenting invites me to love other peoples’ grandchildren with the same care that I love my own. While this is not, in most cases, physically or emotionally possible, it is ethically possible and mandated. One of the great ethical curiosities I have discovered is some peoples’ inability to share the benefits they and their children have received with other peoples’ children. Often you hear older adults saying, “I don’t want to pay taxes to support other peoples’ children.” Such thinking, self-interest in its most base form, goes against the communal nature of life and the interdependence characteristic of the universe. It assumes that we have no responsibility to future generations or the community at large. In contrast, I believe that those of us who are grandparents need to make a special effort through our time, talents, and treasures to benefit the lives of other peoples’ grandchildren. Imagine the sadness of a parent, witnessing her or his child walking to school in an unsafe neighborhood due to crime and drug distribution. Experience their sorrow to know that their children go to inferior schools, often in substandard buildings with few of the technological and educational resources taken for granted in suburban schools just a few miles away. Ponder the anguish a grandparent feels when a grandchild is dying from malnutrition or lack of adequate health care. These could be our grandchildren.
“When I look at Jack, shining brightly with love and possibility, my heart breaks as I remember the thousands of ‘little Jacks’ (both boys and girls) starving in Somalia and throughout the world. I am grief-stricken at the neglect of children in the United States, where one in five children live in poverty and education and health care takes second place to greed and self-interest. I pray for the children in Somalia and all children everywhere who are born into poverty or families in which abuse, neglect, and fear are everyday realities. How blessed it is to be born into a loving family that can feed, clothe, educate, and provide health care for a child!” (from Letters to my Grandson)
Second, spiritual stature challenges us to look beyond our lifetimes. However we understand it, global climate change and its impact on local weather patterns, crops, and seacoast towns puts our grandchildren and their grandchildren at risk. We are as a society thoughtlessly destroying future generations’ environments and putting their lives in jeopardy by our consumerism and wastefulness. Can we really say we love them when we prefer comfort and consumption to ecological and economic sustainability?
As I look at the future, “the love I feel for my grandson extends to embrace our planet and the future he will inherit from my generation and that of his parents. I pray for the healing of this good Earth, and its realities of global climate change, which are, in part, the result of human choices and our failure to see the world from the perspective of the child, filled with wonder, love, and possibility. This love story is a call for every grandparent to work for a world in which joy, laughter, food, love, and security are the rule rather than the exception in every child’s life.” (from Letters to my Grandson)
Grandparenting involves spirituality with a fresh perspective. It challenges us to embrace the smallest of details while expanding our consciousness to include other continents and future generations. To me, it involves “praying with our eyes open,” discovering the holiness of a child at play and giving thanks for the blessings of each moment. It involves imaginative prayer that sees other grandchildren, living in different continents and coming from very different ethnic and economic groups, as mirroring our own grandchildren, and finding ways to bring the same joy to their lives that you seek for your own grandchildren.
On National Grandparents’ Day, the elders among us need to be honored, but we elders also need to honor grandchildren everywhere by giving them a world of laughter, love, possibility, and creative adventure.