“Mom! I am not one of those people who want to help people. Not everyone is going to make the world better!” It was the advent of my 15-year-old son’s summer vacation, and I was trying to persuade him to volunteer somewhere a few hours a week. Although I hadn’t specifically charged him with “making the world better,” he knew that was what I expected of everyone, our family included. Like most teenagers, he also understood exactly how to make me react. When we’d moved a few months earlier, he refused to unpack his books, telling me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want books in his room, that he didn’t want to read. I teach college English. Even if my son wasn’t consciously going for my Achilles’ heel, I knew he knew where it was.
When I was 18 years old, I moved to India, shaved my head, and began meditating. The dharma felt like an organic extension of what I had been brought up to believe, that self-discipline could be undertaken for some greater good. And yet to my parents, at home in suburban Ohio, I’m sure my choices didn’t look quite so innocent. I can only imagine that what I was doing seemed incomprehensible—and a lot like rebellion.
I approached the teachings out of genuine curiosity, a pull toward what felt true more than a push against what didn’t. But my initial exploration of practice was also an adolescent act of separation, an attempt to forge an identity distinct from my family’s, one away from the desolation of the strip malls and the dilapidated barns of my Rust Belt childhood. Shaving my head was less a heartfelt renunciation of vanity than it was an attempt to distance myself from the girls in my hometown who curled their bangs into four-inch walls of Aqua Net. I remember thinking that even if no one at the Mahabodhi Temple had ever seen cheerleaders with perms, I would know how far I’d come.
Hearing my son announce that he didn’t want to help people, I tried not to take his words literally. I tried to remember that particular teenage frustration of feeling like you are just waiting for your life to start, which it undoubtedly would if only your parents weren’t standing in the way. Even in my best moments of empathy, though, I still feel totally unequipped to relate to what it is he claims to want.
Like most kids in his generation, my son cherishes his iPhone, curates an extensive sneaker collection, and has attempted to convince me more than once that a $450 Gucci belt would bring him true and lasting happiness. Recognizing these impulses as a widespread cultural phenomenon rather than as an individual proclivity has sometimes made me feel better and sometimes made me feel worse.
The fact that my son is so clearly American probably shouldn’t come as such a surprise. But it does, a little, because of how he came to be in the first place. In early 1999, I was 23 years old and living alone in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha found enlightenment and I found myself unexpectedly pregnant. 37,000 prostrations into the traditional 111,111 required for the first of the four preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism, I had not anticipated that the concept of interdependency, which I had returned to Bodhgaya to better understand, would become so immediately literal.
Though my son’s father, who’d been living outside Darjeeling, and I returned to the States in my second trimester, we went back to India when our baby was a year old, living again in both Bodhgaya and the foothills of the Himalayas. When our son was 5, his father and I separated, and yet we continued to share our Buddhist faith, including regular trips back to India, sometimes all together. Even when things were hard, I trusted that we were maintaining what we had always wanted to provide, namely a life enriched by and grounded in spiritual practice, one for which employment was necessary but in which material wealth was not the intention. As a little kid, besides sitting in the back of many a lhakhang [shrine room], my son went swimming in the Ganges, played soccer with young Tibetan monks, and read comic books during themonlam [prayer gathering]. I knew that children were not outcomes to be predetermined, but I was still hoping that his experiences abroad would nurture both a sense of possibility in the world and responsibility for it. And an awareness, however subtle, that American consumerism was not the only path.
Since contracting a serious case of typhoid in Nepal the year he was 8, my son has not returned to the subcontinent. But our day-to-day lives in New York City remain, at least according to him, sufficiently “weird.” His father now runs his own dharma center in Brooklyn, and I have continued with my studies. What he doesn’t know, though, is how much I rely on practice, in a very moment-to-moment way, to help me respond to him and to the bewildering teenage landscape he inhabits. The fundamentals of Buddhism often feel like all I have. Gripped by anxiety that his future may be spent in pursuit of expensive accessories, I remind myself to generate lovingkindness for him instead. Driven to rage by his often lackadaisical attitude toward homework, I try invoking Shantideva’s emphasis on the power of patience. I cannot claim any surefire antidotes, and the last time he walked in the door with a hickey I was certainly not a vision of stoic acceptance, but I do try.
This summer, my son ended up getting a job at a park in lower Manhattan that consisted essentially of picking up garbage and pulling weeds. But like all teenagers employed for the first time, he was also taking in so much more. Lying on the couch after his first day, he said, “Do you know what really drives me crazy?”
“What?” I asked, assuming he was about to complain about having a job for which he actually had to work.
“All these Wall Street guys with their briefcases, who you know have so much money, were just stepping over this homeless man by the train, totally ignoring him.” I looked up from setting the table and asked him what he did.
“I gave him five dollars,” he said. Biting my lip, I forced myself not to say, “I told you so.” Not to point out that he had become the type of person to help someone after all. That maybe he had been that person all along.
“I’m proud of you,” I said. But he’d already turned his attention back to his iPhone, scanning for sneakers he could buy with his first paycheck.
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