October 31, 2011

The best way to help each other (what my Nana taught me)

Fiona writes: When I was a teenager, I was shopping in a supermarket with my Nana.

I’d picked something up (let’s say it was a nice packet of biscuits), and several aisles later I saw some nicer biscuits (like these) and swapped them. I put the old packet down on the new shelf, where it didn’t belong.

Without saying anything, my Nana took the old packet of biscuits back to where they belonged.

Internally, I scoffed at her. I couldn’t understand it. That’s what they employed the shelf-stackers for! Why would she go out of her way when someone else was being paid to fetch and carry?

Twenty years later, I understand. She took the biscuits back because it was the right thing to do.

As my life goes on, I’m less and less convinced that we can ever ‘tell’ anyone else how to be a better person, or how to make better choices.

First of all, who knows if we’ve got it right anyway? Who are we to know how someone else should be living their life? (Or our own, for that matter.)

And secondly, people often behave in a certain way through necessity. How can we know why they are clinging to their old behaviours? ‘Mean’ people may be terrified of not having enough. ‘Lazy’ people might be truly exhausted.

If at the time my Nana had said to me, ‘You lazy child, you should take the biscuits back to where you found them’, I wouldn’t have got it. I would only have heard the ‘ought’. When I look back now, I see that she was modelling a good way to be. Not because she wanted to teach me a lesson, or because she felt she ought to take the biscuits back. It was natural to her – it was simply the right thing to do.

Maybe the best way to help each other is to focus on ourselves. If we can try and be our best version of ourselves, maybe one day we might help someone else to find their own better selves.

Our choices have consequences beyond our imagination. How could my Nana know that I’d be writing this blog post about her small action, twenty years on?


Vetch, Meadowsweet, Celandine

She was talking about
her Zen teacher, Katagiri.
She said it can be twenty years
before you understand.

When mum pulled my best
dress from the wardrobe
on an ordinary day,
I didn’t know she was saying
nothing lasts. Enjoy it
while you can.

And when dad told me
I gobbled books too fast
and tested me afterwards
he wasn’t telling me off
but urging me to taste things
properly. A skimmed book
is a waste of time, and time
runs out.

They dragged me on long walks,
tried to teach me the names
of wildflowers, birds, I didn’t
realise they were showing me
a new way of looking, a way
of loving the world.

Everything goes in.
Twenty years later, more,
I want to say: your words
have now borne fruit. I understand.

Fiona Robyn


‘Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ Plato.

‘When we see a woman walk along the street, how do we know she is not some brave agoraphobe flinching from the brutal sky?’ Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall.

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