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When I was in college one of my favorite texts to quote from was:

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. Whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Laugh at the stupidities of the world or weep over them, you will regret it either way. Whether you laugh at the stupidities of the world or you weep over them, you will regret it either way. Trust a girl, and you will regret it. Do not trust her, and you will also regret it. … Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. Whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life. (Soren Kirkegaard, Either/Or)

Several years after graduation I added this line from the movie Kundun, where a young Dalai Lama is being tested by his elders and says the following regarding suffering:

When one understands that he causes some of his own suffering, needlessly, then he looks for the causes in his own life. And when he looks for those causes, when he investigates, then he is putting confidence in his own ability to eliminate the sources and end the suffering. A wish to find a path to peace arises. For all beings desire happiness. All wish to find their purest selves. (Melissa Mathison, Kundun)

In searching for the quote from Kundun, I came across a quote on the same subject from the real 14th Dalai Lama, whose life the movie is based on:

Although external matter may act as a cause for our experience of pain and pleasure, the principal cause that determines whether we experience happiness or suffering lies within. This is the reason why, when Buddha identified the origin of suffering, he pointed within and not outside, because he knew that the principal causes of our suffering are our own negative emotions and the actions they drive us to do.

The longer I live, the more regrets I compile. In the last decade, my biggest regret is that I didn’t pay more attention to my grandmother. Looking back, the closer she tried to get, the harder I would push her away. I don’t know why. It was thoughtless. In fact, I didn’t reach out until it was too late. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after my eldest son was born. She died just before his first birthday.

I regret I didn’t mourn her passing more. In fact, I was relieved when she died. My wife and I snuck our son into the hospital to see her. I couldn’t tell you if she were conscious of us or not. She was breathing and every so often would release these spasmodic gasps. She was an immobile skeleton of the person she once was. My wife and I cried.

Her funeral was a blur. Still is. I don’t think about it much. I haven’t been to visit her grave since the year immediately following her death. I had a picture of her and my son hung in the hallway. I took it down to repaint the wall. I never hung the picture back up. I only really think about my grandmother when my children are sick and I wish I knew how to make this or that medicinal soup.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t pay more attention to the stories she told about her childhood. Even if I did pay attention, there was still a language barrier. I understand Cantonese but not well enough sometimes to fully understand and translate the relationships or situations she described.

NPR has this great program called, Story Corps. It is an ongoing collection of oral histories and personal stories from different people. I have heard some of the stories people tell. They are engaging in their honesty and simplicity. The idea of Story Corps itself is in itself simple and honest. I learned about oral histories when I interned at the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas (then the Chinatown History Museum) in grad school.

All I needed to do was to sit down and listen. All I had to do was to press “Play.” I didn’t even need a tape cassette. Before my grandmother passed, they had invented a digital recorder that could easily download what it recorded onto my computer. When my son was born, I had bought an expensive digital video recorder and received from my sister a digital camera that could also record video. My grandmother was coherent to the end. I don’t like thinking about how the world looked to her the last time my wife and I visited her with our son. It was the time we cried.

I regret that all my children will know about my grandmother consists of photos that will fade and my memory that will eventually fade too.

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  1. By From Ma to You* « Blog for Cranial Gunk on 06 Sep 2008 at 11:11 am

    […] life experience — all of which can contribute to a happier, healthier life.” I am one of those the author points out who asks, “I wish I’d asked my grandparents about that before […]

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