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Vinnie Ferraro: Things I want my granddaughter to know

  • llustrations by Andy Castillo

  • Emilia and her Gramps, September 2018

  • Illustration by Andy Castillo. Andy Castillo

  • Illustration by Andy Castillo. Andy Castillo



For the Gazette
Friday, September 14, 2018

Vinnie Ferraro has spent decades studying the history of world conflicts as the Ruth Lawson Professor or International Politics at Mount Holyoke, and teaching students what it means to be thinkers, writers and true believers. Last year, he also became a grandfather to a 14-month-old named Emilia. We asked him to share, in essence, The Important Stuff.

My Dearest Emilia,

You have finished the first year of your adventure and I am beginning my 69th. To crystallize this magical point in time, I thought I would write a letter to help you avoid the missteps and detours that made my own path at times a little strange and bewildering.  You will, of course, make your own mistakes. But, like me, you will recover from them.

I have had a wonderful life and my friendships are a big part of that good fortune. It is difficult to have more than a few good friends since deep friendship requires a lot of time and effort. A good friend will listen to you talking stupid, will tell you when you are doing something stupid, and will have your back after you do something stupid. My friends once challenged me to eat a whole tablespoon of Chinese mustard. I quickly accepted, to the profound regret of my sinuses. We went snow sledding in the nude in the sub-zero temperatures of a Maine winter's night, just to prove our invulnerability. Choose your friends wisely — make sure that they accept you for who you are and not for what they want you to be. Make sure that they will bring out the person you didn't know you were but will be delighted to find.

One of my dearest friends developed an incurable disease and I worked hard to make her last few months comfortable and peaceful, knowing with complete certainty that if our situations were reversed, she would do the same for me. I tried desperately to encourage another dear friend who had lost sight of the joys of living and will forever regret that my efforts could not restore his hope for a better future.

But I have had the great joy of growing older with Granny and having her by my side for most of my life. I am incredibly proud of your father and your uncle who have grown into very good men. They care for the welfare of others and conduct themselves with the greatest integrity and dignity. I have basked in the accomplishments of the children of my friends, who have served the public good as nurses, actresses, Marine Corps officers, lawyers, and journalists.

In short, if there is always a calm before the storm, then whenever a storm comes, know that a calm will follow.

Work complements one's friendships and has been an important component of my good life. My first summer job was working for the Sewer Division in my town's Public Works Department. Many considered the job undesirable, and that judgment had some basis in fact. What I found most interesting, however, is that many people who asked for help when their sewer connections were blocked considered me and my co-workers undesirable as well. They often asked us to go to the back door, presumably because they didn't want their neighbors to know that they pooped.

I worked with men who had little education and who were not highly respected by many whom they served. They taught me many things. I learned that they were as good and as flawed as every other group of people. I learned that they would work very hard if their work was appreciated (the offer of a glass of lemonade on a hot day was all that was necessary). And I learned, as I worked hard to dig a ditch that was deep, wide, and straight, and could safely accommodate a sewer line, that all work was noble.

I knew that the work we were doing was essential to modern civilization. I still ponder why those who protect us against dysentery, cholera and other water-borne illnesses get the lowest end of the pay scale. And why teachers, who shape our children's futures, are not richly rewarded. Or why nurses, who ease our suffering, receive so little for their demanding and complex work.

In my later life, I reveled in the glorious profession of teaching. When deciding what to do when I grew up (an event that, fortunately, has yet to occur) I decided to choose a profession which I thought would bring out my strengths and ignore my weaknesses.

Many choose their life's work for extraneous reasons: prestige, money, pressure from others, or a misguided belief that the importance of the work required their presence. Choose the work that will bring out the best in you and will make your heart soar when you are doing it.

I hope that at some point we can walk hand in hand through my garden and talk about the joy that comes from nature and how important it is to respect it. I am overjoyed that your middle name is Rose since those are among my favorite flowers. Roses need attention to thrive in Massachusetts, but they do not need to be told what they are to be beautiful: they just are. Perhaps you will be a Rose, but you could be a Dahlia, or a Lobelia, or a Fern. But you will be beautiful only if you allow yourself to just be.

Nature teaches other things. For years I wondered about the first lunatic to eat an artichoke. Who in their right mind would attempt to eat one? So, I decided to grow artichokes, and was blindsided by the complexity of the plant. Knowing how it grew did not really answer my question, but it taught me that the question was impertinent. I still reserve the right to reject some of nature's gifts: Lima beans will always taste like biting a sweater, and beets will never touch my lips. Nature offers us everything but is truly indifferent to what we think is tasty or beautiful. But you will figure out all that yourself.

If one wants to understand nature and people, one needs to know how to listen carefully. You are doing precisely that right now as you try to figure out what the universe is. You are listening in the right ways: You are not only hearing, but also tasting, touching, and seeing — listening to the myriad ways the world speaks to us. In time you will master speaking. But listening carefully is the only way to understand what is true. And listening well is the only way to speak responsively and intelligently.

Most people now have lost the skill of listening; they are too eager to speak. Speaking is important, but it is more important to have something of substance to say. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that the ability to command an audience is a measure of one's significance. There are too many cheap and vulgar ways to command an audience. True mastery of substance, whether it be of a skill or an idea, will create a meaningful and worthy audience. But the mastery, not the crowd, should be your goal.

I think one of the most important things in life is to laugh as much possible. I confess that, as of late, it is sometimes difficult for me to find humor in the world. I am not alone in this respect: I believe that far too many have lost a sense of humor, largely because the world seems too complicated and dominated by uncontrollable forces. That perspective, however, misconstrues the true source of joy.

Happiness and joy lie inside of us, not in the external world. To think that one can only be happy if the external conditions are ripe leads only to disappointment. Guffaws require but a flimsy excuse to escape and embracing the absurd is the most fertile environment for laughter. So, when the world seems a little gloomy, just tilt your head a little bit and see the world slightly askew. I will work harder to follow my own advice.

The pervasive feeling of not having control not only makes us gloomy, it is also an insidious trap. It leads some to pursue power over others in a mistaken attempt to lessen their own insecurities and fears. If one really wants to reduce anxieties about living in an uncertain world, then the only strategy is to pursue power over oneself. Learn the difference between what you need from what you want. I think that you will find that we need very little. Indeed, the more one has, the more cluttered one’s life and mind become. More importantly, mastering oneself is the only true way to avoid becoming a hostage to the world. Never try to control the world; control how to confront what the world throws at you.

Finally, I think the most important thing I have learned is that no one will ever respect you unless you respect them first. Never question the moral worth of anyone — without exception. We can question behaviors, but never anyone’s intrinsic humanity. I think you will find that if you take this notion to heart, then you will be significantly happier than most other people. And being happy with one’s life is the only thing that really matters in this hard but glorious thing we call life.

Dearest Emilia, my most fervent hope is that if I am extremely lucky, you and I will discuss this letter as we walk through the garden. If that is not possible, then perhaps I can read it to you while you are sitting on my knee, and you can at least hear my voice with its intonations and inflections even though you may not understand the words. Fortunately, we have little control over the timing of our departure from this life. But know one thing when you read this: Your Gramps loved you with a ferocity that he found difficult to fathom but that also made him supremely happy to have walked upon this good earth.

— Gramps

Vinnie Ferraro is the Ruth Lawson Professor or International Politics, Emeritus, at Mount Holyoke College and Five College Affiliated Faculty at the University of Massachusetts.