An enlightened grandfather

I am going personal in my writing, or at least in the piece of writing which follows. It is because I am going through an important change in my life. I mean, I am going through another important change in my life, and, as it is just one more twist among many, I already know a few things about change. I know that when I write about it, I can handle it better as compared to a situation, when I just try to shelf it somewhere in my head and write about something else. The something else I technically should be writing about is science, and here comes the next issue: science and life. I believe science is useful, and it is useful when I have the courage to implement it in real life. I am a social scientist. Changes in my life are social changes in microscale: it is all about me being connected in a certain way to other people. I can wrap my mind around my existential changes both honestly, as a person, and scientifically, as that peculiar mix of a curious ape, a happy bulldog living in the moment, and an austere monk equipped with an Ockham’s razor to cut bullshit out.

The change I am going through is about me and my son. Junior, age (almost) 25, has just left Poland, for Nice, France, to start a new job. In Poland, he was leaving with us, his parents. High time to leave, you would say. Yes, you’re right. I think the same. Still, here is the story. Every story needs proper characters, and thus I am going to name my son. His name is Mikołaj, or Nicolas, from the point of view of non-Slavic folks. Mikołaj used to study computer science and live with us, his parents, until Summer 2019. Steam was building up. As you can easily guess, Mikołaj was 23 in 2019. When a guy in his early twenties lives with his parents, friction starts. His nervous system is already calibrated on social expansion, sex, procreation and generally on thrusting himself into life head-first. None of these things matches with a guy living with his parents. In Summer 2019, Mikołaj left home for one year, and went on an Erasmus+ academic exchange to Nice, France, where, by a strange chain of coincidences, as well as by a lot of his own wit and grit he completed a graduated, at the Sophia Antipolis University, a separate Master’s program of studies. A nice prospect for professional career in France was sketching itself, with a job with the same company where Mikołaj had been doing his internship with.

When Mikołaj was away, we spent hundreds of hours on the phone. I swear, it was him more than I. We just git that vibe on the phone which we seldom could hit when talking face to face. I had been having those distance conversations with a guy who was turning, at a turbo speed, from an over-age teenager into an adult. I was talking to a guy who learnt to cook, who was keeping his apartment clean and tidy, who was open to talk about his mistakes and calmly pointed out at my mistakes. It was cool.

The pandemic changed a lot. The nice professional prospect faded away, as the company in question is specialized in IT services for hotels, airports and airlines, which is not really a tail wind right now. Mikołaj came back home on October 1st, 2020, with the purpose of completing the Polish Master’s program – which he initially started the whole Erasmus adventure with – and another purpose of finding a job. His plan was to wrap it all up – graduation and job seeking – in about 3 months. As plans like doing, this one went sideways, and what was supposed to take three months took a bit more than six. During those 6 months which Mikołaj spent with us, in Poland, both we and him had the impression of having gone back in time, in a weirdly painful and unpleasant way. Mikołaj went back to being the overgrown teenager he had been before leaving for the Erasmus exchange. Our cohabitation was a bit tense. Still, things can change for the better. Around Christmas, they started to. As I was coaching and supporting Mikołaj with his job seeking, we sort of started working together, as if it was a project we would run as a team. It was cool.

Yesterday, on April 10th, 2021, early in the morning, Mikołaj left again, to start a job he found, once again in Nice, France. Splitting up was both painful and liberating. Me and my wife experienced – and still are experiencing – the syndrome of empty nest which, interestingly, rhymes with emptiness. This is precisely what I am trying to wrap my mind around in order to produce some useful, almost new wisdom. As Mikołaj called us from Nice, yesterday in the evening, he said openly he experienced the same. Still, things can change for the better. When I heard Mikołaj’s voice on the phone, yesterday, I knew he is an adult again, and happy again. I wonder what I will cook for lunch, tomorrow, he said. In his voice, he had that peculiar vibe I know from his last stay in Nice. That ‘I am lost as f**k and happy as f**k, and I am kicking ass’ vibe. It was cool.

I am still in the process of realizing that my son is happier and stronger when being away from me than what he used to be when being close to me. It is painful, liberating, and I think it is necessary. Here comes the science. Those last years, I almost obsessively do research about the social role of social roles. What is my social role, after I have realized that from now on, being a father for my son is going to be a whole lot different? First of all, I think that my social role is partly given by external circumstances, and partly created by myself as I respond to those external stimuli. I have the freedom of shaping some part of my social role. Which part exactly? As I look at it from inside, I guess the only way to know it is to try, over and over again. I am trying, over and over again, to be the best possible version of myself. Doesn’t everybody try the same, by the way? Basing on my own life experience, I can cautiously say: ‘No’. Not everybody, or at least not always. I know I haven’t always tried to be the best version of myself. I know I am trying now because I know it has paid me off over the last 6 years or so. This is the window in time when I really started to work purposefully on being the best human I can, and I can tell you, there was a lot to do. I was 46 at the time (now, I am 53).

A bit late for starting personal development, you could say. Well, yes and no. Yes, it is late. Still, there is science behind it. During the reproductive age bracket, i.e. roughly between the age of 20 and that of 45÷50, young men are driven mostly by their sexual instinct, because that instinct is overwhelming and we have the capacity to translate it into elaborate patterns of social behaviour. Long story short, between 20 and 50, we build a position in the social hierarchy. This is how sexual instinct civilizes itself. In their late 40ies, most males start experiencing a noticeable folding down in their levels of testosterone, and the strength of sexual drive follows in step. All the motivation based on it is sort of crumbling down, too. This is what we call mid-life crisis, or, in Polish, the Faun’s afternoon.

I remember a conversation I had with a data scientist specialized in Artificial Intelligence. She told me there are AI-based simulations of the human genome, which demonstrate that said genome is programmed to work until we are 50. Anything after that is culture-based. Our culture takes a lot of pains to raise and educate young humans during the first two decades of their lives. Someone has to take care of that secondary socialization, and the most logical way of assigning that role is to take someone who is post-reproductive as a person. This is how grandparents are made by culture.

As I am meditating about the best possible version of myself, right now, this is precisely what comes to my mind. I can be and I think I want to be an enlightened grandfather. There is a bit of a problem, here, ‘cause my son has no kids for the moment. It is hard to be an actual grandfather in the absence of grandchildren, and this is why I said I want to be an enlightened one. I mean that I take the essence of the social role that a grandfather plays in society, and I try to coin it up into a mission statement.  

A good grandfather should provide wisdom. It means I need to have wisdom, and I need to communicate it intelligibly. How do I know I have wisdom? I think there are two components to that. I need to be aware of and accountable for my own mistakes. I need to work through my personal story with as much objectivism as I can, for one. How can I be objective about myself? Here is a little trick. As I live and make mistakes, I learn to observe other people’s response to my own f**k-ups. I learn there is a different, external perspective on my own actions, and with a bit of effort I can reconstruct that external perspective. I can make good, almost new wisdom about myself by combining thorough introspection of my personal experience with that intersubjective reading of my actions.   

There is more to wisdom than just my personal story. I need to collect information about my cultural surroundings, and aggregate it into intelligible a narrative, and I need to do it in the same spirit of critical observation, with curiosity, love and cold objectivism, all in one. I need to be like a local server in a digital network, with enough content stored on my hard drive, and enough efficiency in retrieving that content to be a valuable node in the system.

A good grandfather should support others and accept to act in the backstage. This is what I have been experiencing since I got that job of fundraising and coordination of research projects in my home university. I take surprisingly great a pleasure in supporting other people’s work and research. I remember that 10 years ago I would approach things differently. I would take care, most of all, about putting myself in the centre and at the top of collective projects. Now, I take pleasure in outcomes more than in my own position within those outcomes.   

Now, by antithesis, what a good grandfather shouldn’t be? I think the kind of big existential mistake I could make now would be to become a burden for other people, especially for my son. How can I make such a mistake? It is simple, I observed it in my own father. I convince myself that all good things in life are over for me, because the falling level of testosterone leaves a gaping hole in my emotional structure. I stop taking care of myself, I let myself sink into depression and cynicism, and Bob’s my uncle: I have become a burden for others. Really simple. Don’t try it at home, even under the supervision of qualified professionals.

That brings me to still another positive aspect of being a good grandfather: grit. For me, grit is something that has the chance to supplant fear and anger, under favourable circumstances. When I was young, and even when I was a mature adult, I did not really know how to fight and stand up against existential adversities. It is mostly by observing other people – who developed that skill – that I progressively learnt some of it. Grit is the emotional counterpart of resilience, and I think that conscious, purposeful resilience requires the perspective of time. I need to know, by experience, how that really crazy kind of s**t unfolds over years, in human existence, in order to develop cognitive and emotional structures for coping with it.  

Summing up, an enlightened grandfather is a critical teller of his own story, a good source of knowledge about the general story of his culture, and a supportive mentor for other people. An enlightened grandfather takes care of his body and his mind, to stay healthy, strong and happy as long as possible. An enlightened grandfather keeps himself sharp enough to help those youngsters keep their s**together when things go south. This is my personal mission statement. This is who I want to be over the 20 – 25 years to come, which is what I reasonably expect to be the time I have left for being any good in this world. What next? Well, next, it is time to say goodbye.   

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