I once told my friend Arun Gandhi that I couldn't imagine sitting down to dinner every night with one of the great icons of the twentieth century. “What was it like having Mahatma Gandhi for a grandfather? How you must have been influenced growing up with a hero like that in the family,” I said to him.
“Of course, my grandfather was a hero,” he said. “But when I was a teenager, the person who ultimately set me on the path to wisdom and truth – the person who had the most profound impact – wasn't Mahatma Gandhi.
“It was John Wayne,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
Arun grew up in the South African countryside, just north of the city of Durban. Sugarcane plantations dominated the landscape. The nearest neighbors lived two miles away. Isolated as they were from city life, Arun and his two sisters jumped at every opportunity to go to town. Durban held friends, excitement, even a movie theatre. One Saturday, Arun's father, Manilal, had a conference in the city and asked his son to drive him. His dad instructed the boy to pick up the family's groceries and take the car to a garage for an oil change.
As Arun dropped off his father at the conference, he was told: “At five o'clock in the evening, I will wait for you at this intersection. Come here and pick me up and we'll go home together.”
“Fine,” said Arun, who ran his errands as quickly as possible, leaving the car at the service station. Then he headed straight for the nearest movie theatre, for a John Wayne double feature. Arun idolized John Wayne. Slight of build and soft-spoken like his father and grandfather, Arun found The Duke's deep, commanding voice and looming stature the epitome of masculinity. So engrossed was the boy in Rio Grande
that he failed to note the time. When the second movie ended, his watch read 5:30 p.m., and Arun ran all the way to the garage to fetch the family car. By the time he reached the conference center to meet his father, Arun was almost an hour late.
As he pulled up to the curb, he saw his father pacing, clearly worried for his son's safety. Now, if your teenager, who has just received his license, disappears with the car, you, too, may grow worried and anxious. But suppose your last name is Gandhi, and your family lives in exile under constant threat of death or kidnapping. Imagine how a parent might feel then. “Why are you late?” Manilal demanded.
Arun, who understood his father's anxiety and knew just how badly he'd messed up, saw a possible way out. He lied. “The car wasn't ready. I had to wait for it,” he said, not realizing that his father had called the garage nearly an hour earlier.
For a moment, his father was silent. Then he spoke, very slowly. “There must be something very wrong in the way I have brought you up that would cause you to lie to me. I've got to find out where I went wrong with you.
“And in order to do that,” he said, “I am going to walk home. I need this time to think. Go ahead and take the car.”
Nothing Arun said could change his father's mind. As dusk began to fall, the older man began his journey on foot. Home lay beyond the paved roads of the city, through a stretch of cane fields and beyond. Home was eighteen miles away.
“I couldn't leave him there and drive off,” Arun said. “So for five and a half hours, I crawled behind him with the headlights on. He walked through the sugarcane, along dirt roads. His trousers became torn and caked with mud. He would slow down when he tired, but he never stopped. And he never once looked back at me. All I could do was illuminate his path so he wouldn't stumble and fall in the dark.
“As I watched my father go through all that pain and agony for a stupid lie that I told, I decided there and then that I was never going to lie again.”
The vivid image of his father trekking through the dark and silent fields has never left Arun. “I wonder, if he had given me the conventional punishment that we give our children – you're grounded; no television for a week – would I have learned what he endeavored to teach me?
“Or would I have shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘This time I got caught. Next time I'll make sure I don't.' Most of the time, we have the latter response. People take the punishment and go on doing the same thing over and over again, because they're not really altered by the experience.”
Arun was altered. Until that time, he knew that his father loved him, but never before had he understood the true meaning of that love, the lengths to which his father would literally travel to underscore the importance of their relationship.
If our child behaves in a manner contrary to the values we have instilled, do we respond in a way that's convenient or seize an opportunity to deepen the relationship? Sometimes it feels easier to respond halfway, discouraging problems rather than encouraging greatness. Arun learned that living the truth meant something more than an absence of lying. The truth manifested in his father's willingness to pay a price in order that his son might learn. The truth also shone in the fact that Arun's father trusted his son; he trusted that Arun would in fact learn by this call to his highest nature.
As the head of the M. K. Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence, which promotes peace throughout the world, Arun has devoted his adult life to living the truth.
We, too, can live the truth through our relationships. Living in truth means practicing rigorous honesty with ourselves, God and others. Living the truth takes us beyond what I call “cash-register honesty” – that is, the kind of honesty we practice by returning the extra change the grocery store clerk accidentally hands us.
Yes, refraining from lying or cheating, and calling attention to mistakes made in our favor are important aspects of living an honest, honorable life. But there's a difference between squaring mistakes and really making truth the benchmark for our dealings with every person in our life.
Consider one of the most enduring sacred acts in our society: the oath. An oath is a pledge by which a person swears, affirms or acknowledges that he or she is bound due to religion or some other reason to perform an act faithfully and truthfully. Oaths are taken by witnesses in judicial proceedings, public officers who promise to perform their official duties faithfully, new citizens in the naturalization process and professionals such as physicians who pledge to conduct themselves according to the principles of their profession. Lying under oath is a crime. In a judicial proceeding, witnesses place their left hand on the Bible and raise their right hand, repeating the words: “I do solemnly swear that the testimony I am about to give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Living “nothing but the truth,” we practice rigorous honesty with every person we encounter, from our child to our employer to the stranger on the street. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.” He was saying that by developing a relationship with God, we learn to find our internal truth meter, our capacity to discern what is authentic. The truth we come to embody is knowing that God is greater than any challenge before us. When we grow beyond merely believing these words intellectually and let them guide our behavior, we are freed from the tyranny of fear, anxiety and worry. Some of us are so fearful that we dare not risk creativity in relationships. Our limited lives constitute a lie, because we are telling ourselves, “This is the best I can do,” when deep down we know better. We know that God has something greater in store for each of us, but we must stop holding back and start participating.
At one time or another, in the course of every relationship – with our parents, partner, children, neighbors, friends or coworkers – we're going to struggle with the truth. We will feel angry or hurt or betrayed. When those moments come, we can stop and practice deeper honesty: Am I responding out of fear or love? Do I want revenge, or do I want the relationship to prosper?
When we think fearfully, we leave God out, narrowing possibilities. We try to find the answers on our own, and on our own, we cannot. Nobody's intellect is sufficiently developed to hold all the answers. But with God, all things are possible, including overcoming whatever problem you face. Ask yourself honestly: What is the truth; what is the God thought here?
An ordained minister since 1975, Mary Manin Morrissey is the founder and senior minister of the Living Enrichment Center in Wilsonville, Oregon, which serves 4,000 people weekly. Her previous book, Building Your Field of Dreams
, was adapted for a one-hour PBS special. She has addressed the United Nations on curbing violence, worked with the Dalai Lama on interfaith dialogue, and received countless humanitarian awards.
This article is from the November/December 2005 issue of Unity Magazine
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