A mother brought her young son to Mahatma Gandhi. Please, Gandhiji, she begged. My son eats so much sugar. I cannot get him to stop. Please, tell my son to stop eating sugar. Gandhi nodded. The truly wise ones usually take a substantial pause before responding to go within for a reality check.
Then he said: OK, come back in a month. And that was a solution? Because you have to listen to what you’re told when you ask Gandhi for advice, or so I imagine—it’s not like asking a question on a forum on Yahoo groups—the mother left with her son, a bit baffled.
One month later she dragged him back in. There was powdered sugar on the boy’s chin, frosting on the sleeve of his shirt, and chocolate stain near his belly button. Clearly her techniques were ineffective—the boy was wearing his rebuff as a military decoration. She stood the boy in front of Gandhi’s chair. Gandhiji, she said, desperately. I brought my son back, just like you told me to. Please tell him to stop eating so much sugar.
Gandhi brought his eyes to the level of the boy’s. My son, he said, you must stop eating sugar. It is not good for the body. The boy nodded, with pre-adolescent confidence, as if this had always been the plan. When he straightened up, the mother looked even more perplexed. Thank you, Gandhiji, she said. But why could you not have told him this last month?
Ah, Gandhi replied, the single syllable of kindness. Because one month ago, I myself was still eating sugar.
Whether “true” or not, I love this story. Gandhi refuses to be a hypocrite—not even about a matter so small and commonplace that his double-standard might never be discovered. He would only advise the boy what he himself was able to pull off.
Likely for most of your life people have been telling you what to do. Me too. This seems to be “other people’s” mass employment. And maybe you or I have been in a position to tell some other squirt what to do—and we went for it.
But how often, really, are we doing ourselves what we advise? The people who insist Practice what you preach are usually, in reality, the last ones in line to do so. We can become so busy preaching about consistency that when it comes time to live by our values (hunh?), our voices are so worn out we have to gargle with salt water rather than, say, speak up for the under-represented.
For example, I’m really, really good at encouraging people to take care of themselves—I earn my living this way, and I make a lot of sense. But it’s not so rare that I, too, let my stress become a wild animal in the china-shop of my mind. The valuables come crashing off the shelf. Be kind, utterly gentle to yourself, I say, with an axe hanging on frayed dental floss over my “To Do” (or “To Didn’t”) list.
What do you dish out that you can’t quite take to heart?
Gandhi’s wisdom is the truly ballsy kind. That’s what I aspire to, and what most of us often fall short of. What would you advise next, if you really had to live it? If in order to get that boy to wipe the sugar off his chin, for the sake of his life, yours had to be just as clean?
The world already has enough hypocrites. At Essay Intensive, we aspire to go straight to the heart of integrity, speak it, live it and make it the engine of our writing.
How will we know when we have gotten there?