Empty Graves & Empty Boats

At her grandfather’s grave, Rachel Neumann’s anger erupted, but who was there to yell at in those long-buried remains?

Rachel Neumann
3 March 2014
Empty boat in water

There are as many different kinds of anger as there are waves in the ocean. When my older daughter gets angry, there is a deluge of tears. As I watch, she goes limp and sobs into the floor with the unfairness of it all. My younger daughter’s anger is a tornado of hits, kicks, and screams. She can’t be comforted, reasoned, or carried out of the storm until it has run its course. My partner’s anger is quiet and sullen, thick as the southern Mississippi air. Only a slam of the door or a fist on the table occasionally punctuates the silence. Me? I shake with a blaming, seething anger, full of my own righteousness and ready to enumerate the faults of everyone around me.

I’ve always been a blamer. Sometimes, I blame World War II for this. Our family’s survival was tenuous, the exception rather than the expectation. If almost all of our relatives hadn’t been killed, then perhaps I wouldn’t feel so alone in the world. Sometimes, I blame Western culture, capitalism, sexism, and all of the institutions that keep us separated and thinking we have to go it alone. Sometimes, I blame myself.

Growing up, I was pretty sure the world would fall apart if I didn’t check that we had food, take care of my little sister, and make sure the front door was locked. Our whole family’s survival felt like my responsibility and mine alone. Even after I left home, whenever I got overwhelmed in relationships or at work, my mind would return to this well-worn path: “Why do I, alone, have to do everything?”

Blaming is like those waves hitting the shore over and over again. It hits a contradicting reality, disintegrates, and then gathers force again.

When I was seven I went to visit extended family in La Jolla, California. Every morning we would walk to the beach, where the waves were small but restless. They would crash against the shore, retreat to gather force, and then crash again. The man I was staying with would let the waves beat against his ankles. Then, as they receded, he would say to them, “Are you mad?” drawing out the last word to make me laugh. Blaming is like those waves hitting the shore over and over again. It hits a contradicting reality, disintegrates, and then gathers force again.

There is a parable about blame first recorded by the Chinese mystic Huang Tzu more than three hundred years ago. Imagine you are in a rowboat on a lake. It is a beautiful calm day, and you are enjoying the peacefulness of the moment. But then you notice there is another boat heading straight toward you. You shout, “Look out!” and wave your arms, but the boat keeps coming. You try to steer out of the way, but it’s too late. You keep shouting, but the boat keeps coming. It rams into you, knocking you into the water. You are cold, wet, and your beautiful day—your serenity—is ruined.

“What are you doing?” you yell at the driver of the other boat. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Then you look into the other boat. It is empty.

This story helps remind me that the bumps aren’t personal. We’re all just empty boats bumping up against each other. But even knowing no one’s inside, I usually find myself peering in, looking for a culprit. People should remember to tie up their empty rowboats or, if they are tied up, to tie tighter knots.

How do I undo a lifetime of blaming habit? I’ve found there are only two effective antidotes: gratitude and co-responsibility. But gratitude is a tricky emotion. As soon as I think I’m supposed to feel it, as soon as I catch a whiff of even the slightest hint of obligation, any gratitude I might have felt is replaced immediately with resentment. So I was taken off guard when, a couple of years ago, I came across the Kataññu Sutta, a Pali teaching on gratitude. It says: “Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for a hundred years, and you were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate and urinate right there on your shoulders, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents.”

This no-excuses, go-ahead-and-pee-on-my-shoulders type of gratitude is so counterintuitive to my well-worn and boring rut of blaming that I’ve made a conscious decision to move toward it. After all, what if it didn’t matter who locked the door or made the dinner? I am here, alive, and healthy, and I could not have gotten here on my own.

Recently, when I was getting over the flu, my mother came over for dinner. In the morning, I’d set the table and prepped some food. After work, I picked up the kids, took them to an after-school class, and got groceries. When I arrived home, I tripped over my mother’s shoes. She was sitting on the couch, checking her email. Bob Marley was blaring from our stereo. Her jacket and half-eaten snacks were on the floor, and there was a trail of dirty dishes in each room. I carried in the grocery bags and started toward the kitchen.

Putting the lettuce and cucumbers away, I thought, “How like my mother, to make a mess and not help with dinner. Can’t she see how tired I am?” It was an old thought and it sounded old in my head, coming out in a croaky whine. A few months earlier, my mother and her best friend had taken my older daughter for two whole weeks. My daughter had come back thrilled, full of stories, and without a scratch. I owe my mother a huge gaping shoulder-carrying debt of gratitude. And yet my critical mind kept rattling on.

Whenever someone is blaming or praising me, or when I’m blaming or praising myself, I practice this response from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “You are partly right.” Which means that there is some truth to the story, but it’s not the whole story.

Then I put down the vegetables and I stopped. My father had arrived, and he and my mother and my partner and children were all talking at once, interrupting each other to show off various new skills and the day’s creations. If my mother weren’t so good at taking care of herself, she wouldn’t be able to be so generous or have the energy or physical ability to take my older daughter on a trip or hold my younger daughter upside down, as she was doing now. In that moment, I was flooded with gratitude. There was my loving partner and my healthy, happy children. There was the delicious dinner I was about to eat and the fact that my parents were both alive, basically well, and—though long divorced—able to easily join together for a meal. I was so thankful I could not speak. I leaned against the kitchen counter. Then my mom waltzed in. “Anyone need help making a salad?” she asked.

Blaming is neither true nor not true. It doesn’t take me even one tiny step closer to my or anyone else’s happiness or freedom. Lately, whenever someone is blaming or praising me, or when I’m blaming or praising myself, I practice this response from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “You are partly right.” “You are partly right” means that there is some truth to the story, but it’s not the whole story. I love this because it acknowledges responsibility but also acknowledges that each story has more layers than one person can possibly see.

While “fault” isn’t a particularly useful idea, “responsibility” is. We humans are intricately and necessarily connected to each other, not just for our happiness but also for our very existence. If this is the case, then it makes sense that we are responsible for what happens to each of us, both the good and the not so good.

What about the really bad things? Those are someone’s fault, right? The person who hits his small child, the slave owner, the scientists who designed the gas chambers, the person who sees violence and does nothing, aren’t they—aren’t we—to blame? If we know who is at fault, maybe we can make sure that they don’t do it again. But blame doesn’t work that way. Assigning and taking responsibility provides an opportunity to change. It gives us choice and power. Blame negates responsibility. It ends the sentence, closing off possibility.

I just came back from my first trip to Germany. Soon after I arrived in Berlin, I visited the Holocaust memorial, a central city block of rectangular concrete slabs. A tour bus stopped and a gaggle of teenagers got out, jumping on the stones, laughing and taking pictures of each other with their phones.

Next, I visited the grave of the man I used to walk with on the beach in La Jolla. A week before leaving for Germany, I’d learned that this man was really my father’s biological father, my biological grandfather. My father had lived with him for years, believing that this man was a family friend. This man never told him the truth and never acted like a father to him. He died without ever calling him “son.”

I knew none of my other grandparents and would have liked to have known I had a grandfather, especially this man I used to walk with along the beach. I was sad, but I didn’t get angry until I saw his grave.

He was buried in an old cemetery in the heart of West Berlin. The site was chosen long after his death, after his cremated ashes had been ignored in the storeroom of an East Coast funeral home for years. Even though he had been forced to leave Germany, he often went back after the war ended and still felt at home there. The graveyard was chosen in part because he had friends buried nearby.

It took me two buses, a walk, and some mangled German conversations with strangers for me to find the cemetery. It was late afternoon when I arrived, and in the fading light, I missed the posted map and couldn’t find his grave. As I walked along the gray tombstones and dark shadows from the chestnut trees, I started to feel a creeping panic. What if I couldn’t find it? What if I had to leave without ever seeing him again? If I couldn’t find his grave, I’d be left in the woods. Alone. Lost.

I was getting ready to leave when some pale light on the flat top of one of the cement stones caught my eye. Up against a wall in the far corner of the cemetery, I saw the black scrawl of his name.

Letting go of blame doesn’t mean I’m letting my grandfather “get away” with something. I’m responsible now for what secrets I continue to keep, what blame I pass on.

Anger, my familiar furious blaming anger filled me. We had so few relatives. How could this man have lived with my father and said nothing? How could he have left us there all alone? I wanted to yell at someone, to shake the tombstone until an answer fell out.

But I would have been yelling at an empty grave. My grandfather was not in there. Even the remains of his body, cremated and long buried, had been absorbed back into the earth. There was no one to yell at. There was no one there to blame, just an empty boat.

If my grandfather was anywhere at all, he was in me. We have the same nose, the same genetic material, the same tendency toward logical argument, and the same love of the ocean. I also inherited, from him as well as others, the same seeds of anxiety and fear. Letting go of blame doesn’t mean I’m letting my grandfather “get away” with something. I’m responsible now for what secrets I continue to keep, what blame I pass on.

Someone had left fresh chestnuts on the top of the grave and, amid them, a dying red rose and some polished stones. I picked up one of the smooth brown nuts. Even in the last of the light, it was gleaming, full to bursting with the seed within. I rolled it between my fingers, then returned it to the top of the stone. Evening had fully arrived and the sky was dark, the air cold. I left the cemetery empty-handed and walked lightly, but not alone.

Rachel Neumann

Rachel Neumann

Rachel Neumann is a literary agent and the director of strategy at Idea Architects. She’s the author of Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness.