Once my ten-year old son and I were in the grocery store, and we witnessed a crime. A man stood over the mounds of grapes, plucking and tasting one after another from different bunches. “What right,” I hissed to my son, “does he have to eat grapes? What if everynone did that!” I ranted all the way home, so much so that “the man who ate the grapes” became one of those family phrases that can bring a chuckle decades later.
Where did that outrage come from? Like many passions it came from childhood. When I was in grade school, my mother was a graduate student in philosophy, and I learned from her about the categorical imperative. What I grasped at that impressionable age was that if you are thinking about doing something, you should imagine that everyone around you, even everyone on earth, will do the same thing. Because if you have the right to do it, then, of course, so does everyone else. I immediately saw that I should not throw my gum wrapper out the car window. If everyone did that the air would be thick, the ground covered, with foil and paper. And, if everyone acted like the man who ate the grapes, we would be left with a pile of stems, right?
Another passion that has guided my choices as an adult came from my father. From him I gained a deep appreciation for the democratic process. He was an enthusiastic, if not always successful, politician in my early years. He loved the race and was passionate about his underdog causes. I learned from him the joys of participating in the system, imperfect as it may be. The concept of democracy, where ideally each person has an equal voice, moves me deeply; I confess to even tearing up in the voting booth when I think about it. If we all took each vote that seriously, thinking about our needs, the needs of others, the greater good — and the categorical imperative — wow, it could be an amazing world!
Now I find myself all grown up, a professional mediator, and I see that these values instilled by my parents are core to what I do and why. My cases are complex conflicts over the use of natural resources and protection of the environment. My first and most important job is to get the right people at the table to find a solution. I am insistent that every interest with a stake in the outcome be represented. Each of those voices has a right to participate, to have a say in that ultimate solution. Of course it would be easier in many cases if the troublemakers, the obstructionists or the little guys were left out. Then the powerful players could cut a deal “on behalf of everyone.” But that strategy offends me deeply. To resolve the most difficult conflicts we face requires us all to take part, get educated, speak up and above all to listen to other voices. To approach these problems like the self-absorbed man who ate the grapes will not do.
I welcome your thoughts and stories about the origins of your passions and values. And by the way, you can still be my friend if you have sampled grapes at the grocery store. I am working on my tolerance.
12 thoughts on “The Man Who Ate the Grapes”
Great posting. Love the idea of a young Seattle girl taking on the categorical imperative as a moral code.
Thanks, Jamie. Somehow for children it’s not intimidating to face the big moral questions, is it?
Lucy, how did I not know that you grew up in Seattle?
It’s not written all over me? I guess not after all these years in the southwest.
Given my Berkeley 60’s history, it isn’t surprising that the title of this piece made me think it would be about the grape boycott, triggering a memory of my then 4 year old daughter who loved grapes and had a hard time suppressing the urge to take one whenever she saw a bunch. On one occasion we were looking at houses that were for sale in Orinda, and Catherine had disappeared. I found her in the dining room trying to pull a grape off of the plastic bunch of grapes on the dining room table!
Thanks, Ken. Yes, I could write a whole other post on the absolutely deliciousness of grapes!
Lucy, I suspect you’ve always been attuned and open to yourself in relation to everything around you. How do we capture the attention and enthusiasm of young citizens of our currently dysfunctional country? You’ve been such a supreme role model for this family. Do you have any optimistic thoughts about how to help our young citizens realize that their involvement is needed to deal with the crucial issues of our time? Jane
That’s the question, isn’t it? Of course I don’t have the answer, but what comes to mind is that inside small children lives a passion for fairness and an inherent knowledge of right and wrong. And if we can respect that and nurture it we may grow good citizens. I think of my 7 year old grandson and how attuned he is to these questions of morality, and how easily he can be inspired. On a recent visit, he said to me “Grandma! Did you ever hear of Martin Luther King?” “Yes,” I said, “Do you know who he was?” “He was a great man. He fought for justice,” and he added with great emphasis, “and he didn’t give up!” That came from a second grade teacher in a Seattle public school. It gave me real hope.
I will have to admit I have been known to sample a grape or two myself. But if it is a good bunch, I buy the grapes. How else are you going to know if they are sour or not.
ahhh…many excuses for committing a crime. You can still be my friend.
Hi Lucy – about the grape man… a divergence. There is famous story by Jean Giorno (1953) ‘The Man Who Planted Trees.’ (Wikipedia has good synopsis). Instead of taking a grape or two from the supermarket, and I do entirely understand your irritation there, this man starts to reforest a desolate valley in France, one acorn at a time. His efforts come to fruit. My father did something similar. While living in Corofin, Co. Clare in Ireland, he planted thousands of daffodill bulbs along the river bank in the late 1980’s. I have never seen them in bloom, but I understand it is a sight to see, nearly thirty years later.
A wonderful antidote to the man who ate the grapes, and so much more powerful. Thanks, Myv, and what a nice legacy from your dad.