How My Grandfather Sees the World

Pirsig's photo during his "Zen" Trip


For a long time, I didn’t fully understand my grandfather, and was even a little bit uncomfortable around him. I remember having lots of fun with him when I was young, but once I hit my later teenage years, I suddenly felt like there was some unspoken expectation that I was supposed to learn things from him. Any time I would visit him, he would ask my car and want to look at it and work on it  with me. He could listen to it running and almost make a full diagnosis, and of course, I had no idea what he could be hearing that was any different than other time. I also clearly remember a time when he saw the way my foot turned out a little when I was walking, and knew I needed a chiropractic adjustment.

For some reason I couldn’t fully identify or articulate, these things bothered me. I think a large part of that can be written off to being a teenager. For me, things were just supposed to work, and it didn’t matter if it was a car or my own body. When I first started driving it blew my mind that you had to change the oil on a car every few months. So, being around him, and having him constantly pointed out things that needed to be worked on was on some level very stressful.

This led me to wonder exactly how it was he sees the world and the things around him. I knew it had to be entirely different than the way I was seeing them. I couldn’t look at the way someone walked or listen to a car engine and just know things about them. Initially, this seemed horrible to me – everywhere he looked he must just see problems and things breaking and disaster waiting to happen. It was, I truly believed, a very pessimistic way of seeing the world.

It is only now that I’m truly beginning to understand how it is that he must see the world. Owning a house that was damaged during Hurricane Katrina really began to shift my perspective. My father and I did most of the repair work together and I learned so much about home maintenance and repair. And this has translated to every aspect of my life. I’ve become more motivated to try to understand how things work and be prepared to repair them myself. Not only am I slowly becoming able to actually see what the problems with things are, but I can also see the quality of the work that has been put into many projects. In my current home, for example, I can tell that the craftsmanship in the older part of the house is of a much higher quality than the newer addition that was built later.

This was something I literally would not have been able to see in the past.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve realized is that being able to see this isn’t pessimistic. Almost always, observations are of the nature that something needs to be improved. It’s a constant seeking for how to make things better. The more I understand about the world, the more I understand about how I can make it better. Although I think I am still a long way from where my grandfather is, I am proud to be moving down a path that will allow me to see the world a little more like he does. And the last time I had a problem with one of my vehicles, he, my father, and I all worked on it together, and it was actually fun and educational rather than intimidating or bothersome. Taking care an appreciation for things in the world can almost be therapeutic, and this makes me think back to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is one of the books I read in my introduction to philosophy class that really got me falling in love with wisdom, so to speak. And it is perhaps a large part of the reason I have my own motorcycle now that I’m learning to maintain. The author, Pirsig, focuses on seeing the quality around us, and I think that in a way, we’re talking about the same thing.


Philosophically, this makes me think about the way we know things, our epistemology.

Most of the time, knowledge gets defined as a justified true belief. In other words, if you believe something, have a good justification for why you believe it, and it is true, then you can say you have knowledge.

However, I believe there is a lot more to the story.

My grandfather may come visit my house and tell me that the new addition is constructed with poor craftsmanship compared to the older section. I would have a true belief justified by his expert testimony, and many philosophers would call that knowledge, and not distinguish between the knowledge my grandfather has and the knowledge I have – even if I can’t see why the craftsmanship is poorer!

For me, being able to understand for oneself why something is true of false is an extremely valuable and important part of knowledge. It is, I believe, quite literally seeing the world in a different way. Unfortunately, I think our society much too often focuses on what I call “trivia” knowledge. What matters is that you know something, not how you know something. Although the “that” is important, I believe that ultimately, in the long run, the “how” is even more important, and that we as a society need to refocus on that “how.”

In education, we need to stop focusing on memorization and instead promote true understanding.

In our own lives, we need to slow down a little bit. We’re all busy, and there are plenty of people we can hire to do every little task for us, but I believe that there is a true value in being able to do things for oneself when it’s possible. Doing this allows us to gain knowledge and start to understand quality, not just in the thing we’re working on at the moment, but in all the things around us. We are a culture of abundance, but most of this abundance is junk. What’s truly important to our happiness is surrounding ourselves with things of quality, whether it’s a well made desk or a quality friend. But we have to be able to see that quality if we’re going to surround ourselves with it.

Really, I just want to see the world a little bit more like my grandfather does.


If you’re interested in this idea of quality, check out Zen:


My own motorcycle trip across the country


You may also like: