In 1922, Hermann Hesse wrote a book that captivated a changing world. He told the tale of Siddhartha, a boy who embarked on a perilous journey to discover existential truth, and ultimately, himself. The risk involved in this young boy’s adventure created a powerful story, not only because of the danger which accompanied his physical isolation but also because of the existential uncertainty, and thus dread, which resulted from Siddhartha’s inner ideological vacuum; he was, in essence, the epitome of the modern-day scientist.
His story ended with a fulfillment of his quest, as he found his truth, not in some philosophical doctrine, but in a river’s voice; it contained, he believed, substantial existential truths, which remained inaccessible to the human intellect. And most who’ve read this book focused on its mystical meaning, neglecting the practical, familial, relationships which it chronicled.
Almost a century after its release, the existential philosopher, William Irwin, wrote a sequel entitled Little Siddhartha, which followed the lives of Siddhartha’s son and grandson in their own quests for fulfillment. The two men could not have been more different from one another, as one was a raging narcissist, and the other was a timid, and kindhearted, empath. Their journeys represented the proverbial fork in the road which vividly presents itself to each of us: faced with it, we can either choose greed and its hedonistic pleasures, or love and its resultant sense of community and warmth.
Irwin’s novel highlighted this existential decision in the context of a relationship between a father and his son. And, rather than focusing on some mystical, and incomprehensible, message about a distant metaphysical reality, William focused on the significance of differing value systems in parent-child relationships, which spoke to me. I read his book as a way to try to understand my own relationships, or lack thereof, with my father and my stepfather. And what I discovered was its most important message, that of empathy. So, through it, I was able to reconcile my anger toward both men and toward myself for, seemingly, not being enough for either one with an understanding of their predicaments and their own ailments.
In the book, Siddhartha (Siddhartha’s son, who was his namesake) assaults his son, believing it to be for his own good, as plenty of narcissistic fathers have done and will continue to do. And while horrifying the reader, one also gets a sense of Rahula’s (Siddhartha’s son) level of maturity. That moment, while difficult to process, helped me reframe my own relationships with my fathers in a different light; I discontinued seeing myself as the victim, because I realized that they were the damaged ones.
The book’s message was simple, yet profound: to understand all is to forgive all. Rahula searched for peace, while I search for a father, or at least an understanding of my rejection; both of us found what we were looking for. Irwin’s book had a significant impact on my outlook, and while I can’t change my relationships with my fathers, it’s led me to the understanding necessary for a better one with my child, if I were to choose to have one someday.
William Irwin showed us the extraordinary effect of empathy and forgiveness, which engenders the change we wish to create in the world. While trauma tends to breed further trauma, we’re the only ones who can stop the violence. And to do so, we must begin with ourselves. So, empathy isn’t meant for the abuser. It’s for us and the latent world that eagerly awaits; that was William’s great metaphysical lesson. He wanted us to remember that our traumas weren’t our fault, but that, through compassion, a better world was possible and, I would add, our responsibility to create.