As my children dive into their twenties, I often think back to my own family, with my double set of divorced and remarried parents guiding a large cohort of young adults through schools and jobs (often rotating in and out of the same bedrooms), buying a dozen bags of groceries at a time, the washing machine and dryer constantly in use. We had no idea how much it cost to provide for us the bare necessities. Eventually, the rooms began to empty out and we were launched out to the world. We repaid our parents by getting married in sets: two weddings a year over a decade.
Now our own children are starting out on that lowest rung of adulthood. And I’m the one handing over the bag of “extra potatoes that came in the veggie box.”
My husband and I look for regular opportunities to have our adult son over for dinner and a conversation. Sometimes, we talk about how to live a Baha’i life in a challenging world. One day last year he asked us for a “consultation.”
In the Baha’i Faith, consultation is not a ceremony or a procedure. It is a focused conversation on how to approach a situation or dilemma. Consultation is not problem solving, nor is it brainstorming. Rather, it is a conversation of discovery: What are the facts? What is the spiritual principle? What are practical steps to take? When Baha’i’s put together teams, committees or task forces, they use the process of consultation in their decision-making process. As parents, we often used the term “consultation” in our discussions about decisions to make or paths to take.
In the family, the parents are responsible for the well-being of the children, but consultation can be used by all members of a family when appropriate, even when children are very young. When asked about this, Abdu’l-Baha responded in a letter:
…Consultation is one of the fundamental elements of the foundation of the Law of God. Such consultation is assuredly acceptable, whether between father and son, or with others. There is nothing better than this. Man must consult in all things for this will lead him to the depths of each problem and enable him to find the right solution. – Abdu’l-Baha, Family Life, A Compilation of the Universal House of Justice
“Parents,” my son said. “I need to consult with you about something.” Our son took a swig of sparkling water, and both of us turned in our chairs to give him our full attention. This was a phones-down, books-closed, radio-off kind of conversation.
“Certainly,” we said, “what’s up?”
“At work,” he started, “I’m getting very bothered by our inventory problems.”
I’m sorry to tell you that both his father and I fell out of our chairs laughing. Anyone with experience in retail has had intimate exposure to the process of taking inventory, searching out missing items, and having to come to terms with lost, misplaced or stolen items. Inventory is a curse that goes back to the beginning of civilization (the very first clay tablets with writing on them are a trader’s inventory records of baskets of grain and bottles of wine.)
He did not expect this reaction from us. Keeping track of inventory is horrible for everyone, we assured him. There are people in this world with the job title “Inventory Manager” and their whole purpose is to make it less horrible.
Our son went on to explain that in his current job, he was managing online sales for items that were listed but didn’t really exist, numbers that had never matched, and automatically generated reports that did not reflect reality. It was a daily frustration and it was beginning to make him feel angry about his work.
This was completely understandable to us, because we know our son very well. And that was where the consultation went to. Being the oldest child often means wanting to have predictable order and organization; when systems go wrong, especially systems out of your control that you have not designed, there’s a tendency to take problems personally. Getting a good job done burnishes the soul. Losing control of your work feels like losing control of your life.
Our main conclusion was that frustration with store inventories and management systems is normal, and that some people feel this more deeply because of a desire to do a good job and to want to see an improvement. And this was key: he explained to us what he had done to fix some of the problems, and there had been steady improvement.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” we assured him. “Approach the tasks one by one, and as you do, often the reason that errors occur will be revealed. Learning to solve problems with processes comes with experience, sometimes years of experience.” And we also offered the ever-necessary, “Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
Young people change jobs often, and our son works elsewhere now. As he makes an independent life, we are grateful when he comes to us for advice and instruction. It allows us to share valuable experience and also enjoy the illumination that comes with consultation.
For example, in a recent conversation about choosing which plants to buy for the raised garden bed he had just helped to build, I told him: “You think that you would like to have four different kinds of cucumbers, but when they come on strong, there’s no way you can eat them all. One happy cucumber plant is enough.”