I largely took him for granted. I was 30 before I began to realize the advantages that came to me in life because of his efforts. Together with my mom, my father managed to create a sense of emotional, material and moral safety that, for me, went practically unquestioned during my formative, vulnerable years.
At the same time, the cost was not free. He paid a price for his efforts – both in our family and in life at large. He was long gone by the time I began to even guess at burdens he probably silently bore.
My dad was a local pediatrician. He no doubt saw the challenges – frustration, distress, poverty, outright abuse – that families faced every day in the office. He must have seen the unhappy kids, the overwhelmed parents, the failures to thrive, the bruises and the broken bones.
At the same time, our family wasn’t very socially conscious. We tended to buy the dominant culture line that America was a level playing field. At the supper table, nightly, we’d review the script:
We are lucky to be American. We live in a land of opportunity. There are no limits to what you can achieve if you are motivated. Everyone here has a fair chance. The only people who don’t succeed are those who don’t try.
I learned to try very hard. My family joked that I was ‘the little engine that could’. It was my favorite story growing up. I believed nothing was impossible. You just had to work at it.
At first, my trying led to success. Good grades, good performance, athletic and intellectual achievement. By middle school I was studying 3 ½ hours a night. In high school, I ran 6-12 miles a day.
At some point, however, trying turned on me. I got obsessed with diet and body image. Blew out my knees. Burned the midnight oil for perfect grades. Worried constantly about dying, being forgotten, not leaving enough of a legacy.
When my body and mind broke down, the only tool in my tool box was to ‘try harder’. It didn’t work. The vicious cycle wore me out. The downward spiral was devastating. Something in me broke that I have never really managed to recover from.
I think the vicious cycle wore my dad out too. I don’t think he could keep up the illusion any more than I could. In contrast to my childhood memories of an active, engaged man with an ever present – albeit a little sad – smile, the father of my adulthood was mostly withdrawn. He didn’t talk much. He still showed up, worked hard. But in his free time, alcohol and TV sports seemed to have more appeal than human beings. He voted from the couch.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about this. How the spirit died in both of us. My best guess is that we never quite recovered from the death of a dream. We thought if you worked hard, tried hard, it would all work out. It would come back to you. All that hard effort would be rewarded and somehow create the feeling of being ‘enough’.
I don’t think it was any failing of my Dad’s – and possibly not mine either – that things didn’t work out that way. I think there are a lot of American’s in the same boat. And I think we are losing a lot of good people. Fathers, daughters, mothers and sons. People in every city and town who are willing to work hard, try hard. Good people who would give everything they had if they knew, really knew, that their energy would come to something they felt mattered. Or even better, would that gave back to them even a fraction of what they had tried to put in.
The problem – from my perspective – is that we’re in deeper than that as a human race right now. We’ve been taught to put our energy in the wrong direction, so we are pissing it away. The stuff we really want and need – the stuff that is worthy enough of our spirits to light the flame and keep the fire - actually has little to do with the material or social status we’ve been programmed to give our all for. To be sure, those are things that make modern existence comfortable, arguably even possible. However, for so many of us I suspect, they aren’t the actual thing that makes it worthwhile.
What we’re looking for is something far more simple, basic than that. We’re looking for family. Real family. As contrasted with commodity. The kind of human relationships where you’re not just a means to an end. You’re not a just replaceable entity someone else plugs into their agenda for an 8-10 hour day. You’re more than a way to produce pleasure or profit for someone else’s self-interest -- or even their version of the greater good.
To me, that kind of family – whether by blood or by choice - means more than just material survival and physical safety. We get to discover who we are. We learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. We care about each other insights, visions, dreams. We lend our support and resources to the human being that each of us wants to become. We hold each other’s secrets – or better yet make it safe to tell them – because we hold each other in our hearts in such a loving way.
I’m a lot luckier than many. Despite our trials, my family of origin has continued to grow together. We’re really different people, which has cut both ways. Our natural diversity has been the source of a lot of richness and creative possibility. But it’s also required a lot of listening, learning and hard work all around to understand and navigate our various preferences, priorities and needs. At the most difficult junctures it was really tempting to blame, shame or hide from the discomfort and each other. But to our credit, each of us has shown up for the task in our own way.
On the other side, it’s been way worth it. We know and support each other as people, which is priceless gift to both give and receive.
My Dad died almost 20 years ago. I still talk with him a lot. I my deepest darkest hours, I can still see him looking at me with love and affection. I hope he still believes in me. For my part, I hope I can contribute to this world in some way that’s worthy of his efforts and the vision of family he helped to inspire.