When my Dad would make a quick, mid-week trip to visit me in college, he’d always plan to get on the road early the next morning, around 5am. Then on occasion he’d wake me up at 2am to say, “Jus, I’m gonna take off,” in an effort to beat traffic on the two-hour trip back to KC on I-70. Most days I’d say he’s up around 4am, reading, writing, or playing music to get his day started right. So to say he’s a morning person would be to not paint the entire picture.
To a lesser extent, I’m a morning person myself, and for the past 10 years, any time my folks and I are together, I’ve made it a point to get up extra early to interrupt Dad’s morning routine for some coffee and conversation (“solving the world’s problems” as we like to say). At first it was simply a time for us to catch up on everything that had happened since we were last together, but these moments have evolved into sacred times for me, moments I always look forward to, and memories I’ll always cherish.
Because I’ve reached a point where I now appreciate having the tougher, more challenging conversations with Dad. What are the things he struggled with at my age? What does he struggle with today? How does he reflect back on raising me and my brothers? What might he do differently? In no way is it to uncover regrets or dwell in the past, but it’s as if I have this incredible resource of wisdom from someone who in so many ways thinks about the world the same way I do, and has for many years, and what a great learning opportunity that is.
So with Father’s Day upon us, I thought I’d share some the principles that have stuck with me most from my old man over the years. Some of these lessons came through his words and our conversations, but the majority of them were simply demonstrated through his actions, his treatment of others, and his steadfast consistency over my 33 years.
1. The best gift you can ever give your kids is a healthy marriage.
I often find myself comparing this stage of my life with what my parents were doing when they were my age. At this point, 33 years old, Dad had married, had my older brother, divorced, married my mom, and had me…and was awaiting the arrival of my little brother.
I know that divorce was as difficult a thing as Dad has ever had to deal with. And while It would be easy for bitterness from that period to linger and seep into so many other aspects of his life in the years that followed, I’ve always felt as though he took that experience, learned from it, focused on what was most important, and applied that for the betterment of his marriage with my mom. I can’t imagine a stronger marriage than theirs. It’s the cornerstone on which our family is built, and it’s a marriage that Nat and I strive to emulate and evolve into over the course of the rest of our lives.
2. Be receptive to a calling.
I open up about all sorts of topics over morning coffee with Dad, and there have been so many instances when he’s has helped uncover an underlying theme or question below the surface of whatever issue I was raising. I can get on a rant about something but feel as though I’m not articulating it well, only for him to steer us into a truly productive space, one with a focus on what might really be going on.
In doing so, he’s always helped identify when I might be feeling called to take on something new, whether that be moving to Chicago a decade ago, committing to volunteering a few years ago, or even (indirectly) being more vocal with my opinions and perspectives, part of the motivation behind writing more.
3. Walk the walk. Skip the talk.
I’ve always found my dad to be the antithesis of self-promotion. “Let everyone else do the talking,” he would tell me when I was too hung up on other people’s opinions, felt compelled to join in gossip or was generally focused on the wrong things.
Sometimes I worry that in today’s world of infinite outlets for telling the world how great you are, if you aren’t self-promoting in some way, you’re destined to be left behind. The irony of raising this on my own blog isn’t lost on me, but the point remains.
But I’ve always looked to Dad as a great example of someone who is committed to his values and beliefs, focused on the things that are most meaningful to him, and he lets the rest take care of itself.
4. Influence doesn’t have to come from the loudest voice in the room.
If self-promotion is wasted energy, then likewise, influence doesn’t always need to be shouted to the masses. So often it seems that leadership and influence are perceived to be synonymous with who can be the most vocal, the loudest, the harshest and even the most aggressive.
I’m at once amazed, and not surprised, by how many people value my Dad’s perspective on a wide range of topics, how much they confide in him, how much they appreciate his temperament and calming demeanor (not to mention his music!). He’s one of the more soft-spoken people you’ll ever meet, but his influence on others over the years is immeasurable. It brings to mind one of the more common requests he’ll get on a weekly basis…
“Del, will you please sing at my funeral?”
“Yes, but I definitely won’t put it on the calendar.”
5. Have the courage to share what you believe.
Many of my friends were once my Dad’s Junior High vocal music students, but what they seem to recall most from his class isn’t matching pitch or reading sheet music, but rather the life lessons (“Sutt’s Wisdom,” as a couple of my friends came to call it) that dad would work in to the lesson plans.
I struggle with this one big-time, and I suppose it’s part of the inspiration behind me writing more, and actually sharing some of these reflections with others. All too often I’ve come home at the end of a long work day thinking to myself, “you’re so much more than the person you’re presenting yourself as at work.” And it isn’t about the job itself or the frustrating but ultimately small obstacles I face. The responsibility is solely mine. After all, at the end of the day, what is it that we all stand for, believe in, and how does that manifest itself in our day to day lives – at home, at work, wherever? And how can I bring my beliefs and values into all aspects of my life, even work, in a more explicit way?
Dad felt compelled to share those things with his students, even though they weren’t in any sort of curriculum and wouldn’t be a part of standardized tests each spring. Not in a preachy way, but in a way that might truly stick with his students long after their musical pursuits were over.
6. Empathy is everything.
One thing was made very clear to me by my parents, and especially Dad, early in my childhood: teachers, parents, coaches, law enforcement officials, and other authority figures would be getting the benefit of the doubt if I got myself into trouble and found myself in some sort of conflict with any of them. No questions asked.
Maybe that’s too cut and dry, and maybe it isn’t the right approach for everyone, but what I believe it ultimately did for me was instill a sense of empathy from day one. We talk about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes as it relates to our peers, which is undoubtedly important, but I’m appreciative of the way my folks encouraged me to approach a situation through the eyes of these adults and authority figures, and think twice about how to treat them and carry myself in these situations. To me, establishing that type of outlook early in life made it easier to empathize with peers as a result. If you can empathize with someone 20 or 30 years older than you, seeing the perspective of your peers doesn’t seem that difficult.
7. Forgiveness is freedom.
I’ve had a couple conversations with Dad recently about forgiveness, which gave me an entirely new perspective on the subject.
We often talk about forgiveness in the context of other people, and the importance of forgiving those who have wronged us in some way. I’m amazed to hear stories of people who, when faced with the murder or tragic injustice of a loved one, find the strength to fully and absolutely forgive the person responsible. When these people explain how they came to that decision, I’ve heard them describe their feelings of anger, hate and despair as if they are walls that are caging in their soul, locking them in to an understandably darker, more cynical world. But through forgiveness, it’s as if they’ve freed themselves from those walls, and opened themselves up to a challenging but ultimately more rewarding path forward.
But rarely had I ever thought about the subject introspectively – the importance of forgiving ourselves for those things we didn’t do in our past; those things that so often are the cause of lingering regrets that stick in our side and resurface during times when we struggle most. I had been spending an exorbinant amount of time and energy focusing on my own regrets from the past – why didn’t I pursue this degree, why not go after that job, or make this move? But thinking about forgiveness in this way left me with a renewed sense of freedom. Sometimes it feels even harder to forgive ourselves than it does other people, but doing so is just as important.