I wrote what I learned from my mother and what I am learning from Doma. Now I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from my father. Why would he have made no contribution for Doma’s college education?
We inherit our parents’ life experiences and the roles they model. My father was dependable and honest in all his dealings. Also, he was never violent. He felt it was as wrong to kill Germans he didn’t know as it would have been to kill his wife. Like his own father who was jailed for three years for refusing to participate in the madness of WW1, he was jailed in WW2.
I’m not certain what my father believed was the right response to Hitler’s actions. What he knew was that in the years before WW2 he had made a solemn vow that he would not participate in any war, and he was unshakeable when he made a commitment. Because of that, I try very hard to think through all the implications before I make one.
Hard work was another example my father set, a lesson I learned too well since my mother did the same and neither of them did much that was not work. Unlike my father, however, my mother did find one form of work that brought her joy. She cared for babies whose mothers could not keep them.
I’m blessed that my father role-modeled honesty, non-violence, dependability, discipline and hard work. However — true as it is that our richest source of lessons is our own mistakes, we can also learn much from our parents’. How they lived formed us, so by understanding their mistakes, we can see what to change in our own behavior. What can I learn from my father’s mistakes?
Perhaps I’ll write more another time. Enough for now is that his mother died before his first birthday. He lived with his grandparents until his father remarried when he was eight. They moved that same year from England to Ohio and met a man who had bought a citrus farm in extreme SW Texas. When my grandfather went to manage it there were no citrus trees, only brush. He built a shack, cleared the brush and planted vegetables. This was a happy time for my father but his step-mother could not abide the heat, so after three years they returned to Ohio. Going to a “real” school was another happy experience but then my grandfather lost his job in the Great Depression and returned to England. My father stayed to finish High School.
The “citrus farm” owner offered to fund my father’s college education but my grandfather refused and sent him a ticket back to England. My father considered that rejection a matter of principal but all his life my grandfather resented his own father’s refusal to keep him in school after he turned 13. A US education had no value in England. My father found a job dredging waterways — secure, worthwhile and very low paid. Years later, my mother found him a better paid job selling insurance door to door. Believing insurance is a good thing, he sold it with conviction and worked longer and longer hours collecting payments on more and more insurance that he sold so people could have less to fear from life’s insecurities.
Perhaps because he worked too hard, he grew increasingly depressed about the upheavals he considered life had inflicted upon him, beginning with his mother’s death before he even knew her. He continued dutifully selling insurance long after my mother died, afraid to stop because that would change his life yet again. He was hoping for it years before death came to him at last when he was 90.
If we look deep enough inside ourselves, we can see our parents more clearly as childhood recedes. My unquestioning admiration for my father became muddied with anger as I grew increasingly frustrated by his passivity. There is a profound difference between passivity and acceptance. What we commonly term acceptance implies that we must just endure suffering that comes our way. That was my father’s understanding. He felt his number one job was to endure. Buddhism, however, teaches joyful acceptance, how to recognize that this moment is the only one when we actually are alive, and that this is a moment where anything at all is possible.
We cannot control the winds and seas that our ship encounters. We can, however, learn skills to captain our ship. And the greatest lesson is that we alone are captain of our ship. Then we must learn to respond to that not with fear but with relish for the amazing possibilities. It is so sad that my father did not look inside where he could have seen that truth.
It would not have occurred to my father to make a donation for Doma’s education because he was so preoccupied with his own suffering. He simply did not notice charitable appeals. He was committed to his own family’s support and did not feel selfish, but he was in fact self-absorbed.
What I learned from my father’s fundamental mistake is even more important than what I learned from his virtues. One reason I help Doma, who I have no obligation to help but who is in a position where I can is, I have slowly come to recognize, to dissolve my own selfishness.
May 2018 update – Doma graduated in four years with a VA in Mathematics and Interdisciplinary Studies.