Alike After All?
Updated: Jul 30
My father and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. I’m hardly the proverbial “chip off the old block.” This was never more evident than when I reached adulthood and headed off to make my way in the world. When I left home, I was set on changing the world and securing my place in history. I had little interest in a quiet observation of manly duties. As I climbed into the car to head off to Bootcamp at Parris Island, I didn’t get the traditional “Come back with your shield or on it” speech. My dad’s farewell talk was more along the lines of “Don’t be a hero; you’re no good to anyone if you’re dead.” Dad didn’t serve in the military. By the time he was of age, he was working a full-time job to support a family. He didn’t go to college (like I later would) either. By the time he was college-aged, he was supporting a wife and raising two horrible, destructive boys.
Our differences went well beyond our life experiences. He was a mechanic by trade. He rebuilt entire cars in our garage. Actually, I think he built the garage too. I, on the other hand, could scarcely change the oil in a car. My home maintenance skills didn’t extend far beyond replacing a light bulb. I’m pretty certain that all the books I read probably didn’t make up for my lack of proficiency in the manly arts.
Growing up, I was acutely aware that we didn’t have as much money as the other kids at school. Their cars were newer and their vacations were more elaborate. They didn’t have to be budget conscious about the clothes they wore, as my brother and I did. So many times, I wished my dad had a fancy, higher-paying job like the fathers of those seemingly “happier” kids at school. I subconsciously swore that I’d take a different path.
It’s amazing what time and experience can do for our perspective (It’s even more amazing just how much smarter my dad has gotten since I’ve grown older). The intervening years have taught me a lot about what’s really important. It first started during those formative years in the military. I was shocked at how much easier I adjusted to the regimen than many of my fellow recruits. Many of my father’s child rearing methods didn’t seem so unfair anymore; they were simply a reflection of the harsh realities of life he had been preparing me for. Years later, having my own family taught me the enormous pressure and responsibility that comes with providing for a group of people so completely dependent on you. It came with the realization that my dad’s late-teen experience of providing for a family of four was so much more consequential than anything I may have done as a young man. Every sleepless night I’ve spent worrying about my family’s budget has brought a new appreciation of my dad’s quiet sacrifice over so many years. I didn’t feel grown up enough to handle the task at thirty-one years of age. Dad did it when he was twenty.
The greater realization, though, has come more recently. Though I hesitate to admit it, I’m technically middle-aged now. I’ve learned that life is harsh. I’ve found that the world can be a cruel place which puts us in difficult situations. It’s in these quiet daily trials that I’ve come to notice (and appreciate) the true debt that I owe my father. Throughout my career, I’ve found myself in countless situations where the easy path involved moral compromise. My father was never one for flashy, Alamo-like stands. I don’t know that I ever saw him pick a fight. But I always, regardless of the circumstances, remember him standing up for what he thought was right. This quiet commitment, modeled over so many years, taught me the importance of doing the right thing (regardless of the cost). Unfortunately, I’ve found myself in some very public stands over the years. There’ve been times when it would have been so easy to just “compromise”. There was so much to lose by refusing to tell a little white lie; so much to gain by simply keeping quiet in the face of falsehood. In those morally difficult times, it was that commitment to truth and honor I learned from my father that let me act in a way I’m not ashamed to look back on.
It turns out that we weren’t really all that different in so many of those other things, either. I was recently surprised to learn that he had opportunities to move up in the corporate world while my brother and I were younger. He never followed up on it, for fear that it would mean uprooting our family. We weren’t really as poor as I thought, either. Dad just wasn’t as reckless and irresponsible as many of the other men around him. Being a father myself now, I’ve come to realize that a family’s overall financial security is more important than fulfilling every whim about the latest clothing trends. I’ve also learned that a lot of the money we weren’t wasting on silly things was going to help our church and other people.
It’s natural for young boys to want their fathers to be a superman, something out of this world. But the years have taught me that desire is more a result of an immature worldview than a reflection of life’s realities. What childishness sees as “boring”, maturity sees as “stable” and “responsible”. There’s plenty of flash and awe in our world today. Individuals, corporations and news channels compete endlessly to stand out for a moment. What the world needs more of is what is what my dad modeled so many years ago: quiet, humble devotion to duty. I’ve heard it said that we all grow up to be our fathers. I can only hope that, for me, this is true.