A Million Different Things, Noon, Meditation #7

Meditation #7 is from the middle section, Noon, in this free serialization of my book, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man, and concerns itself with our parents’ generation and how it yielded the world we got to grow up in. A full index for the articles so far can be found at: Gift of A Million Different Things

David Stone, Writer

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Meditation #7, My Dad and His Generation

There came a day, after reading Tolle, Zukov, Dyer and Chopra, when I realized I had a handle on the basics of this refreshed way to see the world. More followed, but I knew better how to live my life and to create new habits.?

I first had to throw away a warehouse of things I’d learned and to accept that the way the world worked was not as I’d always believed that it did. Listen, I was already fairly eccentric. Not cut from any well-known mold, I still believed in plenty of truths that turned out to be false. I’d believed in them because everyone knew them to be correct, and no one was wasting time debating about them.

The intrinsic value of hard work is my favorite example.

I’d believed that hard work nets real gains for people who want to succeed. By hard work, I mean the struggle endured to produce future results, even in a distant future. That included extra working hours to impress my boss, doing tasks my employer demanded because he preached that they led to success and pushing myself into exercise regimens intended to accelerate health and facilitate competitiveness. There was more, but these come to mind right away. What I know now is that hard work is probably the most unpleasant and least fertile of all strategies, and if good things come out of it at all, it’s the result of an accompanying focus on our dreams, not from our labor. The balance achieved in moving away from a work as the solution mentality to inspired activity and play quickly enables happiness and yields what we value most.

We’re encouraged to believe that we’ve all been born behind the 8-ball and, by concentrated effort and determination, we have a chance to get around it to the things we want–provided, of course, that the God of our creation hasn’t got another obstacle waiting for us.

It’s an interesting collateral observation that few of us have much of a view of what we want in life apart from what we’ve been told we should want. Few of us make the effort to know who we are and what we’re about, and this makes ineffective practices more likely. If we don’t know where we really want to be, one road is just as good as any other.

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The idea that we are born in a deficit and must work our way out is far from the truth. We even knew that once. Children aren’t conceived expecting the worst to happen if they don’t scramble to escape an unpleasant birthright. On the contrary, they expect things to get better automatically until optimism is pounded out of them.

An expectation of growth and prosperity is inherent from the instant sperm meets egg and the fantastic process of making a human begins. No, I’m not forgetting that some children are born into desperate circumstances, intense poverty, warfare and disease. What I am saying is that, even children born into those situations are born with the expectation of improvement. Relatively, they get it. It doesn’t make sense to compare the conditions of a child born in Somalia with those of one born in Chicago. Some fortunate people believe that to be born in what are considered adverse conditions implies bad luck to start off life, but the universe always stages many platforms for development. In places, great opportunity exists to reshape the environment and most of what’s in it. Insisting that all should live as if born into an already highly developed world chokes invention.

My father was as focused and committed as anyone I will ever know. He learned early what was expected of him and answered society’s call, regardless of what obstacles fell in his path. The first obstacle I know about was his being stricken with infantile paralysis, polio, when he was thirteen years old. If you’re aware of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s battle with this disease, which he suffered as a young adult, you may understand how difficult it was for even the wealthy to conduct normal lives with the disabilities that resulted.

My father was a farm boy. His family lived off the land and dairy cattle grazing on it. His brothers became farmers; his sisters, housewives and mothers. Unfortunately, Dad was not much for storytelling, especially concerning painful experiences in his life. I never remember him discussing what it was like to awaken as an adolescent to the knowledge that, even if able to walk again, he certainly would never run, climb a tree or jump in a creek on a summer day. He was never going to be a farmer.

With only one of his siblings still surviving, I will never know what communal love blossomed to help my Dad get through public school and go on to become a career accountant. I don’t even know how he got to school at a time when there were no buses for transporting children and the term “barrier free” had not been invented.
It’s unfortunate that the stories we end up wishing to hear don’t strike us as important when we’re youngsters. By the time our curiosity arises enough to ask, it’s often too late. Memories fade. Pains have been scrubbed, and new days have dawned. Our ancestors have buried their tales with them.

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<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< Not only did my father have a forty year career as an accountant, he raised five children and saw each of us grow to have families of our own. Inside that information is a radical untruth, buried in understatement. The truth is that my mother left my father to manage five children, all under the age of ten, when she departed and started another life. After a brief period when my brothers, sister and I stayed at the family farm for a week or two while Dad locked down custody, we returned to a motherless, wifeless home and simply resumed as normally as we could in the home where we’d left off. I don’t know if my father’s tough, emotional reserve preceded or followed his polio, but he was either unwilling or unable to talk about the peculiar circumstances we found ourselves in as the only family in our world that had no Mom. I, for one, missed my mother as if a piece of my body had been removed, but in our house, she was not mentioned again until it didn’t matter so much, until the rawest injuries had time to heal. Except for the plants dying from a lack of water on our window sills, there was almost nothing to remind us she’d ever walked these floors or filled the rooms with her laughter. When neighbors or other visitors mentioned her or implied her existence, usually while noting how heroic Dad was, my reaction was to squirm with discomfort. So, we were an anomaly, a motherless clan of lively children and a father so taciturn that conversation was never taken for granted. Our experience was unique, and my siblings, all still alive and thriving, are a remarkable group, each continuing to make their marks on the world around them. As I sit here with the end of another year approaching, appreciating my father in ways I couldn’t imagine when he was living, I am also keenly aware that new ideas about who and what we are and what really makes the world go around were just as available then, if not in the current form. Books like Think and Grow Rich and The Power of Positive Thinking were popular and, more or less, mainstream, but their teachings were taken to be more about achieving success in a conventional world than about throwing traditions away. My father, I think, got pretty much everything he wanted in life, along with much that he probably consciously didn’t. What he came out with fit snugly inside the world as he believed it to be. He believed in hard work and, so, worked hard. On many Saturdays, Dad trooped off to work before any of us were awake, and when he came home after noon, he brought bags of groceries my sister helped unload and stack in our cupboards. Every tax season, he opened a temporary business to help others file their returns. Weekends and evenings, he’d sit with clients at our kitchen table and fill out government forms, calculating payments and refunds. He was seldom bored, from anything I could tell, but he was certainly lonely. When Mom left, he was still in his thirties. In spite of his crippling disability–which he steadfastly refused to let limit his activities more than necessary–he was an attractive man, reliable as what we then honored as “a breadwinner” and available. God knows he could’ve used some help with five children. Even so, only a divorcee or two showed up at his side and only briefly until he married again after twenty-five years. A marriage encouraged by a long companionship drought may have much less to support it than a perspective from loneliness suggests. This marriage was short and ended when wife number two absconded with all the furniture one day while Dad was at work. A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer came not long after Dad took full retirement. Cancer in this critical and not well-understood organ is reliably murderous. Rarely does anyone survive to tell stories of the ordeal. Dad tried everything the state of medical arts had to offer, after initially denying his illness until he became so jaundiced that a dentist refused to help with a bad tooth. He submitted to a Whipple procedure, an operation that tries heroically to circumvent the cancerous growth, but died anyway after a period in which metastases crept silently through his body, eventually reaching his brain. It seemed ironic to me that this tough man who beat polio and went on to lead a productive life, despite being left with five young children by a runaway wife to go with all the traditional obstacles, could be killed at a young age by a cancer for which there existed no cure. An enemy finally caught up with him. He left with his quiet kindness and sense of humor intact. I expect to see him again someday and often feel him around me, sharing my experiences, even encouraging some. My goal here was not to write a tribute to my father, although he surely deserves one, but to provide a slender outline of a life lived according to the conventions by a man as singular as I’m likely to see again. What might his life have been like had he not grown up believing that deterioration, disease and illness were inevitable? On reflection, the truth is he didn’t subscribe to those conventions without exception. Colds, an accepted three times a year affliction for most, were a rarity for him, and I don’t recall any flu or similar debilitating illness keeping him in bed for even a day. Somewhere in himself, he had the power to control certain physical conditions, to accept or refuse. I wonder also what our lives as his children might’ve been like had Dad not believed that a regular job with steady income was the centerpiece in the life of a family man. I don’t think he ever once thought he had a chance to become rich. He lived as almost every other man of his generation lived, honoring the same virtues. Hard work and personal sacrifice were commitments not to be tampered with, and he never did. My father was never awarded an international prize or even a local one. He made few friends and only briefly indulged in the alcohol-fueled camaraderie of the lodges that, in his time, still offered popular, masculine places to hang out. His greatest pleasure seemed to come from his solitary fishing days at a country pond on the farm where he grew up. Many thoughts passed through his mind, and doubtless, many were profound. Few, however, were put into words. He wisdom was personal and private. Until succeeding generations further dissolve his memory, Dad will be remembered by the stories we tell and from the memories of his grandchildren who were old enough to know him a little. We will, as all generations seem to, reduce his reality to the features that stand out as unique. Subtlety will be lost. We will remember the good, much as I have done here, and erase the times when he exercised the selfishness any human being is entitled to. In so doing, we will reduce the fullness of his humanity. Dad’s generation’s ideas about what it was to be a man have largely been replaced through changes in the workplace. Physical endurance and fortitude against miserable obstacles is no longer demanded. The worst drudgery has been punched out of vocational lives. Routine has been eased by automation. Children now seldom see their fathers as men who toil in stoic sacrifice, but rather we see them as grownups who may work hard, but not so hard that nothing is left to bring home. Men still dominate most families, even as the nuclear family breaks down, but woman have fought for and earned their places in careers more diverse than ever before. Our civil growth has tended to enable a gentler, more humane society. We have learned that the pursuit of the basics can be less dangerous and even enjoyable. We can embrace one another and cheer our rivals without poisonous competition. As our culture adjusts, ideas that once drove the creation of nuclear families will be revised or abandoned. My father’s generation built a modern society coinciding with their beliefs. They built platforms from which great initiatives were launched. Our responsibility, it seems, is to keep those platforms from flattening into featureless plateaus on which we discontinue robustly evolving as human beings. No longer pushed by threats to survival, we need to make conscious decisions about where to go now. The goals, what it means to have “a better life,” are no longer as clear as they were for our fathers.