An Unintentional Life Lesson

The valuable life lesson I learned from Dad that he didn’t know he taught me…

My dad was a hardworking man – VERY industrious. Not only did he put in grueling hours at the rubber mill in our town, but when off the clock, he built, fixed or painted for our family or as a side-hustle for neighbors. He was an extremely talented builder – the knack for it lived in his very bones. His workshop in the basement was epic! He spent many an hour tinkering down there in blissful solitude. Well, sometimes not so blissful, though, as my first exposure to a few salty curse words floated up the green linoleum cellar stairs on occasion. But I always felt he was in his element – living his true self – when he was making a pile of sawdust and swinging a hammer. The satisfaction that creating brought him was evident to me, even as a youngster.

Even though he was often busy, he always had time to spend with me. We built snowmen and snowwomen together, he made me honorary “Captain” of our canoe and taught me to paddle (he even dubbed the boat, the Regina), he built me stilts upon which I walked around the back yard, feeling like a giant. I was his campfire kindling-gathering helper on camping trips, he taught me to ride a bike and we rode together frequently. We’d walk around the back yard and he’d tell me the name of every plant and flower that grew there. We’d empty match boxes to serve as “caskets” for unfortunate birds that would fly into the upstairs windows, and bury them. And bless him for trying to teach this human anvil how to swim.

Pay at the mill was low – and when I came along, we became a family of seven children. That’s a lot of people dependent upon the labor of one man. I remember Mom telling me that she’d suggested at one point that Dad strike out on his own – build a full-time business of his considerable and sought-out talents. But Dad feared the loss of the steady – albeit paltry – paycheck and chose to continue working at the mill. He wanted to ensure his ability to provide something for his family, unwilling to risk the leap that held a possibility of greater income – and greater personal satisfaction for him.

He chose the “sure thing,” in order to avoid putting his family’s welfare at risk. As an adult, I view this ostensibly selfless act as an unfortunate result of fear and lack of empowerment. This is not a criticism of Dad in any way; he did what he felt he had to do. Yet I regret that he never had the opportunity to more fully share his gifts and realize reward and recognition for his outstanding abilities. He could have had a bigger life; a more fulfilled existence on a daily basis. Instead, as he aged, he focused on his retirement years. “The time when I can eat when I’m hungry and drink when I’m dry,” I’d hear him say. He dreamed of a time in the future when he’d have freedom to pursue what brought him joy and purpose, on his own terms.

By the time Dad retired, however, his health was in steep decline. He’d suffered a number of small strokes and then he became afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. My virile, could-do-anything Superdad was no more. Equally tragic is that, that time in his life when he could relax and spend his time following his whim, puttering around the house or at his workbench with ease and abandon, never happened. Fate had cruelly stolen that possibility from him. To add insult to injury, the mill’s pension fund had been embezzled, leaving retirees with virtually nothing for all their years of dedicated service. So on top of being physically compromised, Dad’s “golden years” would be financially challenging.

I’ve always felt that Dad was cheated. He made the choice to stay the course, be a “responsible” father, to play the game, so he could, eventually, reap the reward of freedom from “the Man.” Of course, nothing is assured to us in life, but that’s the deal that many, like Dad, agreed to. Dad’s situation crushed me. I rail against the unfairness of it. He followed the rules, yet he lost out on the outcome he was promised.

The whole thing makes me realize that it’s a lie. That opting for “security” doesn’t necessarily ensure it, while it simultaneously robs us of day-to-day joy. And therein lies the lesson:

Since there’s clearly no guarantee that taking the “safe” route leads to a pot of gold, why take it? Why not take the path that calls your soul? At least by doing that, you’re not living a life you’re suffering through; at least you get to enjoy the ride and experience some LIFE in your life.

Some of the affirmations I’ve adopted because of this acknowledgment of Dad’s situation include:

  • Go for it NOW – who knows what tomorrow will bring?
  • Live out my passions and don’t wait for “some perfect time in the future” to start.
  • Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. (In fact it can make me feel alive and unstuck!)
  • Risk is worth it; it is its own reward because at least I won’t feel regret from not taking the chance.
  • Forging my own way in the world is the only way to live authentically and make use of my unique talents and abilities.
  • My heart’s longings are as wise as my mind’s thoughts. They exist to guide me toward the way, not to ‘tempt” me from the way.
  • I am absolutely stronger when I live in choice rather than duty.

If I could talk to Dad today, I’d express my deepest regret that he wasn’t able to spend more of his days living like he wanted. And I’d thank him for the sacrifice he made to his own quality of life in an attempt to protect his family. I’d rather have learned that it’s worth it to live into your truth and take risks for yourself because I saw him do it, than to learn from his cautionary tale of woe. But it’s a valuable lesson nonetheless.

Parents teach by their actions and it’s up to their children to internalize what they learn. I thank you and take inspiration and wisdom from this lesson, Dad, even though it isn’t one you knew you were teaching me.

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