This will be my first Father’s Day without my wonderful father. He passed away in January and there is a large hole in our lives. He had an energy and personality that got people’s attention. He had an active mind and big ideas, ironically matched with a somewhat shy and gentle soul. He analyzed and carefully considered just about every topic imaginable. He was an independent thinker who believed that very few things should be taken at face value. Our job was to apply our critical thinking skills and to question authority when it made sense to.
Sometimes his pessimism would get the better of him and he would spin needlessly in his frustration or anger when he would think about the current political system, and the erosion of honesty, decency and morality. During our many debates over the years, I would sometimes challenge his complaints and negativity. “It is too easy to just be angry, Dad”, I would say. “It won’t help much”. Like most people, I think he felt he had no power to change the things that concerned him. And so, he chose to stay mostly on the sidelines. When he did step up and participate, he was usually appreciated by other citizens for his rational, articulate and sensible positions on issues. When he spoke, people listened. He worked hard at being a man of reason. I often wished he would have taken on a greater civic role than he did.
Like so many of his generation, my father had deep principles, clear ethics, and integrity. He valued justice and truth, decency and honor. He did not just believe in these things, he modeled them for his children, grandchildren, neighbors, friends and business colleagues. While he was not involved directly in community life much, he lived a life that embodied strong civic values, and this made him a model citizen. He was not necessarily a hero in his community, but he encouraged people to think for themselves and at the same time care for one another.
Thinking back over my many conversations with my father, there were some recurring ideas that would come up repeatedly. Many have become important guides as I pursue my interests in civic life. Here are some of the interesting and/or provocative ideas he passed on to me:
- Understand the opportunity that this country still offers you – My father grew up dirt poor during the Depression and started working at 10 years old to help support the family. He never stopped being a contributing member of society until he died at the age of 88. He would often marvel at how much our citizens took for granted and firmly believed that great opportunities still awaited those willing to stay focused and work hard.
- Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. Is there a simpler and yet more profound idea to try to live by? If there was, he couldn’t think of it.
- Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. He would often say that there is often confusion about the difference between what is legal and what is right. Morality and principles play a role in filling the gaps between law and conscience. Operating on the fringes of the law – focusing on what you could get away with seemed to be the go-to approach for too many people, he felt.
- We need more philosophers in public life. “Where are all of the philosophers?”, he would say. “We need them now more than ever.” Philosophers ask the big questions. They can help us to think about what is right, wrong and good for the whole of society.” Philosophers”, he said, “help us to pose the right questions and have critical conversations about matters that affect all of us”.
- Watch at least three television news programs every day (CNN, Fox, and PBS). He posed this challenge to his neighbors that had clearly made their minds up about an issue. “Watch all three stations”, he would tell them, “and see if they all present the same news about what happened in the world today. If they are all different, consider how your views are being manipulated no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on.”
- Take the time to smile at someone each day – He made a daily practice of being social, gentlemanly, and friendly to strangers. He would often tell me about the power of eye contact and a smile. “You have no idea how that smile might be just the thing someone needed that day.”
- Don’t parrot what the pundits tell you. He was concerned when people would parrot political pundits on TV when discussing the news of the day. They often did not know enough about an issue to formulate an opinion of their own. Democracy depends on people being able to discern and make decisions on the facts of a case. We are too quick to follow the lead of others who may not have our best interests at heart.
- Be a person of your word. There is just not much point in doing something if you cannot engender trust in people. Period. Without it, you are dead in the water.
- Be ready to help your neighbor. Don’t wait to be asked. If you see someone in need, help them if you can.
- If you have a problem with a neighbor, talk to them about it. Don’t take the low road. Once, when my father’s neighbors put a cardboard box over his outdoor security light to protest its brightness, my father confronted the neighbors face to face and politely asked them to do something different the next time they had an issue with him. “Tell me if you have a problem with something I do”, he said, “and I will do what I can to address the issue. That is what good neighbors do”.
- Question the experts. Don’t be an educated snob. Everyone in the community has value and deserves respect. He would say, “There are sure a lot of experts out there, but very few people who are talking about the world I live in. We need to look beyond books and studies alone for answers to societal problems. Life experience and common sense have their place.”
- Clean up after yourself. A pleasant community depends on everyone doing their part to make it an enjoyable and uplifting place to live. Keeping up your property, streets and parks is not only good for you, but everyone else benefits. Beauty matters. We all need beauty in everyday experiences.
I feel so very lucky this Father’s Day to have been the daughter of this decent, caring and principled man.