What We Can Learn From My Dead Father

                Yes—the title is straight forward. But I want you, the reader, to know what you’re getting yourself into. This is not like my past posts: it is not a philosophical look at the word “meaning,” it is not musings on the amateur botany of Henry David Thoreau, nor is it an anecdote on my volunteer experience. No, but it does offer a lesson, one that fits neatly into the aim of this blog, and one for which it is worth continuing to read the post.

                Still here? Good. My father was a savage alcoholic. It was commonplace for him to drink a half of a handle of hard alcohol a day. But he was extremely successful (in the sense that he made very good money as a real estate investor) he was responsible, and an overall fantastic father, notwithstanding his addiction.

                He functioned this way for a while. I mean, basically functioned—I do remember him stumbling home drunk, falling down and taking railings with him; I remember alcohol being the topic of many fights. But he was OK.

                Eventually, he decided to quit, cold turkey. And he followed through, not drinking for two years. Unfortunately, this did not salvage my parents’ relationship and they split. My father lost everything, all that he’d ever worked for—the cars, the clothes, the jewelry, the money; everything. As you’d imagine, he went back to the bottle, but with greater fervor than ever. I would often hear him complain, “I’m a loser. I have nothing. I live in a fucking in-law apartment. I used to have it all.” This period of heavy drinking and self-loathing went on for some time. He teetered in and out of periods of being suicidal. He was not OK.

                I was in second period when I got the call. I was finishing up a design in my graphics class. “Your father is in a coma,” they said. There is no secret here. The title revealed all. He never came out. The cause? A potassium deficiency, the result of not eating and excessive drinking. This story is bleak, yes—but it is life, the reality for me and many others. But his death need not be in vain.

                Here is the moral:

                I firmly, with all of my heart, believe that my father would not have died if it had not been his attachment to the material—he found all of his fulfillment, all of his meaning, all of his self-worth in his things. He was a fundamentally materialistic person, a product of his little-league coaches, his teachers, his parents, who told him that he’d be nothing, that he’d forever be a loser after he’d dropped out of high school. This is something that he’d always echo to me, and he’d rebuttal with, “I’m a loser? Look at the house I live in. Look at me now.” When he lost it all, he lost a part of himself.

              One thing we can answer fully with this story, one thing we never need to address again in our search for meaning, is whether or not we should find our meaning, our why-we’re-here, our purpose, in money. My father is a testament to that.

Picture source: 

Study: Under-Used Treatments For Alcoholism Resurface

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What Jack Taught Me

“As a young doctor, I thought that serving life was a thing of drama and action and split second judgment calls. A question of going sleepless and riding in ambulances and outwitting the angel of death. A role open only to those who have prepared themselves for years. Service was larger than ordinary life, and those who serve were larger than life also. But I know now that this is only part of the nature of service. That service is small and quiet and everywhere. That far more often we serve by who we are and not what we know. And everyone serves whether they know it or not. We bless life around us far more than we realize. Many simple, ordinary things that we do can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the brief touch, the willingness to listen generously, the warm smile or wink of recognition. All it may take to restore someone’s trust in life may be returning a lost earing or a dropped glove.” – Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

                The above quote was used to preface one of my mother’s recent staff meetings. She was so moved by it, and so eager to share it with me, that she couldn’t even wait until she got home to show me it—instead she texted it to me, every word you see above. I started to respect this even further as I began to transcribe the quote here. Even on my laptop, copying it took some time.

                I can see why she was so excited by it: it is a fantastic articulation of her philosophy, a philosophy that she has mastered, and a philosophy that I am still working on. Many of my friends and family might call me a helpless idealist, although they are kind enough not to. But if they did, I’d agree. I find my aspirations to be grandiose—I aspire to be a world changer. Admittedly, I am much like the young doctor. But as I get further along in life, although I haven’t lost my idealism completely, I am faced with the sobering fact that changing things isn’t easy. That is not to say, however, that I feel that there isn’t a place for people like this young doctor, but sometimes when looking to save the world, one forgets about the people around him/her. I’m still on the search for a balance.

                And this is where the story begins. My mother, who works with the intellectually disabled, recently invited me to a volunteer opportunity, a trip to a minor league baseball game. Because I had been busy, and because I’d apparently forgotten what I’d learned in the above quote, it took some deliberation but I eventually accepted the invitation. And am I glad I did. Because I could fill pages and pages with my experience, I will limit my anecdote to just the most poignant moments. Let’s start with Jack, whose name has been changed to protect his identity:

                We show up at the baseball stadium and meet my mother’s residents in the parking lot. They are getting out of a van, assisted by two ostensibly stressed, but benevolent staff members. The first resident I see—Jack. He makes his way over to me and without any introduction, shakes my hand and smiles.

                “This is my son Anthony” my mother says.

                Jack squeezes my hand just a little bit harder, smiles just a little bit wider, and responds, “The boss’s boy.”

                “Yes, yes, the boss’s boy,” my mother says.

                So we make our way through the dirt parking lot and to the stadium. We get everyone’s food and we sit down.

                Jack looks over to me: “No food?” he asks, raising his burger up in the air.

                “No, I’m not hungry. Thank you, though,” I respond.

                “Not hungry?” he asks in confirmation.

                “No, not hungry.”

This quells him for a moment.

                A few moments later: “Fries are good,” he says.

                I get the hint but assure him again that I’m not hungry.

                The game gets going and sometime in the third inning my mom gets up to go to the bathroom. I can see the distress in Jack’s face.

                “Boss?” he asks.

                “She went to use the bathroom,” I assure him.

                He nods. But just a few minutes later, again, “Boss?”

                “She takes a long time,” I responded.

                He nods back. Eventually, she returns and he’s back to watching the game.

                We left in the seventh; everyone was tired. On the drive home with my mother, I asked some questions about Jack. He had struck a chord in me. She started with a couple lighthearted stories: she said that he, nearly every time he saw her, would repeat, “One boy, two dogs, one cat.” After our two dogs died and we got another cat, he would say, “One boy, two dead dogs, two cats.” This got a giggle out of me. Next she told me a sadder story. Jack’s mom had died just a month before. Yet he was so concerned about me, the outsider, feeling comfortable, and he was so concerned about my mother, the boss, and her safety. Needless to say, I was moved. Jack lived by Remen’s quote. But Jack also showed me how closely my mom lived by the quote: I could tell by Jack’s face when he saw her and I could tell by the way she took special care to listen to him, even when it was difficult. This is evidence that we don’t need to save the world; we just need to make small, local differences—Jack has something to teach us all.

Picture citation:

“Baseball diamond marines”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baseball_diamond_marines.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Baseball_diamond_marines.jpg

What Thoreau’s Amateur Botany Says About Your Creations

Sometimes when I’m feeling especially pensive, I come to the woods to think and write deliberately, so, today, this is where I’m blogging from. And this setting is particularly apt because of topic of today’s blog post is Henry David Thoreau.

I have recently come across two articles, one from a fellow blogger and one straight off of the Smithsonian webpage, in which the authors detailed Thoreau’s fairly recent contribution to climate change science—that’s right; some 150 years after his death, he’s still making contributions, and scientific contributions at that.

One of Thoreau’s more unknown eccentricities is that he was a dedicated amateur botanist. He would travel by foot, sometimes thirty miles a day, to catalog the progress of hundreds upon hundreds of species of plants. “But what does this have to do with climate change?” you might ask. Well, Thoreau would painstakingly chart the flowering dates of numerous plants. Modern-day scientists are now travelling Massachusetts, cataloging current flowering dates and comparing them to Thoreau’s. What they have found is that flowering dates are, on average, a week ahead of Thoreau’s, thus providing further evidence in support of climate change.

This, I believe, is a testament to the utter absurdity of life. Thoreau, we can assume, never hoped to affect climate change science with his amateurism, thus begging the question: Do our intentions matter? If Thoreau’s hobby could affect a scientific concept that was completely outside of his intentions, isn’t it true that anything we do or create could be used for good or evil, tomorrow, in a week, or years from now? The answer seems to be yes. But where does this leave us? Should we create more, in hopes that it is used for good? Should we create less, so that it can’t be used for evil? Or should we cease creation altogether?

I answer yes to solely the first question. Let me explain why: Suppose you are a retired detective and you are deliberating between writing two very different books, one titled How to Kill and Get Away With It and another titled, How to Catch a Murderer. Obviously, the latter book has a higher chance of doing good, although there is a chance that a murderer may read it in hopes of figuring out how to avoid capture. And, conversely, the former obviously has a higher chance of doing bad, although there is still a chance that a detective might read it to “get inside the head” of a criminal.

The moral of the story: Create! Create good things! Or, like in Thoreau’s botanical case, create neutral things! Don’t let life’s absurdity or the fear of what may come of your work dissuade you from creation. Although there is a chance that your work could be used for things outside of your intentions, probability is on your side: chances are, your intentions will shine through.

Picture citation:

“Walden Pond” by Detroit Publishing Co. copyright claimant, publisher. – .This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID det.4a22665.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walden_Pond.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Walden_Pond.jpg

 

What is One’s “Meaning”?

To me, one’s meaning is synonymous with one’s purpose, one’s why-I’m-here. But that does not clear much up. One’s meaning, purpose, etc. can take on many different meanings and all I can do is convey my sense of the word. To do this I will begin with what it does not mean to me: A religious person may believe his/her meaning is preordained, set by God at birth, and his/her sole mission is to find that meaning. This, to me, is a terrifying belief, the belief that there is one, single purpose and one must spend his/her life in search it. What if one never finds that meaning? Did he/she fail God? The usual response is that God will guide one to his/her meaning. But what if there is a devilish deceiver who leads those searching for meaning astray? There are serial killers, thieves, etc. Did they find their meaning set by God? Furthermore, it’s an all-eggs-in-one-basket belief: what if it happens that there is not a god? Has one spent his/her life toiling away in search of this meaning that never existed?

Some find meaning by simply being happy—“Do what you love,” people sometimes say. I have a hard time subscribing to this sense of the word, too.  It’s fundamentally self-serving, even if what makes one happy is helping others—helping others is merely a side-effect, just the result of making oneself happy. Should we not spend some time on this earth in the selfless service of others?

People also sometimes say, “You need to make your meaning.” This banality satisfied me, at least for a while. It’s a comforting interim belief. It seems to imply that one can find meaning in anything and because everyone is doing something, everyone can make some sort of meaning. But it seems to also imply that one thing is just as meaningful as the rest. And as I continue to go through life, I seem to find that this is simply not true. One’s job as a sand-pounder is simply not as meaningful, to me, as one’s job as an ER Doctor (not to offend any sand-pounders out there). But this is not to say that an ER doctor is a meaningful career for everyone and that is not to say a sand-pounder is a meaningless career for everyone.

This brings to me to where I sit now on my definition of “meaning.” If meaningfulness were quantifiable, based on level of fulfillment, level of happiness, level of helpfulness, etc., I believe that there would be peak activities (imagine a parabolic graph), meaning that there could be an ideal activity, or many ideal activities for a person—but like I said, these would not be the same for everyone. But these peak activities are fluid and ever-changing; as one’s mindset changes, so do these activities and in this my belief differs from the religious, pre-ordained belief. And it differs from the “make your own meaning” philosophy in that one isn’t truly making meaning. Instead, one is searching for a meaningful activity based on his/her beliefs on what is meaningful instead of attempting to mold and tame his/her beliefs to fit whatever path he/she is on. Lastly, it differs from the “do what makes you happy” belief in that one isn’t just doing what makes him/her happy (although that would be a factor in our meaningfulness calculation). One is, instead, aptly, doing what he/she finds the most meaning in. Thus, I am on a search for these peak activities, although I know full well that I won’t find them. But that does not dissuade me from working my way up the meaning mountain, getting as close as I can to the peak. 

Comment. Please. Change my views on meaning; defend your definition of meaning.