I spend a lot of time in my own head, and the older I get, the more aware I am of the company I keep up there, and how outside influences shape my inner dialogue. Sometimes it’s a song lyric or advertising slogan, sometimes it’s a complex thought process that’s the result of ingesting years worth of different materials, and sometimes it’s a simple word of wisdom that’s bubbled up through the noise. The voices behind these influences come from a variety of sources, but what’s surprising to me is how differently I rely on them based on their origin, and how sometimes the most prominent internal influences are the echoes of voices that spoke into me when they didn’t even think I was listening.
We’re all the product of the people who have helped shape us. Some of those people may have a current, active role in your life, while some are long gone. Since his passing 10 years ago at the age of 58, I think the relevance of the impact my Dad had on me has evolved, as so many aspects of my life have changed since then, particularly since I became a parent. If he were around today, I think he’d be a bit surprised to learn how heavily he had shaped my way of thinking, because that’s not something I really expressed at the time. If anything, I took the opportunity more often to challenge his way of thinking, rather than validate it. But he’d probably be even more surprised to learn of the one thing that he said to me that gradually became one of the loudest voices in my head.
I don’t recall now the exact timing or situation that led to the conversation, but I recall distinctly standing in the driveway of my parents’ house in my late 20s or early 30s, and bemoaning to him the increasing feeling that the world was full of dishonest people, and how I was tired of so often feeling like I was going to get ripped off, swindled, or otherwise mistreated by others who were in a position to abuse some kind of power over me. Thinking that my Dad — who I viewed as having an answer to every question, and a confidence for handling any situation — would never allow himself to be put in a situation like that, I thought he would have some sage advice on how to insulate oneself from such scoundrels. Instead, his answer was pretty much exactly the opposite of what I was expecting, and it wasn’t the kind of answer I was looking for.
What he said to me was essentially that dishonest people are always going to be out there, and the only thing you really have control over is who you choose to be — you have to make a choice for how you’re going to react to people in general, before you could acquire any evidence of whether or not they’re worthy of trust. Certainly, he said, you can be cautious, and approach a situation with as much relevant knowledge as you can (or more), but the worst choice would be to make yourself so calloused to other people that you close yourself off from being able to trust people at all, and become cold and skeptical toward everyone. You can choose to be a person who tends to trust people by default, he said, and risk getting bamboozled. Or, you can choose not to trust anyone, and though you might be safer somehow from dishonest people, you’re far worse off because you’ll find yourself bitter, angry, and lonely in the end.
I’m pretty sure I made him feel like this advice went in one ear and out the other, either by the look on my face, or some variation of “well… I guess…”. One of the reasons his recommendation surprised me, other than failing to satisfy my desire for a magic elixir for my immediate concern — while at the same time being uncomfortably challenging on a personal level — was that it sounded to me to be more than a little too “touchy-feely,” which wasn’t something I ever considered my Dad to be… at all. Many people who knew him would agree that Dad was self-assured, methodical, disciplined and precise, but straighforward and no-nonsense… sometimes even blunt, in his particularly well-spoken manner. If he had one fallback it was that he wasn’t very “heart-on-his-sleeve” to the world (though this had changed quite a bit, at least among family, particularly in the few years since his mother’s passing). But his advice to me in this case wasn’t really the butterflies-and-rainbows sentiment I took it be at that moment. In fact, the more I’ve let this conversation marinate over the years, I realize that this was actually entirely consistent with the kinds of principles you’d hear him speak from in a school lecture, sunday school class, or around the dinner table — something entirely, as they would say in my line of work, “on-brand” for him. This was, at its core, about personal responsibility.
Back when Dad was teaching me to drive, I recall that I was a particularly difficult student. Much like the swimming lessons I never completed, it took considerable effort to help me to overcome my fears of certain death while trying to steer an early 70s VW Beetle down tiny barely-paved roads, and I recall one particular lesson when a large semi-truck came unexpectedly barreling toward me from around the curve of one of those byways. What such a vehicle was even doing on a road barely wide enough for both of us (if at all) was beyond me, but my reaction was that I froze up in the indecision between risking the truck hitting me head-on to my left, or running off into the ditch on the right. My fear chose the ditch, and I headed in that direction. I don’t recall whether he grabbed the wheel (I think he must have) but I do recall him saying something that he said fairly often on these lessons — “don’t worry about the other guy — worry about you.” I’m sure my reaction was something like “what do you MEAN don’t worry about the other guy??” … I mean, for goodness’ sake, this was a deadly machine 100 times the size of the one I was piloting (barely an exaggeration), heading straight toward me with deadly force, sure to slice through me like butter. How could I not worry about him?
An experienced driver tends to develop an instinct, almost an additional sense, to have a comfort level with the space around their vehicle as its moving, but I was far from that point at the time. Dad could tell there was no real danger if I stayed the course, and did what I was supposed to do, but if I over-reacted and ran the car into the ditch, because of my irrational fear of a collision, then there would be real trouble. Of course he was worried about both mine and his safety but also his own effort and expense to make any repairs I would have necessitated in my panic. A little more than a year later, he would go on to take considerable effort to rebuild/transplant the front-end of another car for me after another non-head-on accident, but that’s another story.
What I needed to learn in this scenario was exactly the same lesson — don’t worry about the other guy — worry about YOU, and what you’re doing, where you’re steering, and what you’re controlling. But taking this to the next step, it’s not just about preparing for moments as they come, it takes the form of a philosophy about how you deal with people in general, and I’ve tried in recent years to take this to heart. It’s a form of optimism I think — choosing to view people, by and large, as trustworthy, even though there are exceptions, but focusing more on your own actions rather than the fear of what theirs might be. Hope for the best, while still being prepared, sometimes, for the worst. The opposite would be a miserable way to live.
Over the past few years there are many things I wish I could hear Dad’s perspective on, and I’m constantly cautious to put words in his mouth on topics I never heard him speak to. But I like to think that he would have continued this line of thinking to the extent that we each carry that sense of personal responsibility and hopeful optimism to play active roles in the world, and not be merely spectators in it; to “be the change” we want to see in the world, so to speak. If he didn’t speak these words specifically at some point, it’s certainly something he modeled.
Though his voice, other than these echoes, isn’t an active one in my life anymore, I’m incredibly grateful that my Mom’s voice continues to be. Since the beginning of the pandemic (5 months ago, as I’m writing this) I’ve spoken to her on the phone almost every single day, and this is a blessing to me, and particularly for my daughter, for whom she is her only living biological grandparent. Her words of love and wisdom enrich my life in ways I’m sure I won’t fully appreciate for years to come, and I likewise worry that I don’t express gratitude for that enough, as I so often did with Dad. (Mom, if you’re reading this — thank you!). Mom has a lot of the same qualities Dad had, but with a different slant, and she has plenty of wisdom on everything from parenting to personal relationships to theology to medicine to HVAC maintenance.
But one of her gifts is seeing the big picture when it comes to people. Something she pointed out to me recently was that the advice Dad gave me regarding trusting people wasn’t a long-held principle that had served him well throughout his life. In fact, it was closer to the opposite. She had seen how he regretted making the mistake of not being trusting, of closing himself off from people, and how he gradually grew to trust people again, and wished he’d done it sooner. I have no doubt that Mom played a key role in this process. I can only imagine there was some divine push for him to so urgently seek to instill these ideas in me in those moments, as if he knew there wouldn’t be a lifetime of opportunities. Realizing this makes me understand his inherent motivation a bit more, particularly in the parenting context. I’m not yet five years into being a parent, but I already see how so much of my drive to “pour into” my daughter relates to helping her overcome the things I’ve struggled with, and to rise above some of the negative personality traits I’ve passed on to her and unintentionally reinforce by example. It’s generally a universal motivation among people with kids that we want them to have things better than we had it, and I think this applies far beyond the typical application to finances and standard of living, to their general well-being, as we work and hope for them to rise above our own shortcomings and regrets.
And that’s what Dad was passing along to me here, and this hope for the future is the reason we pour into other people, whether it’s our children, nieces and nephews, friends, co-workers, employees, students, someone to whom you are a mentor of some kind, or any other people who are part of our lives. It’s easy to get jaded and burned out, especially when they don’t seem to be listening… but maybe they’re listening more than you think they are — even more than they think they are. And maybe your voice will be an echo in somebody’s head long after you planted the seed, even if you never see the fruit of it.
As for me, I choose to make it my goal to live in hope. Hope in people, leaning into trusting over skepticism. Hope in the future, by speaking into the lives of others when possible. Hope in humanity as a whole, that despite evidence to the contrary, people in general are capable of such amazing and beautiful things when given the opportunity. And the hope that somehow my voice will be the echo in some else’s head, long after I’m gone. What about you?