Thursday, August 07, 2008

Reflections on my father, and the roads we leave untaken.

PICTURED: Dad's semipro baseball team, circa 1940. He's in the top row, second from the left. To his right (which is to say, the person at the end of that row) is his younger brother, Al. Some say I take more after Uncle Al in both appearance and proclivities: He was a long-time newspaperman.

Today, August 7, is my father's birthday. Had he lived, he would've been 91. It strikes me that I've been saying thatthe "had he lived" partfor as long as I can recall. Dad died in February 1978, a few weeks before my 28th birthday.

Annually on this day, it has become something of a tradition for me to post an item that...well, if it's not exactly in his honor, certainly it was inspired by his memory. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about happiness. That's because I'm not sure that my father was ever happy. I asked him about it once, when I was 13I wrote about this last December for The Wall Street Journaland he gave me the strangest look, as if I'd just morphed into a wildebeest before his very eyes. Dad was of a generation when men were ruled by stoicism and machismo, and did not talk openly about happiness or, really, any aspect of feelings; suffice it to say he would've found today's Happyism not merely laughable, but quite unbecoming in a man. He affirmed as much in his reply: "Son, a man doesn't have time to ask himself such questions." The more I think about that answer, however, the more it occurs to me that it was my father's way of saying "No." (Undoubtedly many of you reading this are thinking, Duh. What took you so long, fella?)

It's not like the signs weren't there. Even among men of his generation, Dad was an extraordinarily quiet, private person, the kind of man who'd say seven words during dinner (five of which were pasta-related), then give his wife a peck on the cheek and retreat to the living room to read his evening newspaper. Later I'd look in on Dad and see him staring off into space with the paper flopped inertly across his lap. This was during the winter months. In summer, we'd squeeze in a visit to the park between dinner and his living-room sojourns. At the park he might say eight or 10 additional wordsall of which were baseball-related.

I'm fairly sure that my father felt he'd gotten screwed by life. A lot of us feel that way, maybe, but Dad had justification. He'd had to leave college early in order to take a job in a butcher shop so that he and Mom could wed. (We never talked about all of that openly, either, but my elder sister was born after they'd been married barely eight months. If Barbara was premature, she was the world's first 8-pound preemie.) Though eventually he got a better job, in an aerospace firm, his lack of a college degree barred him from the career advancement he should've had. To make matters worse, he often found himself in the ignominious and demeaning position of training fresh-faced college grads to take the more highly compensated positions to which he felt entitled. Amid all this, he had to look on as my mother's once-part-time job at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York led to her becoming the first female supervisor there. (Remember the social climate that then existed, in the early 1960s, with its strong message that men were supposed to be The Providers.) Dad retired, then promptly lost his pension when the company went belly-up—25 years of service, gone, poof, just like that—and then—talk about insult and injury!he got bladder cancer as a result of working with chemicals later identified as potent carcinogens. The tumors were inoperable, but the surgeons operated anyway. Again and again. I don't know if it is factually possible to die of being fed up, but I think that's what belonged on my father's death certificate.

So. What did we have here, overall. We had a man who adored his family—of that, there's no doubt—but who had to weather many other crises that probably took much of the joy out of daily living, or at least haunted my father in those private moments of staring into space. I think about that and I wish my father would've given me an answer to my question. An honest, expansive answer. I would've liked to know how he really felt about his life, and particularly, whether he ever wished he could've lived an alternate life; a life that hadn't forced his hand in so many areas.

I'm sure many of us think about that: swapping lives. But how many of us are truly willing to assume the risk? See, it's easy to talk about all this in the banal absolutes to which the self-help movement has conditioned us. It's easy to exhort people to CHOOSE HAPPY :) It's easy to find agreement when you express yourself in bumper-sticker rallying cries about how "You only have one life, and you shouldn't waste it being unhappy!" For most of us, that's not where the problem is.

For most of us, the real issue is better expressed in questions like:
How do you know when you're "happy enough"?
How do you know when the pursuit of some greater happiness is worth risking the degree of happiness you already have?
And, maybe first and foremost:
In pursuing your personal happiness, to what degree are you morally obliged to consider the impact of that quest on the people who count on you NOW?
Or, how do we mediate between what FEELS right and what IS right?
Anybody got those answers? Hmmm? Joe? Rhonda? Tony?

Because that's a book even I would buy.


Mike Cane said...

>>>Dad was of a generation when men were ruled by stoicism and machismo, and did not talk openly about happiness or, really, any aspect of feelings; suffice it to say he would've found today's Happyism not merely laughable, but quite unbecoming in a man. He affirmed as much in his reply: "Son, a man doesn't have time to ask himself such questions."

Yeah, but WHY? Is that *his* conclusion or something he absorbed or what *his* father told him or what he picked up from the lies of popcult?

I understand WWII vets STFU about their service. After seeing some -- a small bit -- of the true horror in "Saving Private Ryan," I can see why shutting up is preferable to having a PSTD breakdown/crackup.

The prior generation also had a sense of duty, of consequential obligation.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Lost the thread.

But I think you can sense something here.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you for this post, Steve. I often wonder if my own father was happy; I never thought to ask him and it's way too late for that. On occasion, over the years, I would ask my mom that question (or some variation thereof), but her answer was always ambiguous, and she would conclude with something to the effect of, "Well, things could be worse."

Which I always found depressing, but I never pushed for more details because I think I knew the answer: for numerous reasons, my mother was rarely happy. I try not to blame myself for not trying harder to "make her happy" (even though intellectually I knew this was an impossibility).

Steve, those questions you ask about happiness are the really important ones. But you know and I know what the Tonys and Joes and Rhondas would say in reply to each of the questions: "That's something you have to figure out yourself." It goes without saying that most of them would just happen to have the perfect book or DVD or package or workshop to help you "figure it out for yourself." And it goes without saying that you could buy their whole crappy product line and more than likely not be any closer to the answers.

Cal said...

I'm curious as to what kind of Dad you were Steve. Although I am a lot younger than you, my father is less than 10 years younger than your Dad. My parents started their family late, especially for their era.

Were you more engaging? My Dad also didn't really give long winded answers to the meaning of life to me. Heck, I never even had the so-called "birds and bees" conversation that I hear is supposed to happen. Luckily, I had a sex-ed class in seventh grade. I really remember more of our conversations being sports-related.

I'm not sure he felt he got a raw deal, because I think black men only aspired to have a steady job. That's why I think they shake their heads at the problems of young black men today, when you consider that at least they don't have to go to separate water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, etc.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday to your Dad Steve, today it looks like we honour his frustrated/sad side but it is important to remember that it is indeed just a part of him and not his whole.

Its interesting that I read this post today as two nights ago I watch a movie called "The bucket list" . I highly recommend it as it deals with just this very question. Let me know what youy think?


Steve Salerno said...

The comments above raise some deceptively simple questions that, I think, have extremely complex answers (or beg additional, complex questions). Mike, e.g., says he "doesn't know where he's going with this," but any of us reading his remarks--if, say, we're past the age of 40--have an instinctive sense of "where he's going," and perceive the "sense of duty" that has faded away in recent decades amid our culture's relentless celebration of ME-ism.

Connie's observation--that the gurus would put the burden of self-discovery back on you--hints at the ultimate failure of self-help as a whole, and it's a problem that I've referenced many times on this blog, and even in this post: Self-help can only speak in generalities and absolutes that have no personal relevance to any of us. "Go for the gold!" "Choose happiness!" OK, that's great, Joe...but what do I do now...?

Cal asks what kind of Dad I am/was. I honestly don't know how to respond to that. What are the criteria one uses in forming an answer to such questions? Speaking in hypotheticals, if my kids adored me--but didn't turn out so well--was I a "good Dad" nonetheless? On the other hand, if there was constant tension in the house because I was a real ball-buster--but my kids turned out to be model citizens--does that make me a "good Dad"? Today especially, when so many parents seem to want to be "buddies" and confidants--instead of Moms and Dads, as our grandparents understood the terms--I'm not even sure I know what parenting is supposed to be.

And yet, despite my sense of the importance of being a "good parent" (whatever that is), I'm also somewhat puzzled by Dr. Laura's assertion that there is no task in life that should take priority over raising kids. I mean, if my Dad's No. 1 job was to raise me, and my No. 1 job is to raise my son, and his No. 1 job... You see what I'm saying? After a while, it's like looking in those funhouse mirrors that reflect into another mirror: an endless progression/regression of images. If we all just live to have and raise kids...then when is "our time"? When are we supposed to stop and smell the flowers in our own lives?

Heather and Mike said...

Steve- Thanks for your post. Reading it reminded me of some of the men in my own family. Just a thought on your take on happiness: Some say humans can't be happy because they are conscious of being happy; that the only truly happy beings in this world are our family dogs, partly because they have limited memories. I don't know about that, but I do know that it sounds like you (as well as generations now and to come) have learned from the past — that life's too short to put yourself in a box.

RevRon's Rants said...

I can pretty well describe my own late father's - he died in 1972 - state of unhappiness. He was perhaps the most fear-driven human I ever met, including a few hundred psych patients I worked with. Ironically, it was my reaction to his fearfulness, which once pervaded my own consciousness, that has led me to what passes for happiness in my own life.

I've long felt that if I weren't happy, I wouldn't teach my own kids how to be happy, except as a negative role model like my own father. As a result, I did pursue things that pleased me, but was (usually) conscious of their needs, as well. And when they "grew up," I let go of the parental need to inflict my own perspectives and morays. I offer advice when requested or deemed appropriate, but allow them to make their decisions without berating them if I disagree. As a result, we have becone "buddies," though they know that the "dad-quotient" is available if they need it.

And in the final analysis, they know that I'm pretty happy. I live in a place I love, with a woman I adore (and who, for some unfathomable reason, seems to adore me), and actually have fun once in awhile. S**t still happens, but I'm usually pretty pragmatic about it, and don't allow it to devastate me. Irritate sometimes, sure. Sadden sometimes, you bet. There are times when I find myself wallowing in "if only's" or "what if's," but fundamentally, I truly enjoy my life.

Whether that pragmatism is real, whether it is a by-product of my faith, or merely a rationale I use to avoid dealing with life's disappointments, I cannot honestly say. But the end result is the same, and I truly wish my own father had been able to taste it a little bit. He might have found it more satisfying than using a belt or abusing my sister. And he might have not had to wait until he was approaching death to feel something other than disdain from the people closest to him.

Then again, who can say what kind of effect such a different outlook would have had on his kids, and my own by extension? My sister still lives in the shadow of sadness, and our relationship has suffered as a result.

In the final analysis, I think we are born into the circumstances we need in order to develop. How we react to those circumstances - and how we see the world as a result - defines that growth.

When asked, "Are you happy?", I think that our unique definition of the term renders pretty much any answer irrelevant, because the questioner can only conceptualize our answer according to their own perspective. The only real answer exists in that silent place of unobserved solitude. If a smile forms in at least most of those moments...

Perhaps your own dad felt that smile. Perhaps even asking the question, "Are you happy?," leads one to consider things that rob them of happiness; things that left unquestioned, might fall within that pragmatic place that knows our trials will pass, and allows us to smile. Perhaps in this narrow definition, ignorance truly is bliss.

Steve Salerno said...

It's funny, I see echoes of the comment from Heather & Mike in the long (and exquisitely lyrical) comment from the Rev: that maybe we humans are (ironically) condemned to a certain level of unhappiness by the mere fact of our consciousness of our state(s) of happiness and our inclination to take its pulse. So maybe my Dad was (again ironically) onto something when he said a man "doesn't have time" to ask such questions. Maybe none of us should be asking such questions; we should just perk our ears and wag our tails at the approach of loved ones, seeing each moment of joy in isolation as the Only Moment That Exists. Which I suppose is an argument for Tolle's "Now." that possible for us, as human beings with human cognition? Or must we live our lives in envy of our canine companions? ;) And then, too, one must consider all the other implications of living a present-moment-only life, some of which are not quite as uplifting as the imagery of wagging tails. (Plus--just to throw this in--as one of my sources for my forthcoming article on positive thinking put it, "Throughout history, it has always been discontent, not satisfaction, that motivated progress of the species.")

Btw...Heather & Mike...congrats. May you always be...happy.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Maybe none of us should be asking such questions; we should just perk our ears and wag our tails at the approach of loved ones, seeing each moment of joy in isolation as the Only Moment That Exists."

Steve - You are one for extremes, aren't you? :-)

As you've come to expect from me by now, there's a balance point, where we acknowledge our frustrations and sadness, but don't allow them to define our being. I acknowledge that the only person I ever observed to be uniformly "happy" had been the recipient of a prefrontal lobotomy. The guy was a carrot, hardly someone whose consciousness we would want to emulate.

Connie will attest to the fact that I get morose, depressed, cranky, and downright angry sometimes. But those times are transient, and not the definition of my life. I've also been known to laugh like a little kid being tickled, but that's not the definition, either. There's a point betwixt and between that serves as an emotional/spiritual ballast, and that place is fundamentally happy, in a peaceful kinda way.

There's obviously something in us that seeks out the sine-wave opposites of giddiness/depression, but we do get to have some choice as to whether our lives are a neverending ride on that emotional roller-coaster or a conscious striving for the calm fulcrum that lies between them.

Mike Cane said...

Steve will kill me, bwth:

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
-- Ecclesiastes 1:18

As to why we don't generally wag our tails like dogs (or purr like cats).

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, I believe that same sentiment is more familiar in its inverse form, which requires a mere three words:

Ignorance is bliss.

It's like, I was watching Larry King last night, and the guests were a family of gospel singers who adopted a Chinese girl and then had to watch her die in their driveway when their teenage son carelessly drove over her in his van. And they're still out there, spreading the gospel; in fact, at one point in the show they thanked God for mercifully giving them the strength to weather this terrible crisis. Wouldn't it have been a bit more merciful of Him to spare the life of the little girl in the first place? But that's how they see it: a very one-sided, don't-ask-too-many-tough-questions vision of God's mercy.

I don't get it. I honestly don't. But--these people were smiling as they talked about their loss and their family's future. And maybe that's the bottom line.

RevRon's Rants said...

Reminds me of one hustler who wrote a heartfelt description of his ex-wife becoming depressed - and ultimately "being able to find peace only in death" - after being molested by the hustler's "life coach" friend. And apparently he *knew* this guy was molesting his female "clients." (There's some suspicion that his ex's death may have been suicide.) Said hustler ended the description with the upbeat phrase, "Meanwhile, my own adventures continue."

And some folks wonder why I think that hustlers like this are a waste of skin (to borrow a Romulan descriptive)! :-)

The willingness to pursue happiness at the cost of others' well-being poses a pertinent moral question, if nothing else. Furthermore, it goes to your question of how much suffering are we willing to ignore in order to remain "happy?" The answers are unique to each individual, and I think those answers speak pretty clearly to our evolution - even worth - as human beings.

Steve Salerno said...

You will recall that such questions were also at the core of the horror stories I briefly ran about a year ago: balancing personal fulfillment against existing obligations. And you will recall that the dubious "stars" of our stories seemed to err quite extensively on the side of personal fulfillment.

Heather and Mike said...

The question, "Why does God let bad things happen?" plagued me for many years. How could I come to terms with faith (i.e. ascribing to some sort of religion) when there is a gaping hole in its entire philosophy? Then, it dawned on me: I don't know. This may seem too simple, but those three words have brought me immense satisfaction when I'm mentally battling deep issues. The whole point of faith is to believe that God's "got your back," everything else is a moot point. To bring this back to the issue of happiness, there has to be something to those statistics that say people who pray/have some sort of spiritual connection have a lower chance of having heart attacks and other illnesses associated with stress.

P.S. Thanks, Steve!

Steve Salerno said...

Heather/Mike, I don't dispute what you say at all. My wife, for example, is a worrier (it's "an Irish thing," she tells me), but ultimately takes solace in her faith. She says she knows there's "something better than this" awaiting us all at the end. And that quiet knowledge gives her life meaning and direction. Just like the gospel family last night, smiling at the loss of their little girl, and knowing that "she's gone home to God now.'

Elizabeth said...

"Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness."


Steve Salerno said...

Well, it's more words than "ignorance etc."--but then I've always been a sucker for poesy. And I think it accurately captures the irony here.

Mike Cane said...

>>>She says she knows there's "something better than this" awaiting us all at the end.

Churches had an influence in America decades ago. The Gospel of Money grew right out of that root too.