My father died in March in 2014.
Way back in 1984, my little sister passed away. She died of cancer.
As a young man, that event changed me from a “suit-guy” to a hippy. I became self-adsorbed and dis-interested in much other than simple pleasure-seeking. I wasn’t into drugs much, but I didn’t take life and work very seriously.
Ultimately, this meant that the teen-aged Christopher who told his dear ol’ mom that he would
make his first million by the time he was 25 and have $25 million by the time he was 50, would not only be almost penniless at that later age but, despite his pleasure-seeking behaviour, be unhappy and discontented. In other words, Christopher was decidedly NOT a success.
Learning to be happy and contented has been a long, laborious process, although, I’m not quite there yet, not on a regular, daily basis.
Fast forward to earlier this year. My father, 89, passed away after a lengthy stay in the hospital. My father was not consistently a “happy” man, I don’t think, but he was generally “contented” and overall, I would say a “success”. He was not very educated but was well-read.
In 1937 a car accident nearly cost him his life. It severely left my grandmother, who was driving, with severe injuries and my uncle was injured as well. But worst of all, my father’s very young sister (age 11) was killed.
Shortly after he recovered from his fractured skull, my father left high school to help my grandmother full time on the their farm. He eventually got his “high school equivalency”, as it was called back then. In the years that followed he drove a bus… started and ran a plumbing supply shop and he worked for several companies as a salesman. He married my mother and had
six kids… always counting pennies.
Dad was, at the same time, a talented, likable, lovable man and a firm disciplinarian who had little empathy for others who showed themselves to be lazy, less than honest or who did not apply themselves.
Then, of course, came that fateful day in 1984 when my little sister passed away… my father’s youngest child. As you could have
guessed, we were all so very heart-broken and, I think, it is doubly painful for a parent. It certainly took a chunk out of me and all of my life’s plans.
After my father’s funeral, 30 years later, me in my mid 50’s, as you could imagine I pondered my father’s life and death, my life,
my sister’s death… everything. I asked myself, how is it even remotely possible for my father to live to be weeks shy of his 90th birthday… overall, contented, Loved, respected in his community, usually in reasonable health… despite all that he’s been through?
The answer? I think that it was a decision, on his part, that he was going to “mold” himself. He decided to make himself over in line with two basic tenants… “responsibility”… he took responsibility for his life and his family, this resulting in the second tenant, “self-discipline”… you can’t be a responsible person if you are not disciplined.
Self-Discipline and Responsibility. You’ll notice that those are personal qualities of CHARACTER. They are not outside THINGS that you strive for. They are qualities of the self and when you hear someone say, “that man has character”, more often than not they are referring to these two traits. “Honesty”, seems like yet another trait, but in fact it is part and parcel with Responsibility. You are automatically honest, when you are taking responsibility for your life and for your family.
I call life goals of “stuff”, “distant” goals. Those things are “out there”, somewhere. Wonderful places to see, exciting things to do… things outside of your own being. To my father, a man of modest means, these stuff-goals were things like owning his own home, learning to paint, taking his family on regular vacations, being his own boss by owning his own business.
I call character trait goals, “close” goals. These goals are immediate, and in-your-face. You don’t have to go anywhere to change and work on them. And you need to hold them close. A goal of a character trait should be sacred to you!
These close, character trait goals are what transport you to your distant, stuff goals. They are the means to an end, but a character trait is also an end in itself. Come your own end, they are what get listed on your gravestone.
But what does it mean for me and you and our personal success stories?
It’s not that my father was the wisest man in the world but, as many of us do, I tried to live up to my parent’s expectations and I think I failed… which, again, probably many of us do. With me, I focused too much on short-term pleasure seeking and rarely looked at the long term. Neither long-term necessities nor long-term enjoyment. Self-discipline was not one of my strong-suits. I was a middle child and I hear that it is common for middle children to have all of their decisions made for them and are not forced to exercise their decision-making muscles.
That’s where I think completely understanding what our actual “responsibilities” in life are. Not just making a list of goals that we’d LIKE to attain but really starting out with and deciding, if we’re going to be adults, if we’re going to be all grown up and that, what exactly are our no-ifs-ands-or-buts RESPONSIBILITIES in life… to ourselves, to our kids, to our spouses, to society
and our community.
Pleasure-seeking… that which we do to escape the pains of our existence, may sometimes be necessary but often, if we focus purely on them, it is just selfish addiction! Even if your sister dies and your whole world comes tumbling in on itself! We can’t live our lives constantly seeking pleasure and ignoring our responsibilities. Not if we want long-term happiness and contentment. Not if we want personal success.
And the difference requires unselfish self-discipline.
I miss you, pops!