journey post 5: Everything I ever wanted to know….
“The most dangerous ideas in a society are not the ones being argued, but the ones that are assumed.” —C.S. Lewis
Pride is a high protective wall, with truth on the outside, covered in shadow. Pride leads to dangerous assumptions, such as, “I know what I’m doing,” “I’m right,” and related self-deceptions. There is a reason that men do not ask directions. Men want to feel respected, competent, adequate for the job at hand. It’s part of how we seek significance. If I don’t see myself as adequate, I’m certainly not going to let you in on it. How did I get that way?
My zigzag journey has taken me to places that are comfort-banishing. Such places, like the one at the end of the last post, have confronted me with my donkey-ness, minus the humor. Coming home from Africa in 1989 with my marriage and my family on the verge of a plane crash was an event (a 2×4) that I can now describe as one of the best things that ever happened. It forced me to face my stubbornness and pride, to see beyond the wall and recognize the pain I was causing my family by being caught up in “my” ministry and being an absent husband and father. It also made me consider how the relationship I had with my parents was playing out in my life. I am still considering…
The other day, I came across a word rarely heard because of its homophonous similarity to the “n” word. It is not etymologically related and is from Middle English, perhaps Scandinavian. The word is even now a measure to me of how tiny seeds can produce great poisonous fruit, nurtured by my own daily small decisions: I am by nature a niggardly person. That word says I am a stingy, grudging, and grasping person, miserly, and ungenerous, an illiberal soul. Those synonyms alone do not communicate all that “niggardly” does. No, I am not being over-hard on myself. Without the influence of Jesus, Michelle, others, and the often unseen hand of the Father, that is exactly me. The ignoble characteristic the word describes has haunted my life, taunting me from the fringes despite my Christian faith.
I was born a typically self-focused human being. How the self-focus became manifested is significant, and it was partly a product of what I was taught, how I was raised. I do not blame my parents for who I am. I am responsible for my own life now, and I intend to honor them by learning from them. I have sought to understand what they did or did not do and how it affected me. That can be invaluable when trying to undo certain prevalent ways of thinking and helping my children do the same.
Adulthood was for me was an assumed status I believed I had arrived at some time after surviving Vietnam, getting married, and attending a couples group at church. I knew as a child that, some day, I would be a grown-up, but the entry-point into manhood was a mystery to me. My dad died when I was thirteen and he never broached the subject, explained it, nor served a clear role model.
The closest thing to explicit parental advice I ever heard was something my dad told me, once. As a pre-teen, I took a keen interest in the military academy at West Point. I loved a TV show about it, and a cherished book was “Cadet Grey of West Point.” My mom paid attention to what I was reading, and I told her once that I’d like to go there. (She told others as well.) My dad asked me about it. “Always remember,” he said, “that if you’d like to go to West Point, you need to ask a Congressman to write a letter recommending you.” That was it, the sum total of the advice. Nothing about, “Here’s what you should do to prepare yourself,” or “Here’s where you might get advice about it,” or “We’ll talk more…”
Neither parent spent much time helping me set goals or plan my future. A pop song of the time seems to express their philosophy: “Que sera, sera.” (“Whatever will be, will be.”) That song became a theme, an almost undetectable but pervasive fatalism that can vitiate hope and determination. When my dad died, my mom went to work outside the home. By the time I was in high school, I was pretty much on my own all the time—which did little to help a young man trying to figure out life. I had a lot of questions, but, for whatever reason, was afraid to ask. I seemed to grow up with the assumption that I was supposed to know this stuff already or know where to get the answer.
A. Lincoln the boy reading by the fire
These past few months, my reflections on parental influence have turned to my mom. Her influence was enormous, but her input was subtle. She did have a way of cultivating ideas and interests: she gave me books. (There was one about West Point.) Books were her way of helping me find what I was looking for: she had a stated conviction against prying into other’s business, even when the others were family, or imposing her values on people. Whatever my dad might have said to me as a teen, there were books, we always had books, most of which dealt with history. Abraham Lincoln (a childhood hero) said something that got etched in my psyche about then: “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.” Everything my mom wanted to know seemed to lay between the covers of a book. She had a vast knowledge of California history, and, if asked, she could readily relate much fascinating detail, but she never pursued telling others about it. She did not seem to use what she knew to reflect on life. All that knowledge was stored in the repository of her brain.
What sort of assumption formed from that model as I groped toward manhood? It certainly had to do with books and finding answers: books were important in and of themselves, a possession to be cherished, whether in my hand or on a shelf. I have inherited a passion to have and gain knowledge from books. That seems very positive. However, knowledge in the brain is of small value if all it does is sit there, ready to show how much you know and how smart you are. That kind of knowledge did little to help me “grow up” to become a mature man or benefit others in the way that Lincoln likely had in mind. My mom spent a lifetime helping others, but the connection between the books and the insights they held for helping others learn the lessons of history apparently got left on one of the shelves. What I was to do with all the knowledge I gained from books was still not evident later on as I sought to live out the truth and reality of a religion that revolves preeminently around a book…