If you’re a reader of this blog, you will already know that my Dad died, suddenly and unexpectedly, at the age of 55 in 2007. I’ve written previously about some of the emotions of grieving, and if you’ve ever suffered a similar loss, you’ll know it’s not something that ever goes away as such, more (for me anyway), the grief gets easier to bear, and is diffused.
Anniversaries are often times that bring the sadness to the surface, even when it’s been dulled by time. As Dad was a leap year baby, born on 29th February 1952, this week I thought I’d approach the anniversary positively and proactively, and share with you 9 lessons he taught me through the way he lived his life.
As well as being a Vicar and the BBC Essex Faith and Ethics producer and presenter (his ‘day jobs’), Dad was also a trustee for several charities, Chair of Governors of our local Primary School and a Parish Councillor. For (the vast majority of) these activities, he had a true love and passion. But he never forgot the fun.
His jobs (and the fact you could find him working at 4am as easily as 4pm) gave him the flexibility and freedom to structure his day in unusual ways. This enabled him to instigate in our family a tradition that in some ways is a pre-runner for me to the Artist Dates I do now. We called them a “Best Day of Your Life”. This could be all four of us, or any combination, but was more often just my sister or I with him. On these days he would usually have some work – he might have to drop something off in a random part of Essex, or interview someone, and the day would be structured around this, but apart from that we could usually choose what we wanted – the kind of food we wanted to eat, what we wanted to do. These changed over the years, with adventure playgrounds in our youth, and the cinema or other attractions as we got older, but always we got to spend quality time together, having fun. It’s been a lesson to me as I got older, both to find the fun in situations, and never to waste a moment. One of our family mottos: Only boring people get bored!
A counterpoint to his drive and passion was Dad’s ability to take naps anywhere and everywhere. This was mainly because he didn’t sleep as much at night as most people – he went to bed fairly late and was usually up very early. Although he preferred the quiet, noise didn’t seem to bother him too much as he could sleep comfortably with a room of activity going on around him. We might come home from school to find him asleep on the sofa, but he was just as happy sleeping sitting up – we even caught him napping in Church a few times…not ideal when you’re the Vicar!
3. Create a morning ritual
His morning ritual included prayer, reading a sacred text (he usually took the text of another religion each year to study) and meditation. He would light a candle and start the day with God. As I’ve developed both my own spirituality and my own productivity, the idea of a morning ritual has become something I’ve adopted in a small way – I’ve yet to manage getting up quite as early as him mind you! Starting the day in the right way – which doesn’t need to be in any way religious, and for me includes morning pages and meditation, amongst other things, can make a big difference to the rest of your day – apparently, morning people make more money, are more productive, and are healthier, happier and more satisfied with their lives!
Dad was a polymath, who loved to know how things worked. He was especially interested in technology (which led to him doing an Open University degree, when he already had a BA in Theology), but he even enhanced his knowledge with a diploma in horticulture later in life (which we rudely nick-named his ‘certificate in digging’). Other areas of interest included photography, music, building things, model railways, and he dabbled quietly in collecting coins and stamps. He always had a project going on for fun as well as the numerous activities he was doing for ‘work’ I talked about in (1) – not that he would really have seen a difference between the two. He read widely (remember the collection of 5000 books I talked about last week?!), tending towards non-fiction. Through an awareness of his eclectic activities I’ve learned to cultivate my own inquisitiveness and a wide spread of interests, and to follow curiosity when it comes – from Yoga to Krav Maga, from blogging to reading, from travel to productivity.
5. Why worry?
Dad had a great love of music, and introduced me to all kinds of bands, singers and groups. But there are some songs that instantly remind me of him. One of these is the song ‘Why Worry’ by Dire Straits. As a teenager, I was quite…er… tempestuous, and when I was particularly sad, or upset, he would sit on the sofa with me, with his arm around me, and he would play this song (usually loudly!). The words would wash around me, soothing me and putting things in perspective. It’s still a song I use today as a comfort blanket.
6. Show your love
Dad wasn’t an emotional person, in that he rarely had moods or got angry – he was fairly even tempered and rational. But that didn’t mean he didn’t love, deeply. He was a great hugger – he used touch to demonstrate love in an easy and affectionate way. Whilst never over the top he had no compunction or embarrassment about showing his love for the people in his life. He also was the main cook and food-shopper in the family, and through his meals he provided love and care for all of us. His example here reminds me to show love for the people in my life, to hug them and to connect with them physically, as well as – when I’m far away – to tell them I love them, or how glad I am they’re in my life.
7. See the good in everyone
As part of his ministry, and his belief in Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, Dad attempted to see positive things in every situation, and to try and leave things better than he found them. This included seeing the best in people. He wouldn’t always understand them (his IQ being very high, his understanding of very emotional people being less high), but whilst human, he had a very positive view of human nature. He was always ready to forgive (if he even took offence in the first place, which was rare).
8. It’s not about me, it’s all about you
As I began studying psychology, and the human mind and behaviour, this lesson became more and more relevant. In my twenties, when I had started work and was picking up the ‘Best Day of your Life’ concept in my own life, for example by creating space in a day working from home to have lunch with him, we would usually go to a café in the local town and discuss things that had happened in each of our lives. And we would often decide that how someone had reacted to something we did was usually not as much about us, and our behaviour, but about that person and their own issues. And sometimes we could mitigate against that, but not always. I learned through these discussions to do the best I could in such situations, to come to them with love, but that whilst I could take responsibility for my own behaviour, I couldn’t control others’ reactions. It’s a touchstone phrase for me now.
9. No regrets
This is a fraction of the things he taught me, as a father, a friend and a role-model. And they all come together to remind me that he lived a life as much as possible with no regrets. He would have been the first to remind us all that for him, dying was another stage, and not one of which he was afraid. As much as I am sad that I can’t share with him my current life, and I miss conversations with him where I could share the challenges I have with my own spirituality, or get his always helpful, but never oppressive, viewpoint or outlook, I know I can look inside myself and find him there.
From his perspective, the best life I can live would be one with no regrets, where I apply the above lessons. And, just as importantly, cultivate my own lessons, because if there was a 10th lesson, and one above the others, it would have been think for yourself.
What lessons have you learned from your Dad? (Or mine, if you knew him?!) Share your thoughts in the comments below.