Lessons from Dad


Today is Father’s Day and the Sunday paper is filled with stories about dear old dad – columnists waxing nostalgic, the funny pages referencing dad doing chores, dad eating a big sandwich, dad napping on the couch. I’ll probably call my dad later in the day. I believe he’s away on vacation, but I’ll leave him a message to let him know I’m thinking of him this morning. Because I am.

But my thoughts of my father were spurred on less by Dan Shaughnessy’s article in the Globe Magazine, an exerpt from his latest book about fathers and sons, than a story in the national news section. Shaughnessy’s was a nice piece, quite thought provoking and quite traditional, but it was the report of the disbarment of Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong that made me think most of my dad.

For those who might not know, Nifong is the soon-to-be former DA in North Carolina who oversaw the debacle of a legal case against the Duke lacrosse players last year. By all accounts, he’s received his just reward (save some prison time) for “getting carried away a little bit” in his zealous prosecution of the young men who were ultimately acquitted of all charges brought against them. Their behavior may well have been reprehensible, but if all reported accounts are true, it hardly merited the legal proceedings and media circus that resulted.

As I read through the story, my almost immediate response was to ask the question, “Why?”. Why in the world would Nifong do what he did? Why would anyone in such a position act with such callousness and recklessness, and a seemingly complete lack of common sense?

It seems that most of my life – at least as long as I’ve been keeping up with the world – I’ve been asking this question. Not the specific one of Nifong, of course, but the general question of why in the world people act the way they do, and in particular, people in powerful positions. And it was while asking this question yet again this morning that words from my dad came into my head.

My dad taught me any number of things growing up, some better than others and some I appreciate more than others. How I feel about the lesson I write of today is really up for grabs, but regardless, it seems I learned it well.

Today, what I recall my dad teaching me is the lesson that nobody gets to a position of power being a “regular person”. To put this in context, “regular” means someone like me (or in this case, my dad too), someone who goes along through life trying to do what is expected, trying to show up, simply trying to be decent. It means doing what you have to do because you have to do it and because it’s what you’re supposed to do. In other words, your typical, run-of-the-mill, garden variety, “regular Joe” (or Josephine).

It also in this case means someone who actually asks the “why?” question. At least that’s how it came up and came out in our conversation thirty odd years ago. We were discussing some politician and I, being the idealist that I was (and less and less am), was completely dismayed at the behavior of a particular leader. I was quite emotional, as I can sometimes be in these type discussions with my father, and quite confused while trying to defend the person in question and be disgusted by him all at the same time. And in the midst of my diatribe, my dad calmly said, “No one gets to that place in life being a regular person”.

According to my dad, regular people do, on occasion, stop to ask why or why not when it comes to their behavior. And they ask from a different, larger perspective, and for a different, larger reason; because they want to at least try and do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the right thing for them, personally. The two might not be mutually exclusive, but by my dad’s account (or mayber more fitting, the lesson I took from him), to get to the places of power that put you in the news daily, you have to do a lot more of the latter than the former.

For better or worse, this is the lesson I took. Was my dad teaching me to be a realist?  Was he trying to point out a truism about the way the real world works? Was it an act of protection? Or is my dad nothing more than a cynic when it comes to his world view?

I remember being so dissapointed with him at the time, wondering what was the matter with my father and how did he ever get to be that way… and that I’d never be the same. But it was hardly this morning’s paper that reminded me again that I, some time ago now, did indeed become an awful lot like my father. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone reading the news,  following the events of our world, and being anything else. I do wish I could be more of that idealist I once was, but instead it seems more that I’m just a “regular person”.

For better or worse, thanks Dad.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: