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This Father's Day

Like most young men, I have a complicated relationship with my dad. In all honesty, my most vivid childhood memories consist of more painful recollections than not. Past pieces I’ve written have mentioned some of the relational strain between my father and I, but what I don’t mention is that this strain goes all the way back to my youth. None of this is unique, nor is it some sort of particularly difficult burden, either. But what I find interesting is that despite the tensions, frustrations, and pain from the past, those are not what comes to mind when I choose to think about who my dad is, or the things he taught me.

“If you remember nothing else, remember this,” he would tell me, over and over again. “You carry our family name with you. It’s your job to represent our family, and to remember the three things our family doesn’t do: we never lie, we never cheat, and we never steal.” In hindsight, it seems more productive to define yourself by what you stand for rather than the things you’re against. But that’s not the point. The point is, the most vivid and enduring quote I can think of from my dad, the line that always comes to my mind first, is that he raised me not to “lie, cheat, or steal.”

The second quote that comes to mind isn’t that different from the first. “Character is who you are when no one else is watching. You don’t get gold stars on the calendar for doing the right thing, especially when everyone is watching. But character is who you choose to be when no one will know if you chose to do right, or if you chose to do wrong. The paths you choose in secret are the ones that show who you really are.” I know he didn’t come up with that himself, and again, it’s not all that important. What’s important is that these are the lessons I think of when I reflect on what my dad actively tried to impart to me. These are the standards he put before me, the principles he challenged me to live up to.

**Perfection vs. Perspective**

The irony behind the things my dad taught me is that they were typically reviewed when I had clearly failed to live up to them. My dad would remind me that we “never lie” typically when I had done just that. He would emphasize the importance of doing the right thing when no one was around, typically when I had gotten caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to, when I could also just as easily have gotten away with it. What I don’t recall are times when things were going pretty well, only to have him randomly approach me to say “Good job in not lying, cheating, or stealing today.”

There’s a reason for this: that’s not how standards or principles work. They’re not in place to tell us how awesome we are, they’re in place to let us know when we’re messing up. “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”- Romans 3:20. My dad didn’t say that we “never lie” because he thought that was the actual reality of our everyday lives; he said it because that’s the standard we should aspire to. Despite being virtually impossible, “Never lie” is the only reasonable standard of honesty that serves as a clear-cut check on our actions when we deviate from it. The standard must be aspirationally high, otherwise we'd excuse all sorts of bad behavior. Consider the alternative. Take a moment and imagine how a child would turn out if they were taught to "Usually tell the truth, don't steal very often, and cheat only on special occasions." Yikes.

**From our fathers, to our 'founding fathers'**

The current social and political moment in the US draws several parallels with my father's lessons. We've never had a time when our history, our principles, and our founders were more heavily scrutinized. As of this writing, there have been vandalism on, and calls to remove monuments to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and even Abraham Lincoln. Worse yet, the same fervor that fuels the rejection of these men as leaders to be honored is fueling a rejection of many of their ideas- particularly the ideas put forth in our founding documents, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.

The arguments used to justify this rejection can be distilled to the notion that since our founders did not fully live up to the ideals and principles put forth in our founding documents, the principles themselves are tainted. Some go so far as to say our founding principles actually intend the opposite outcomes they purport to seek. Failure to live up to the standard is used to justify rejection of the standard itself. Does this seem reasonable?

Before our daughter was born, my wife and I began to have many of those “how we want to parent our kids” conversations. The interesting thing about these talks is that they typically gravitated towards the things our parents did, which we wouldn’t do. “Here’s how we’ll do it…” We reflected on the routines, norms, and traditions we grew up with, and made grand plans of how much better our norms and traditions would be. We weren’t necessarily rejecting these things (though that was certainly the case in some instances), but engaging in a type of reflective refining process. “We did birthdays like this, but I’d probably change this aspect of it.” These reflections also inevitably brought forth memories of hurt feelings, and parental shortcomings. “I know they didn’t mean it to be hurtful, but it really sucked whenever ____ would happen. I really want to make sure I don’t make those same mistakes.”

Anyone who has kids, or thought about having kids, or even just reflected on their childhood, understands this thought process. We think about the good things. We think about the imperfect things, and how we could do it slightly better. And we think about the shortcomings, the times our parents failed to live up to the standards they set for us. These memories often burn brightest for us, for a very simple reason. As children, our parents are the ones who most embody our picture of rules and standards, because they are the ones who teach us those things. When our caretakers fail to meet their own standards, the hypocrisy and injustice is vivid and unnerving, even to a child. *Especially* to a child. Whatever else is true about kids, they are remarkably adept at picking up on base-level hypocrisy. This sense of outrage at unmet standards persists into adulthood, though we rarely obtain the ability to see ourselves with as much moral clarity and consistency as we see in the world around us. Many things persist from our youth into adulthood, including the naive lack of self-awareness often embodied by our younger selves

It would take little effort to think back on all the times my dad failed to live up to the standards he set for me. It turns out, people have a propensity towards imperfection. This reflection wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, either. As I mentioned, part of becoming a parent included learning from the mistakes of those who came before me. But there are ways in which that reflection could serve more destructive ends. I could use the fact that my father never perfectly lived up to the “we never lie” standard as justification for rejecting the standard itself. Fueled by bitterness, pride, and naivete, I might even convince myself that I could simultaneously reject my father’s lessons, and somehow create entirely new, superior standards of my own. Fortunately, I currently lack the self-aggrandizing and delusional impulse to do that, but I am in no way immune from the capability of such things. None of us are.
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*“The question isn’t whether or not a man is flawed; even on our best days, all men easily fall into this category. The real question, the important thing to consider, is to what degree a man seeks to overcome those flaws, and courageously challenges us to do the same.”*
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It’s important to learn from the past. “Never meet your heroes” is a saying almost exclusively for those who fail to acknowledge the flaws in even the greatest of individuals. But the failure of men to live up to the standards of greatness is no reason to abandon those standards. Nor is the universal imperfection of men a reason not to honor those who possess the courage to demand more of us, even as they also fall short of those demands. Like my dad courageously taught me, I will also teach my daughter not to lie, not to cheat, and not to steal. I’ll teach her about character, and what it means to adhere to principles, even when it’s difficult. I’ll teach her through my words, and I’ll teach her through my actions- including my failures. This morning was awesome. I chased her around, played hide and seek, and continuously melted into sappy puddles every time she gave me that cheeseball grin and giggled. It’s seriously the cutest thing ever. It was in the midst of that pure parental joy that I had the idea to write this piece, and was reminded of a sad truth: every mistake my dad made that I attempt to avoid, will inevitably be replaced by a different mistake that I am completely unaware of.

Just as my dad never *intentionally* hurt me, I will also unintentionally hurt my daughter’s feelings. If the day ever comes that she becomes a parent, she’ll have the exact same conversations her mother and I had. She’ll reflect on our screw-ups, our hypocrisy, and our good intentions gone awry. Hopefully she’ll learn from those mistakes, and do a better job than we did. I also hope that she’ll absorb the things that her mother and I (by the grace of God) manage to get right, also. We’ll set standards- and we’ll fall short. We all fall short. It’ll hurt, it’ll be embarrassing, and it’ll be a tough lesson for her in the imperfection of her parents. I reflected on all of that this morning, and yeah... it hurt. It hurts right now, as I write these words. But this won’t stop us from putting those standards before her. Our own flaws can’t be a barrier to aspirational greatness- to challenge our daughter to be better, and to always seek to be the best version of herself.

If we judge the quality of all such calls to greatness by the faults of those issuing them, we shall find every value, principle, and standards to be lacking. One of the most popular quotes of all time- “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”- was not Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortation for the perfection of mankind. Gandhi saw enough of human nature’s dark underbelly to know such things would never be possible. Rather, he was calling all of us to strive for the greatness we wish to see in the world around us. To set the bar high. To never be satisfied, and always seek to do better. To boldly and unapologetically set standards we could never fully attain, because the zealous pursuit of those standards is what separates greatness from mediocrity.

Our founders were not perfect, just as our fathers are not perfect. But like those that came before us, we too will fall short. The story of America is my dad teaching me about honesty, integrity, and hard work. The story of America is the conversations my wife and I had in our living room, the reflective refining, and sincere contemplation of how we could better exemplify the principles we’ll teach our children. And the story of America is also all the times that our parents failed to live up to those standards, the big and the small hurts, and childhood scars- both in us, and in our children, when we inevitably fail as our parents did. The story of America is lots of things, ranging from the unbelievably good, to the heartbreakingly evil. Our job isn’t to forget the past- or destroy it. All we can do is learn from it- all of it- with the hope that the next generation will do the same, just a little bit better than we did. But none of that is possible without maintaining the one thing that enables us to even think such improvement is possible in the first place- the wild pursuit of greatness, of excellence, of principles we could never fully achieve. But we pursue them all the same, because we know the alternative is to live in a world where you never tell your children to dream, to imagine, to try, to strive, to endure, to create, or to love.

So here's to you, dad, and all the other standard-bearers and bad joke-tellers. To the heart-to-heart givers, and tough-love dispensers. To all the fathers and founders, failures and figureheads, the hypocrites and the heroes, here's to you. Good, bad, and everything in between, we wouldn't be who we are without you- and for that, I'm forever grateful. Happy Father's Day 🤙
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