9 Life Lessons I Learned From My Dad

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This month, as we celebrate fathers around the world, it’s hard not to be a bit nostalgic. Within the past few months, Michael and I each lost our dads unexpectedly. Although they were both over 80 years old and lived full, rich lives, we miss them. Oh, what we would both give to see them walk, talk or just smile again! When no one’s looking, sometimes I even smell my dad’s old clothes, just for the comforting sense that he’s still with us, mulled around the house.

I cling to precious memories of time we spent together. Though our relationship wasn’t perfect, I know he loved me deeply. I cherish so many things about him, including his laugh, his sense of humor, and his passion for helping others. But what I will miss most is hearing his words of wisdom, including these important life lessons:

  1. Perseverance is Key to Success. Dad got his Ph.D. while working full time and raising two young children. We often teased him for carrying legal pads everywhere – he’d write the next paragraph of his dissertation in grocery story parking lots while running household errands, on park benches after driving us to play dates – anywhere he could squeeze out a few minutes from his busy schedule to work on it. It took him sixteen years to complete it, but when he walked across the stage in his cap and gown, I couldn’t have been prouder. This taught me that the only way you can lose is by quitting.
  1. Be Frugal. A child of the Great Depression, Dad always told me that key to success is living below your means and investing wisely. He always paid his bills on time, kept a zero balance on credit cards, and lived frugally. Growing up, instead of buying fancy cars, houses and vacations like the rest of his peers, he sacrificed to invest in our education, which opened doors and created experiences money couldn’t buy. He drove the family car until it had over 300,000 miles. While this mantra has served me well in life, dad often took it to excess. He refused to spend any money on himself, even when he needed it. Though he always had plenty of money in the bank to cover necessities and died with a sizable balance in his retirement account, the shoes on his feet often had holes in the bottom.
  1. Get Out in Nature. As a small child, my dad used to take me on nature walks on the wooded creek trail behind our house. On these little adventures, I’d walk to the point of exhaustion as he pointed out various plants, trees and insects that inhabited the forest. It helped my imagination run wild, calm my spirit, and connected me to the wonder and beauty of living on planet earth. Today, I try to unplug from technology for at least 30 minutes each day walking in nature. I take any problems I have to the earth, which grounds me in the present and soothes my soul.
  1. Treat Everyone with Kindness. Dad grew up on a farm in closely-knit community in Oklahoma, where everyone spoke to everyone and looked out for their neighbors. Though we grew up in a major metropolitan area, he always taught me to be friendly and speak to anyone who crossed my path, no matter their race, position or occupation. Everyone deserves kindness. Today, I try to be especially kind to janitors, maids and those in the service industry many ignore or treat with contempt. Though they’re often surprised to be treated respectfully, it always brightens their day – and mine.
  1. Be An Advocate for Social Justice. One of the earliest memories of my dad was from the picket line, watching him fight for equal pay as the head of the D.C. Teachers Union. Though it made him unpopular with his colleagues and the administration, he put the needs of others before his own pay check. Several weeks later, the strike broke, but it taught me the importance of standing up for what you believe in if you feel it’s right, even if no one else gets it.
  1. Have the Courage to Be Honest. My dad never cheated on the little things. Even when it was to his disadvantage, he was brutally honest on his taxes, always followed the speed limit, and never stole a thing in his life. He always said telling the truth was easier than lying, because you never had to remember what you said. But when it came confronting bigger issues in the family, I often saw him tell little white lies to himself and others: he never wanted to rock the boat, even if it was important. These small dishonesties crippled him from speaking the truth when it really mattered, which hurt and disempowered him and other family members in the long run. It also gave him high blood pressure. Today, I strive to always be honest, no matter the circumstance. It takes a lot of courage to tell the truth and sometimes causes pain, but living authentically keeps me empowered and emotionally healthy.
  1. Follow Your Dreams. Growing up in the Depression and the segregated Jim Crow South, my dad always believed that the measure of success was getting a good government job with benefits and working your tail off to keep your bosses happy until retirement, when the good life began. At heart, Dad was a poet and an artist who always dreamed of publishing his finest work, but he sacrificed his deepest passions in order to provide financial stability for himself and his family. Though I’m grateful for the sacrifice, I never got the sense he was truly happy. He groomed me to follow in his footsteps, and I worked a corporate job in misery for ten years before mustering the courage to step out on faith and follow my dreams of becoming a spiritual millionaire. Sadly, dad died with his music still in him, which taught me not to wait another moment to share mine with the world.
  1. Family Doesn’t Always Come First. Since he grew up without a father, family always came first for Dad. In the positive, he was a dedicated parent who always paid close attention to our every need. But in an effort to keep the family together, he often turned a blind eye to destructive patterns that needed to be confronted and healed head on so the family could move forward. Over time, this caused deep family rifts that have been slow to heal, even after his death. Looking back, I realize that putting family first means addressing the big life issues sooner versus later, and taking whatever steps are necessary to restore balance and integrity, even if it means dealing with a little chaos, upset or separation in the short-term.
  1. Take Care of Your Health. I thank dad for teaching me to take vigilant care of my teeth. He’d often say “once you lose a tooth, you never get it back!” It was his daily ritual: he religiously flossed and brushed two to three times per day, even if he was in a hurry. But when it came to adopting a healthier diet, he wasn’t as disciplined. He struggled for 40 years with hypertension and high cholesterol, which were all a result of poor dietary choices. Though I shared with him countless times how adopting a plant-based diet could help him eliminate his five plus blood pressure medications, he wasn’t willing to make the change. What killed him wasn’t tooth decay. He died from stroke resulting from a clogged artery in the brain, just hours after gorging on a sausage, waffle and egg brunch with friends. He passed away in a hospital bed unable to walk, talk, open his eyes or swallow – with a perfect set of white teeth in his mouth.

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Though dad wasn’t perfect, both his noble qualities and his personal challenges helped shape me into the happy, healthy person I am today. For this, I’ll forever be grateful. Thanks for everything, Dad – I love you!

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