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A Lesson in Grace

August 16, 2011
Father Daughter Talk

Yes, my dad is as awesome, if not more so, as Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch. No, I'm not a little girl.

Most of the times when I come home or a break, I figure a way to earn a lecture from my father. Even if I’m only back for a few days, I’ll say or do something stupid enough that deserves it.

This week between summer session’s end and fall semester’s beginning was no different.

This time, I had advance warning that it was coming. I said something inconsiderate, not even thinking about it, and it was my mother who pointed out how ill-conceived it was.

She was right. It’s a bad habit I’ve gotten into. And to be honest, it already has come to bite me in some situations (but fortunately, in situations where the consequences aren’t life harming.) One time, I was having a discussion with a guy whose manner of engaging in conversation I found a bit abrasive. I made a joke about poor bedside manner, and then he totally flipped out, indignantly asking what gave me the gall to challenge his professional status.

I didn’t even know the guy was a doctor!

I understand that I’m supposed to be learning from these things, but I’ve been a poor student. So it really was a good thing to be taken aside by my father and talked to about these things… If only so I know what to focus on.

… I guess what worries me is that this isn’t how I always was. (Actually, my parents will probably challenge that… They have warned for years that my acid tongue and my brother’s will get us in trouble.) The difference now is that I feel my humor tends to be a sort of deprecating style… And I consider myself more and more quite the funny guy.

The other day, I remarked to myself that I thought watching shows like 30 Rock and Arrested Development (we recently got Netflix, so it’s quite easy to watch episode after episode) made me wittier… But what I didn’t consider was the fact that in shows like that, jokes to the audience come at the expense of characters in the show. But TV differs from real life in many ways, most relevant of which is the fact that TV has veil of unseriousness…characters don’t take themselves seriously, whereas human nature in real life is quite the opposite.

… So I did not disagree with that part of the lecture. And I thought this was a bit of an accomplishment… Most of the time, even when I know what event about which dad is lecturing, trying to interpret the flow of his lecture feels like scrying tea leaves. But this lecture, I felt I got it.

But every lecture isn’t just about one thing when it comes to my father. Even when it is about one thing, dad meanders through stories and anecdotes.

And certainly there were bits of those here too. I’ve come to appreciate the stories because they invariably offer glimpses into his life or into the captivating (but not quite so when it’s you) mysterious political world of adults. Especially of parents trying to be the best advocates for their children while keeping the children blissfully unaware of how much work that can often take. But this lecture was multipurposed, well, on purpose. Maybe he wanted to give all the guidance that had been building for a year, or enough to last for a year?

Whatever it was, he admonished me about other things. About the things I say on Facebook (I can’t help but suspect he wouldn’t exactly approve of everything on this blog either, but some things I resist abandoning.) He admonished me for quitting something at school…for viewing myself as above it, viewing it as unimportant. I was either closing doors in my naivete or closing them in my arrogance.

And then he talked about the need for me to be more gracious.

This idea had come up before, with the Facebook debacle. But I had no idea what it meant then and no ears to listen to dad then (and why not? The original FB controversy occurred when I was at school, 6 hours away, so it wasn’t like he could physically draw me in to a lecture then.)

But now this message was coming back.

For whatever it’s worth, I feel I really understood a lot of what he was saying, because of philosophical ideas I had explored earlier. (But dad takes a dim view of much university-taught philosophy…he repeats a trope of its being comprised of classes designed to teach people how to argue in circles and say nothing.)

But as for the message: in short, our status as individuals is so…contingent. It is so situated and dependent. To get where we are, we doubtless rely (and have relied, and will rely) on the actions of countless others. Opportunities afforded by others. Opportunities withheld by others. We take action among the possibilities afforded by others.

That’s where grace plays in. So many things to which we would like to own: “I did that,” actually owe their actuality to the grace of another. So we may have taken a step through the door and may be proud of that, but who unlocked the door? Who constructed the door? The walkway? Who taught us to walk? And what if they hadn’t? What if they had built the door only for themselves rather than for others?

A thoughtful individual reflects upon the events in his life and always comes to the reality of his situatedness.

… But dad always has to wrap his lectures (at least, these days) with an amorphous, but definitely present, theism. (I forgot to mention that earlier in the lecture, Dad made sure to refer to Paul’s words about doing that which he hated, yet not doing that which he wanted to.)

Every time he incorporates these theistic messages — even if they are stripped of proprietary Mormon or Christian quality as much as they can bear for whatever purpose he wields them — I feel he does it as if to say, to him who calls himself an atheist, that you are unable to see something critical about the universe and its inhabitants if you will not willingly remember some higher power — however addressed and revered — who is ever present in your life’s contingent, dependent trajectory.

And so that part of the lecture went as well. When a storm comes, by what means is one man struck by lightning and another not, but for grace (however you attribute it)?

He anticipated the criticism: don’t be so quick to say, “God does not exist” because of the empirical fact that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. (I still don’t know how anyone is supposed to find any satisfaction in such an answer. Why some people see a universe whose trajectory has God’s hands weaving through it and others a universe that looks exactly like what they would imagine a universe without any god at all would look like.)

I wanted to fight against those parts of his message. But there was also so much of the message I wanted to point out with which I do agree. I wanted to protest: That even if I do not accept some things, and I have not learned some lessons yet, that does not mean that I have learned nothing, or that because I do not frame my life in a theistic tapestry that I am incapable of learning more.

But I didn’t want to ruin the moment. And I knew that if I fought back, then dad would just say that I didn’t get it. He would say that I was using that university philosophy to argue in circles without saying anything. That I thought I knew more than I did, and that if I kept thinking like that, it would come to hurt me if I did it with the wrong person. And that I was not gracious.

I once read a story from someone about how his parents used to laugh at him. They pointed out to their son that he always felt he needed the last word, to which he (of course) protested that he didn’t. But his protests only brought more laughter from his parents, who pointed out that he was proving them exactly right.

If I were a more humble, gracious person, then perhaps I would not publish this post. It’s something to work on, for sure, but also a resolution to procrastinate out of stubbornness.

But that boy grew up and learned. One day, I may join him.

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