My dad has the highly annoying habit of always being right. He once cured a stress migraine I’d had for a week by telling me what I was actually worried about. I’ve tried to fight it. I’ve ignored his advice. I’ve told him he’s wrong (shrieked it at him, sometimes, in my teenage years) and ostentatiously done the opposite. But when, inevitably, I realize my mistake, he’s always there with a smile and a knowing look but never (or hardly ever) an “I told you so.”
There are hundreds (millions!) of things he taught me that I hope one day to pass on to my son. But, in the interest of space, here are three things my father taught me that I know to be true (because they must be true if my dad said them).
1. Stand up for the little guy.
When I was a kid I had a habit of falling in with the wrong crowd. Not the seriously wrong crowd, just not the right crowd. I’d befriend the cool kid who, inevitably, turned out to be the bully. But there always came a moment when I knew I’d made a mistake. It was the moment when one of these kids would ask me to pick on the little guy. You know who I mean, right? The girl who wasn’t pretty, or smart, or lived in the wrong neighborhood or had the wrong accent or whatever. Whenever that happened I knew my time hanging out with the cool kids was done.
All I had to do was think about the stories my dad used to tell. My dad can tell a great story, but the ones I loved most were the ones that were true. “Tell me about when you were a little boy,” I used to say as we walked home from school, or sat at the breakfast table. There were tons of great stories, but the ones that always came to mind when faced with the choice of whether or not to join in with the bullies were the ones about standing up for the little guy. In those stories, there was always some big thug who was beating up some nerd and my dad would step in and scare him away.
See, it’s not just that you shouldn’t join in when someone is doing something wrong, my dad’s stories showed me, it’s that you actually have to stand up for what is right. Which is scary. Because what if they start picking on you too? What if no one likes you anymore? What if everyone thinks you’re just like the kid you’re protecting who, let’s face it, is kind of weird? Well then so be it, my dad would say. You did the right thing.
2. Don’t change yourself for someone else.
Once, when I was maybe 11 or 12, someone had bought me a baseball jersey with Donald Duck on the front. I loved that shirt. I wore it around the house and on weekends but never to school. “I can’t wear it to school,” I told my dad, offhandedly. When he asked me why not I told him that none of my friends would like it. They’d make fun of me. I don’t remember exactly what he said in response, but the gist of it was this: who cares what they think? You like the shirt. Wear the shirt.
So I wore the shirt. It would have been so much easier to ignore him. To write him off. What did he know about being an 11-year-old girl? But I knew he was right. He’s always right. I showed up to breakfast the next morning in my Donald Duck jersey. My dad didn’t make a big deal about it. He didn’t parade me around or make an example of me to my brother. I would have hated that. He just said, “Nice shirt,” and picked up his spoon.
It took a lot of courage to wear that shirt to school. My dad knew it would. He knew he was asking no small thing of me. But he asked it. Because it takes courage to be who you really are. But it sure beats the alternative.
3. Fear is just an emotion.
As a kid I was afraid of pretty much everything: the dark, dogs, the people with leprosy in the movie Ben-Hur. I spent a good chunk of my childhood afraid that a character from a John Candy comedy was hiding under my bed. And I was afraid to do things too. I was afraid that I’d embarrass myself auditioning for the school choir. I’d miss my family too much if I went away to camp. No one would want to hire me if I applied for a summer job. If I called a classmate up to ask for a playdate they might not want to come over. It was so much easier, it seemed, to just hide in my room than face the possibilities of a frightening world.
But the thing is, I sang in the choir. I went away to camp. I worked multiple summer jobs. I picked up the phone and set up playdates. Sometimes I was told I had to. But sometimes I did it on my own. Because, in my house, “I’m scared” was not an excuse. It was simply a statement of fact. “Being scared is never a reason not to do something,” my father often told me. “It’s only a way that you feel.”
John Wayne, one of my dad’s heroes, said it best: “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” I’ve never stopped feeling scared. But my dad taught me to see fear for what it really is: a way that you feel. Not something you act on.
Thinking about it now I realize that what my dad actually taught me was how to be brave. How to strip away the fear and the uncertainty and the worry and just do the thing that I know is right. Because I’m happier when I’m honest with myself. And being honest takes courage.
I’m not always right. My son won’t be able to say that of me. But if, and it’s a big if, I can teach him to be brave and true and strong then I’ll know I’ve done something right. I’ll know because it’s what my dad taught me. And my dad, annoyingly, is always right.
Happy Father’s Day.