Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reflections and Life Lessons

"Just as much as we see in others we have in ourselves."
--William Hazlitt

On January 23rd, 2013, I spent a long night obediently following my inspiration across the page with a pen. I took a break to Tweet some random and unexpected thoughts about my father. I had no way of knowing how important those words would be to me in hindsight, as I read them again nearly 10 months later, when my father passed away:

My father earned the title of hero during his service in the Army. I learned this not from him, but from his friends, brothers in arms and West Point alumni from his class of 1950, whose memories and stories I collected in bits and pieces over the years.

To me, he was just Dad. And by no stretch of the imagination would I say he was an easy dad. He was a man I felt I could never please. All throughout my formative years and long into adulthood he admonished me not to live on the coattails of the success of my ancestors. "Never mind them," he'd say. "What have YOU done lately."

It seemed to me, growing up, that when it came to what I'd accomplished, nothing I did was ever good enough for him. I could bring home what I thought to be a proud accomplishment, and he would find fault in some part of it somewhere and demand more from me. And if he couldn't find fault in my work, he'd find fault in my pride.

I took these things to heart. And I battled with them for years.

One day I became a speechwriter for Laura Bush. I sent Dad one of the first speeches I wrote for her. He called me after he read that speech and told me he loved it. And then he asked me who wrote it.

Maybe he thought I'd been hired as press aide, not a speechwriter, and that I'd been assigned the task of transcribing the First Lady's remarks, which must have been crafted by someone better qualified, with more talent and experience than I had. No explanation could wash away the heartbreak I felt when I realized my own father couldn't believe that I'd been entrusted with that job -- and that I was capable of writing that speech.

Some years after that, I had the honor of working in the White House as Laura Bush's speechwriter, and I invited my dad to visit me in Washington, D.C. and attend a White House Christmas celebration and dinner party with me. I took him on a tour of the East Wing where my office was, and where some of the White House military staff also had their offices.

I'll never forget the look on his face that day. He beamed.

Later, when we were eating dinner together at the White House staff party, Dad told me something that changed my life.

He said in all of his years of military service, working at the Pentagon and so on, he had never been invited to a White House event like the one I'd brought him to as my guest that day. And I knew then, finally, that he was proud of me.

And then, more importantly, I realized that he'd been proud of me all along -- but greater than his pride in my achievements was a father's fear for his daughter...that I would somehow falter, or fail, or stumble and get hurt.

All my life what he really had been was not critical of me but vigilant for me. He had the compulsive protective need to find the flaws in my plans and point them out to me so I could fix them and overcome them -- and thus not falter or fail, but succeed - even soar.

My dad saw the hero in me that I didn't see in myself. And I guess the only way he knew how to nurture and protect that vision was by being what I saw as impossible to please.

I wish I had realized that sooner, but I am grateful that I know it now. I see it in the smile behind eyes that don't always recognize his surroundings or the people who help him every day. And I hear it now, when he says, "You're an angel. I love you."

I have found much peace in that. And gratitude.

It was a bittersweet revelation. I only had a year to spend with him in that new light of acceptance and understanding, while I looked after him in the aftermath of a stroke that led to dementia and ultimately took his life.

I read somewhere once that West Point had experimented with a new curriculum for cadets, which was a radical departure from the old-school "find the weakness" methodology: instead of finding the flaws to fix, they taught cadets to find the strengths, and build upon them.

What they discovered is that the cadets were far better and ultimately more successful for the new curriculum. They reported better, optimistic outlooks on life; when faced with challenges in both their military and home lives, they saw opportunity and hopeful outcomes and reported less depression and illness over the long term.

A fundamentally different philosophy, radically new for the institution but as old as time itself: Accentuate the positive. And it works. With fewer side-effects.

As Barbara Colorose said, "The beauty of empowering others is that your own power is not diminished in the process."

The most important life lessons seem to take the longest time to learn. But they're worth it.

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