Almost four years ago, my father died. But all the same, I learned an important lesson from him today.
I loved my father dearly, and remember him fondly. In my entire childhood, he was the only person I can remember – family, friend, or otherwise – who treated me with respect, dignity, and unconditional acceptance. He never treated me like I was too young to understand, and even when we disagreed, he didn’t let it come between us.
All the same, it’s taken me half my life to unlearn most of what he taught me.
You see, my father was born almost a century ago, as the youngest in a large, wealthy, and privileged family… shortly before that wealth and privilege evaporated in the Great Depression.
Still a child – not even a teenager yet – his family lost everything. No longer did servants make hand-cranked ice cream on the back porch for him and his brothers; no longer was there any ice cream, period! Instead, he had to go to work to help support himself and his family.
And during those years, he learned many hard lessons, which he duly passed on to us, his children.
Lessons like, “man appoints and God disappoints,” “Don’t expect anything, and you won’t be disappointed,” “You’ll just have to learn to live with it,” and so on.
And beneath the slogans, a burdened, world-weary attitude. As far as I could tell, in his heart of hearts, my father had given up hope long before I was born.
He told me how, when his fortunes had turned enough to get him into college, another misfortune required him to drop his chosen major in music.
(Truth be told, I’m a bit hazy on the fine points of many of his stories, so I hope I’ve not done anyone an injustice by errors in my understanding or re-telling. I really only remember the thrust of his losses: how each time, just as things seemed to be going his way, something would come along and make it all go away.)
I see now, too, that he must have seen in me that same streak of ambitious dreaming he’d once had, and that he must have feared the world would break my heart… as it had his. No doubt he shared his stories and sayings with me, hoping to guard against it.
So when the world went against me, as it sometimes must, I thought I saw the truth of his words and attitude, and despaired similarly.
However, while my father possessed patience and a sense of duty, to stick with the hard thing and see it done, I had none of these qualities. And I always saw myself as less of a man because of it.
Holidays are a funny thing. Sometimes, they take me by surprise.
I’ve never been particularly fond of Thanksgiving, nor had any particular reason to want to pay attention to it. And so yesterday, I really didn’t expect it to “feel like” Thanksgiving, especially with Leslie and I on a rather strict diet.
It wasn’t that I felt like I needed to be thankful for anything in particular. It was just that I felt like it really was a holiday, that I could choose what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it. That I was free to come and go as I pleased, or to do nothing at all if I felt like it.
And the really odd thing about that feeling, is that it should be true for me every day of the week. After all, I work at home and I set my own hours!
But even if I didn’t; even if I was still driving to my corporate job, Monday to Friday, it still would be my choice, my time.
So why didn’t it feel that way?
For decades, I’ve lived with these invisible chains. At first, I wore them only weekdays, and let them go entirely at weekends. But during the last few years, working full time for OSAF but also building my business part-time, I stopped really giving myself any true days off.
And I suspect that if it weren’t for the holiday atmosphere at the grocery store the other day, and the need to plan around its closing yesterday, I would’ve done the same with these two days.
Still, it was only by accident that the bookmark happened to be in the right place, at the right time, to make me realize what I’d been doing all this time, and to help me escape the darker side of my father’s legacy.
The page fell open, in Robert Fritz’s book, Your Life As Art, to this passage:
The existential ideal has to do with the notion that the person has to pay for his or her ticket in life. The person with this idea feels the need to justify his or her eixstence. Often, this person doesn’t think the same thing is true for other people. But, this person must do good deeds, accomplish worthy goals, contribute to the earth, and be useful to the world.
Often, this person judges him or herself by how much has been accomplished that day. If enough has been done, one is justified in having a good night’s sleep. If not enough has been accomplished, the person reviews the day, makes plans for the next day to include greater effort, and feels that he or she hasn’t paid sufficiently for life. These people often … would like to contribute to the world. But their true desires are turned into an ideal in which one has to earn the right to exist.
I’d read this passage before – hell, I’d read the whole book. But it hadn’t hit home as clearly, without the contrast of a holiday mood. I’d also tackled a similar issue just a few months ago: the feeling that I’d let people down if I didn’t get things done.
But this was a bit different, and I started to dig deeper. Using RMI (a technique I’ve been writing a lot about lately in the Thinking Things Done book), I began to investigate what was causing me to feel like I had to do enough to… what? Deserve to live?
No, it wasn’t that, exactly. I didn’t feel like I had to “work to earn my living”. In fact, it was just earlier this year that I’d let go of that lesson from my father!
And so, using RMI, I began exploring my mind deeper. What would happen if I didn’t do anything? Who would I be?
And the answer was, I wouldn’t be a good person. Not unless I was “doing something with my life,” or “doing my duty,” or “doing God’s work,” or some such theme of my father’s.
In a flash, all of my recent difficulties began to make a lot more sense. You see, the more I’ve increased my mental freedom in the last year, the more I’ve realized that I really can do whatever I want with my life, the greater my confidence in actually being able to achieve my goals…
The Less Certain I’ve Seemed To Become About Them!
Sure, on a small scale, my life has improved by leaps and bounds. But on the larger scale, I’ve felt a lack of clarity in my goals, especially as I’ve been doing so poorly (by my own standards) on my quest to finish writing Thinking Things Done. (While still making it the book I want it to be.)
Now today, this very afternoon, scarcely more than an hour ago, I see that what I was still trying to get through my accomplishments (even after so many changes) is something that I could never have gained from them: a sense of my worth as a person.
Now, I don’t mean I had low self-esteem. In fact, since I first developed a technique for removing negative self-judgments last October, I’ve increased my self-esteem a great deal.
But what I hadn’t removed – because I didn’t know it was there – was this feeling that I needed to be doing something – anything – in order to be a person of value.
And as I continued my RMI, I immediately saw where this “hole in my soul” came from:
I’d Inherited It From My Father
Not intellectually, through his teaching, but simply through his example.
Last week, I wrote in the new issue of Change Without Pain (the Owners’ Circle newsletter) about how I’d inherited a similar “hole in the soul” from my mother: her fear that something terrible would befall me in almost any physical activity. As a result, I’d spent most of my life avoiding any form of physical discomfort or exertion whatsoever (aside from walking and bicycling for transportation, in the days before I had a car).
You see, we don’t have to intellectually receive or accept an idea, to believe it in our heart, soul, and bones. Given the right circumstances, the mere attitude of someone close to us is more than enough to form an imprint… especially one of fear, anger, or despair.
Our minds are designed to learn our parents’ emotional responses, on the theory that their survival means their learnings are useful to us as well. A monkey that has never seen a snake is not afraid of it, but if it picks the snake up – and the monkey’s parents freak out….
It Will Never Touch A Snake Again
Humans are a bit more complex, but not by much. My mother wasn’t so much scared of physical danger to me, as she was of her own perceived helplessness to control the world and its dangers. And my father wasn’t really trying to teach me his sorrow: he didn’t so much believe that everyone had to work to be worthwhile… only himself.
But here I must pause a moment to clarify something about these ideas. After all, they may – or may not – reflect some reality of my parents’ lives. But both of them are long dead now, so I certainly can’t ask them to clarify anything.
Still, when mind-hacking, it’s especially important that you not make the mistake of confusing your perceptions with reality. And not because reality is more important!
When working with your mind, in fact, it’s your own perceptions that are most important. The ideas that my brain got about my father and mother are what determined my beliefs, feelings, and behavior; not whatever reality…
Actually Existed In My Childhood!
So, even if I am 100% off-base about what my mother and father did or didn’t feel or believe when they were alive, it doesn’t actually matter, in the context of fixing my beliefs.
In a sense, I carry my father and my mother inside me – just as we all do. And thus, when I analyze them, I am actually analyzing my own internal models of them, rather than the reality.
And by changing those models – which my brain is using as reference points for my own attitudes and behaviors – I change myself.
So a week ago, I got rid of my disdain for discomfort by giving my “inner mother” a way to plug the “houl in our soul.” And so today, I found myself looking for a way to do the same with my father.
Using RMI to reflect on our time together, and the tales he shared with me, I soon saw what my “inner father” was missing: no-one had given him the same unconditional acceptance he’d given me.
Youngest of a large family, taken care of by servants… he’d probably barely met his parents before he had to support them… or else. And from then on, his entire self-definition had likely centered on work – and his duty to do it. And only in work did he find any kind of peace since then.
And yet… and yet, it was on holidays that I knew and loved my father best. The days he laughed and joked as he made us all breakfast, and even sometimes flirted with my mother. (The rest of the year, he rarely did any of those things, except sometimes on a Sunday.)
In retrospect, I see now that he too only lived his life on holidays and weekends (if then), because only then was he not expected to…
Work to define himself!
I am sharing this story with you at somewhat of a risk: mind hacking doesn’t usually involve much of this sort of digging into one’s past, and when I work with a client I don’t usually even want to know anything about their childhood.
In part, this is because armchair psychoanalysis is dangerous. Not because you’ll go crazy or make things worse, but because it’s just such a big damn waste of time!
See, you can have all kinds of “insights” into your childhood, and yet not change a single stinking thing about yourself. (And I did that for years before I grasped the mind-hacking way of doing things.)
No, the only way to be sure you’ve had a real “insight” or change is to observe your brain’s behavior in response to pre-established stimuli:
A Test, In Other Words!
Up until that point in today’s research, I had been using the idea of “not doing anything” as my test stimulus, and it had been reliably producing a kind of gnawing, empty feeling.
So once I’d found the hole and applied the Gateway of Desire technique to heal it, I applied the test once more. Would I still feel that empty despair at the thought of not doing important things?
No. Not only was it gone, but I felt something else… something my father had long despaired of finding in life.
In the years after I’d moved away from home, my father had spoken to me of wanting to understand the meaning of joy. I’d tried to explain to him what I thought it meant, but of course talking about feelings is like playing music about physics, or dancing about geometry.
But now I see that my father did know joy, as did I…
On holidays and weekends.
And there was one more thing I felt, something that I don’t think I’ve ever really known before:
Sure, my parents taught me to say thank you and be polite, and told me that I ought to be thankful for a great many things. But it never really “took”.
Gratitude was always something I was supposed to feel, but never actually did. I suppose on some level I assumed that it was something that existed solely for the sake of manners and polite society.
But now, I see that it was simply this: while my value as a person was defined by what I did for others – and vice versa – I could only ever treat life as a series of trades, in which gratitude would be utterly superfluous.
Now, however, I am able to be grateful just for existing, let alone the love of my wife, and all the blessings I have obtained over the course of my life.
It’s a rather strange thing, all in all, because even though my father always seemed to unconditionally accept me, I never unconditionally accepted myself. So that, because I loved him with all my heart, and wanted to be like him, to be him… I followed in his footsteps, instead of following his example.
And I’m touched now, too, by the amusing irony that I have learned and done all this, on this, of all possible days, this weekend of Thanksgiving.
And for that too, I am grateful.