My dad has been dead for nearly 25 years and yet hardly a day goes by when I do not feel in some way, however inchoate, his influence. As I age and am, myself, forced, with each passing day, to look at life from the other side of youth, I am becoming ever more appreciative of what he shared with me.
Wisdom is not easily come by. His came to him conscriptively, through fire, through poverty, through years of having to make do with less than he would have liked. Sometimes, though not often, he would share with us incidents from his own growing up that would give us, his children, a glimpse into what shaped his soul. Let me share one of these with you:
When my father first married, he and my mother were not able to afford a place of their own and lived, for several years, with his parents. During these years, my father worked on his dad’s farm, along with some of his other brothers. One of the winters he spent there was a particularly long and harsh one; harsh, not only in terms of cold and snow, but also in terms of the necessities of living. They were a large family, not-well-to-do, and the long winter took its toll. The family was reliant on a small herd of cattle for the milk, meat, and butter they needed for their daily subsistence. Moreover the future of the farm depended upon that herd of cattle making the winter.
With a considerable stretch of winter still before them, they ran out of feed for that herd. Feed was to be had, but it was not close by. So each day, for a number of weeks until winter finally broke, a journey of some 15 – 20 miles had to be made, in the cold, by horse and sleigh, to get the feed for the next day. The lot fell to my father and one of his brothers, along with a neighbour (who was is in the same situation) to do that journey. And so, each morning, my father, his brother, and their neighbour, would set off while it was still dark and travel nearly 10 miles by horse and sled. Once there, they would hurriedly eat a cold lunch that they had packed, load the sled with straw, and begin the long cold journey home, arriving back when it was already getting dark.
It was a marathon and it took its toll. The neighbour, a young man, caught pneumonia and, eventually, died from it. My father and his brother were luckier. They survived that ordeal – as did the cattle and, thanks to them, the family and the farm.
Telling us all this, years later, there was nothing in my father that suggested self-pity, heroism, or even that this was all that extraordinary. “We did what we had to!” was his simple statement. “That’s what it took, back then!”
Things like that shaped his soul, formed his mettle, and, conscriptively, taught him what you need to do when you are cornered by duty, done in by circumstance, and stand helplessly before certain dictates of life: You do what it takes!
Robert Moore, the brilliant Jungian analyst, suggests that the defining mark of adulthood is precisely that characteristic: the adult, man or woman, does what it takes.
I bring this up not just because all of us will some times in our lives find ourselves caught in situations where everything inside of us, and everything and everyone around us, will be saying: “This is ridiculous! Nobody should have to do this!” and, yet, find that there is no way out, we need to do what it takes, but especially because we are not equipping our young adequately to handle frustration.
Richard Rohr, speaking recently on the theme of reconstruction, stated: “Today, we are giving our children less than scraps.” There are, I suggest, different levels to his statement. On the surface, obviously, he is referring to certain moral values and traits of faith. At another level, though, he is also referring to a certain quality of character, including, among other things, the capacity to handle frustration.
It is on this point that we, as a whole society, are failing our children. We are not equipping them to handle frustration, even as, with all good intention, we continue to raise their expectations of what life should give them.
We have given our children the highest of expectations. That is good. We owe them a dream. Where we have failed them is in not giving them the tools to handle the frustration that comes when those dreams get crushed, when circumstance and duty corner them, and there is not other choice other than to do what it takes.