The Praise Of A Father
The Praise Of A Father
June 6, 2013
Winston Wayne Wilson
Father’s day is not until June 16th, but I’ve committed to writing about whatever jumps into my head when I wake up and “the praise of a father” is what popped into my head when I woke up this morning so here goes.
Apparently, all praises are not created equally. The praise of a mother is almost a given, probably because mothers tend to be more emotionally available. So as children, and even sometimes as adults, we wait patiently for our dads to look at us and say something, anything, that validates us. Inspired by my own relationship with my father, I wrote the following poem:
W. Wayne Wilson (Life In Seconds, 2009)
The praise of a father is everlasting,
giving breath to life itself.
It flavors bland dreams,
and straightens their posture,
leaving them sturdy like steel.
It strangles fear,
makes monsters disappear,
and abracadabras seem real.
It emblazons ambition
like spreading pepper sauce,
feeding the hunger within.
And in the nick of time, it saves your soul,
just to hear him say, “you did swell!”
As an adult, in moments of crisis, I often do a cerebral Google search to find words of wisdom or encouragement that my father shared with me as I was growing up. In my case, the search typically comes up empty. Either I just cannot remember or enough of the wisdom and encouragement I craved for were just never spoken. With my mother, it’s a different story. I am eternally grateful that she has an opinion on everything so I am privileged to have her immortal words whispering in my ears. But secretly, I wish there were more daddy-inspired words of wisdom and encouragement in my memory bank.
Yesterday, a very good friend of mine confided in me that he has somewhat of a similar feeling. His father, who he admired and who he believes lived an amazing life, recently passed away. He wished he had a guide, which he assumed his father must have had to have lived such an upstanding life, to help him navigate his own life. His father never said much. However, during our conversation he said, “The one thing I remember my father would say was, never baby yourself.” Instantly I got what it meant and a wave of wisdom splashed over my mind. “That’s awesome!”, I exclaimed, “If your father said that to you and you have lived that way, then maybe that was all he needed to say to you.”
I also told him that if you ask Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates or any ultra-successful person what is the secret to his or her success, somewhere in the response there will be something that can be translated as: “I did not baby myself”. In other words, you have to be tough in life. You have to be committed to do the work to succeed. You have to fight your demons and win. You have to muscle through pain and you have to have the courage to toss your baggage away. There is so much wisdom beneath the skin of those three simple words: “Never baby yourself.” That is a powerful memory for my buddy to have in his memory bank filed under “The Words Of My Father”. I am sure his father was proud of him because I know my friend and he surely did not baby himself.
While I don’t have an incessantly flowing reservoir of words of praise and wisdom from my father, I was lucky enough to accumulate them in other ways. Because I craved wisdom, the universe would send surrogate fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters to deliver me the goods, so to speak. So, I am grateful. Whenever that little part of me starts to feel a twinge of regret about not hearing enough praise and wisdom from my dad, my well-fed soul reminds me to be grateful.
In many ways, my message today is really about the power of words and the importance of saying the right words to our kids and to each other. The right words are words that are useful. Words that are empowering. Words that give us the tools to survive life’s vicissitudes. Many of us spend time and energy focused on creating financial plans to ensure that our kids go to the right schools to learn math and English and whatever subjects they choose. Unfortunately, most of us do not have a life plan for our children to learn survival skills. A plan that tells them how to succeed in handling life’s challenges – stress, failure, disappointment, rejection, depression, discrimination, low-self-esteem, peer pressure, tempting vices, making moral choices and so on. For many of these critical things, we tend to leave it up to chance. We cross our fingers and hope for the best.
I will leave you with a final story. In 2010, the PBS documentary, Faces Of America, featured the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The documentary was hosted by Henry Louis Gates, a distinguished Harvard professor who, along with his research team, used advanced tools of genealogy and genetics to research the family histories of 12 renowned Americans, including Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo Ma, who always felt that he was named after a toy, was on a mission for discover whether his parents had a sick sense of humor or whether there was some more profound meaning to his name. What Henry Louis Gates helped him to discover was startling. They discovered that Yo-Yo Ma’s genealogy dated back 255 years ago and was well documented in a four-part bamboo genealogy that not only dictated the family names but also passed along detailed instructions on how to accumulate virtue and live an upstanding life.
The genealogy was started during the Qing Dynasty in 1755 A.D., by Yo-Yo Ma’s fourth great uncle, Ji Cang who completely dedicated his life to documenting the stories of the Ma family and to send messages to the future generations. Ji Cang started a convention where the male heads of the Ma family were to update the document every 30 years. That continued until the Cultural Revolution in China (~1966 to 1976), when the Red Guards set out to destroy what was referred to as the “Four Olds”: old culture, old customs, old habits, and old philosophies. People who were discovered to be harboring these “Four Olds” faced public humiliation, imprisonment or death. As such, the four-volume bamboo genealogy was at risk of being destroyed. The keeper of the genealogy at the time was Ma Yo-De, a distant cousin of Yo-Yo Ma. He faced an unfortunate dilemma: either he spared the Ma family genealogy or he spared his life. Ma Yo-De, in consultation with his father, decided to hide the four-volume bamboo genealogy in a wall in their home, thereby fooling the Red Guard into believing that they had lost and long forgotten about their family genealogy.
Years later, as China modernized in the 80’s and 90’s, Ma Yo De renovated his home and re-discovered the four-volume bamboo genealogy, which was now partially damaged by water. Ma Yo De started to throw the genealogy away but, out of respect for his father and his ancestors, put them in a box and left them in the family home until they were discovered by the documentary team and were brought back to the United States. About half of the four-volume bamboo genealogy was destroyed, while half was still readable. And, fortunately, although destroyed by water, the other half was restored back to life by boiling the bamboo – hence there was wisdom in using bamboo rather than paper.
The best part of the story was really Yo-Yo Ma’s reaction to discovering the four-volume bamboo genealogy and the effort it took to preserve the documents so that the future generations could benefit from the wisdom and knowledge. In Yo-Yo Ma’s own words: "That's the best, that's the best we can do as parents. It's not passing wealth...but passing you know, certain values, in this case, virtue and good fortune."
There is a saying: “One generation plants the tree, the other reaps the shade.” This is exactly what the patriarchs of the Ma family did for so many years. They did not cross their fingers and left anything up to chance. Rather, they created a life plan for generations to come.
So, even though my story emphasized the roles of fathers, the bigger message is really about the power of words – whether we speak them to our children, write them on bamboo, or leave them behind in videos. The format doesn’t matter. Either way, these words will be emblazoned in the minds of our children and our children’s children. My challenge for you today is to choose your words carefully. Then tell someone something that will last a lifetime. Enjoy your day.