Six Things I Learned from My Father

I’ve been thinking about my father quite a bit for the past few days. He would have turned 85 years old last week. On the correct date, I remembered his birthday and picked up my cell phone to call. I quickly remembered there would be no one on the other end to answer. This is the first birthday that will pass since his death from bladder cancer last spring.

I’ve been reflecting about the impact my father has had on my life. There is no way to quantify all of the lessons and the education received over the course of more than six decades. Nonetheless, I recognize that I have learned several critical lessons from my father that I feel compelled to share.

  1. Be polite. Say “Yes Ma’am”, “No Ma’am”, “Yes Sir”, and “No Sir”. Hold the door open for people coming after you. Not just women, but everybody. Thank people when they do something for you, however seemingly small or meaningless it may be. Remember to be gracious to those around you and respect those who take the time to teach, instruct, assist, or stand side-by-side with you during both the triumphs and tribulations of life. I have never had a single person fail to thank me with either words, a smile, or an appreciative look when I have done or said something to be polite to them. It costs nothing to be thoughtful.
  2. Always work hard and strive for excellence in all endeavors, and never accept mediocrity. I cannot begin to count the number of times in my life I was told I would not be able to achieve some goal or aspiration. I did not listen to the naysayers. Instead, I listened to my father. I worked harder than everyone around me, but did nothing to take advantage of them or in any way lessen their accomplishments or achievements. I have developed a professional career that has been fulfilling and incomprehensibly rewarding because I get to help people every day. I am the first member of my family to attend college, much less go on to get a higher level graduate degree, and then to develop a successful academic career. I have not won every battle, nor have I achieved every goal. But I can look myself in the mirror every day and know that I never threw in the towel, and I can never be accused of not working my tail off to achieve the outcome I sought.
  3. Play through the pain. My father was a minor league baseball player in Texas and throughout the southern United States. Growing up, he shared his skill and insights into baseball and other sports to help me practice and learn to be a better athlete. Some games, you get hit by a pitch, or you skin your knee sliding into a base. Occasionally, a more serious, more painful injury occurs. He taught me to get up, dust yourself off, and keep playing even if it hurts. I have applied this lesson to all aspects of my life. There are times when we are injured during a sporting event, or during some other episode in life. Physical pain happens in life, but it can be endured, evaluated, accepted, treated, and overcome. Emotional pain is also a reality in life, and may happen from events which are beyond our control, or which are related to poor judgment, loss, inexperience, or bad decisions. I have learned the emotional pain can sometimes be more difficult to manage than physical pain. Regardless, this pain must also be recognized and dealt with to move forward effectively in life. We can choose to play through the pain, which in my opinion is a much better option then becoming a victim or a whiner.
  4. Shut out and ignore the crowd and ambient noise. This lesson was taught, once again, during athletic events when my father told me when coming up to bat at an opponent’s field, or stepping to the free throw line in a hostile gymnasium, to ignore the shouts, slurs, and attempts to disrupt poise and concentration, and to concentrate on the objective. Whether the desired outcome was a base hit, a point from a made free throw, or now, much more commonly, shutting out the myriad of distractions present in modern life, it is critical to maintain focus to achieve optimal results. When I am in the operating room, I am “in the zone”, and nothing distracts me from my goal of removing a malignant tumor from the patient beneath me. I have learned it is important to shut out such distractions in all areas of life at times, so that one can proceed unhindered and unimpeded to achieve excellent results. This does not mean or imply that I believe I cannot be attentive to the events or voices around me, in fact, it is important to select and filter statements and activities to provide an appropriate and timely response. But it is crucial to know when complete attention and concentration is indicated. Don’t get distracted.
  5. Help other people without expectation of recompense. Assisting and giving to others, even knowing they can give nothing in return, is a noble endeavor. Whether it is helping someone (without being asked) with an over full grocery cart attempting to put away the bags in a heavy rainstorm, providing directions to someone standing in a hallway or on a sidewalk clearly confused and uncertain of which way to turn, or simply providing physical, spiritual, or emotional support to someone in a time of stress and consternation, it is always my immediate practice to provide assistance. I never expect or accept any type of reward or payment. I am always happy to help.
  6. Do the right thing always, and fight for those being bullied or abused, even if you wind up bruised and bloodied. Too often, I have seen people stand by, either watching fearfully or, to my incredulity, with mirth, as one individual does something to physically or emotionally harm another person or group of people. How have we come to believe this is acceptable? Those who have strength and power can use it abusively to control and manipulate. Many people have forgotten respect and basic human decency and readily fall into reckless and harmful patterns of behavior. Physical, sexual, emotional, or any form of abuse is simply unacceptable. There have been times where I have stepped into a situation not knowing the people involved in an altercation or when a more powerful individual was taking advantage of a weaker one, but I have never regretted wading in and standing up for the rights of those being oppressed. There are costs to these choices, but I accept them and I have no regrets. Scars yes, regrets no.

I will miss my father every year on his birthday, and many other days in-between. I appreciate the time he took teaching me to be a better athlete, a better person, and a better man. Thanks Dad.

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