A young man recently asked me to answer a set of twenty questions regarding my life. They were quite thought provoking, but more importantly they forced me to contemplate the arc of my life and how I had been affected by both unplanned events and the choices that I made. All in all I realized as I honestly reflected on all that I have experienced that mine has been a good life. While I’ve endured some rough patches much as most people do, I was able to overcome them because of the lessons I learned from my parents and the support of extended family and friends. At the end of the day it’s not so much what things I have amassed that is important as the sense of well being that I have because of a feeling that I have generally done my best to live well.
So often my life took turns that I would not have chosen on my own but my mother had shown me how to take back the power by reacting hopefully to even the most devastating events. She used to tell me to watch and learn and I suppose that I became an expert at sitting back and quietly observing how the people around me dealt with the blows that were thrown at them. Over and over again I witnessed acts of courage and strength that both inspired me and made me an optimistic person. I learned that we don’t always get what we thought we wanted but often we find something even better than what we had dreamed.
I was at dinner with my grandson and his brilliant and beautiful girlfriend and we had the most remarkable conversation. We spoke of how much my grandson physically resembles my father whom he quite naturally called “Grandpa Jack.” He commented that somehow my dad’s legacy had quite clearly registered with him. He wanted to believe that he is carrying on the traditions of a man that neither he nor his mother had ever met. Amazingly he is so much like my father, his “Grandpa Jack,” that it is almost uncanny. I smiled at the thought of how proud my father would have been to hear our discussions of history, philosophy, and great ideas. It was just the sort of thing that he so enjoyed. Had he been present he would have been beaming with joy and yet he had left this earth when he was only thirty three. It is remarkable how much we carry the marks of our ancestors even when we never knew them.
My mother and father both taught me to appreciate the happiness that comes from learning, exploring, challenging the mind. From a very young age they exposed me to music, literature, visual arts, mathematics, science. It seemed natural to me to spend hours poring over a book. All I ever needed as a child was my bicycle and a library card to find a state of nirvana. I never really noticed that our family was struggling to make ends meet because I was so busy exploring the world around me. My mother taught my brothers and I that there was always a way to survive if we used our wits and were willing to work hard. We watched her earn a college degree when she was in her forties. To say that she inspired us was an understatement.
I had once thought of being a doctor. I slowly realized that I wanted that career more for the income and prestige it would bring me than for the sense of purpose it would provide. Slowly but surely I found myself returning to the idea of being a teacher, something that many people counseled me against doing. They reminded me that I was capable of doing great things and they somehow believed that teaching was not worthy of my intellect. In my heart I knew that they were wrong. I found great personal satisfaction in working with young children and attempting to instill in them the values and love of learning that my father had shown me. Once I became a teacher I was satisfied that I had found meaning in life. Only once did I consider trying something different and luckily a professor convinced me that leaving education would tear my very soul apart.
With the twenty questions I had to speak of my childhood friendships which were rather remarkable in that I am still great friends with individuals with whom I went to elementary school. I can meet with neighborhood playmates and talk for hours as though we still live just down the street from one another. I have high school friends who constantly remind me of my good fortune. They were the foundation upon which I built my adult life. They never really knew how much they meant to me when times became tough for my mother and brothers and me. I have met people along the way at church, work and in my neighborhood who have sustained me and made me realize the importance and goodness of friendships.
Answering those twenty questions reminded me of the blessings that have helped me through the difficult times that each of us invariably face. Those inquiries showed me that I did indeed learn from the example of my parents, my extended family and my friends. Those probes into my past not only will help a young man to complete a project for one of his classes but they also helped me to reflect on the wondrous ways in which both accident and effort define who I am. I’m happy to pronounce that I feel quite good about how things turned out, something that might have been different were it not for a host of individuals who walked with me along the way.