As a boy I did not have much time alone with my father. The best opportunities came late at night on long car trips while the rest of the family slept. Dad loved driving in silence alone with his thoughts. But, sometimes when it felt right, I would lean over the front seat and ask a question. On that evening I remember even now I said, “Dad, what do you want me to be?” I suppose every boy wants to hear his father answer that question and it was especially true for me that night. At first, I thought he did not hear me because the pause was so long but then he said, “Son, it does not matter to me what you do but the kind of man you become. Above all else I want you to be honest.” With that I sat back and Dad drove on in silence.
Years later, as a teen-anger, several friends and I were dishonest and betrayed the trust of a number of people in our community. It was an embarrassment to our family but it was more than that to Dad. While all of the other fathers chose to either overlook what had happened or addressed the failure only within the family and then moved on, my father chose another way. He and I visited each person who had been harmed by our actions and I apologized and promised to make restitution no matter how long it took. Dad stood there with me even though I knew what it meant for him to risk his own standing not only as a father but as a community leader. He was not there to make me do this but to let them know that this was part of his own personal commitment to honesty.
As I have watched men and women in places of influence over the last several years seem so comfortable with misinformation, lies, dishonesty, and betrayal I have wondered if they ever had a conversation with their father about what kind of person he expected them to be? Or were the conversations about being most likely to succeed, rising to the top of their field, personal and professional accomplishment with not enough attention paid to the virtues or character? Maybe their experiences were more like my friends whose fathers protected them from painful consequences while removing obstacles for their success.
Men Without Chests
C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Abolition of Man” about the formation of not only reason and emotions but the capacity for stable sentiments. These are the virtues formed in the chest by teachers, parents and the elders. But were these things neglected along the way in their lives and substituted with the practical wisdom of advancement – even at the expense of their souls?
“They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”
And then Lewis concludes with this: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
I have not always lived up to my father’s simple request but it has been my guide even then. It is not a burden or a weight. They are words locked away in my chest. It has become the touchstone that has anchored me through many difficult decisions. As far as I know we never discussed that conversation again and that would be easy for me to understand. It was simply a moment late at night on a long silent drive. But maybe not. Maybe he remembered it for himself as well because he certainly lived it out to the day he died.