I remember the one tragic time my dad truly did something for himself.
It had been his dream to restore an antique truck, something from the 1930s, when headlights were still set out on top of the front fenders. When I was in high school, we found the body of a 1937 Ford pickup on the chassis of an 80s Chevy Blazer and some 5-litre engine out of a Cutlass Supreme or something. He didn’t care that it was all hodgepodged together, he just gets such a kick out of the body style and wanted only to build it into an old jalopy. We towed it home with the family minivan, cutting through neighbourhoods so we could drive really slowly. We’d putter around in the garage, and I remember how excited he was when he got the engine running.
My dad didn’t figure he’d work on it over the winter when it’s so cold, and besides, my parents needed to park their own cars in the garage. Dad knows tons of people through his work in a rural area, and asked someone to store the truck for him over the winter on their land. In the springtime, he went back to pick it up and the guy’s relative had sold it. He claimed it was a mistake or mixup, I don’t know. I’ll never know what really happened, but I’m pretty sure my Dad didn’t even get a penny back.
It was one of the only times growing up that I saw my dad cry. I remember him in the kitchen, facing into the sink as he washed his hands, the tears on his face. He cry-whispered, “I lost a dream today.”
And that was that. I think the lesson Dad took from the experience was that this is what he gets for being selfish. For having a personal dream instead of constantly serving other people.
I never really saw him do anything for himself after that. Well, a while later when a few car companies designed a few models (HHR, PT Cruiser) after those antique gangster cars, he got a used one. I heard him saying (trying to convince himself?) that this was to fulfill his dream of having an antique vehicle, but it rang hollow to me. He really had denied himself his dream that day.
The lesson for me
On the day I saw my dad cry, I learned it’s not OK to have hobbies. It’s selfish and sinful. I don’t deserve to be happy until I’m done making everyone else happy.
Dad didn’t mean to teach me that lesson. He was my biggest fan in sports, which are kind of in the “questionable value” end of the scale where saving the world and sacrificing to serve others is at the opposite extreme. He used to play all kinds of games with us when we were kids, giving us airplane rides or reading book series after book series (Little House on the Prairie, Tolkien, Narnia) complete with all the voices.
But most of the time spent with Dad, he was working. Building projects, cleaning the church parking lot, tearing down an old barn to build a garage at Uncle’s rural place, mixing cement in the wheelbarrow, digging a French drain, roto-tilling. I learned tons of great skills, courage to try new things, and work ethic.
That’s a funny saying. “Work ethic.” It captures the value system underlying the concept. I’m not sure what Dad would say he believes, but from his behaviour I learned that he believes he shouldn’t stop working on behalf of others unless he has pneumonia and absolutely cannot get out of bed.
One time, he cut his thigh with a saw, took off his belt to cinch cloth over the wound, and kept working till Mom stopped by after work to see how it was going. She was just chatting about her shift when she suddenly noticed the leg situation and asked what happened. They went to the hospital.
Dad has worked through lost toenails, swollen knees, sprained ankles, half-chopped thumb tendons, rashes, bronchitis, you name it. He doesn’t stop. It’s admirable, in a way. In lots of ways. It’s selfless and generous and tough and determined and loving and committed. He’s about as reliable as it comes.
I guess all our strengths can become weaknesses if taken to an extreme.
I’m proud to take after my dad. But also, it causes problems. Exhaustion, depression, guilt, shame.
Why I don’t allow myself to rest
As you may know, I’ve been having some hiccups with my current mission, the one where I’m supposed to relax and enjoy.
Guilt and shame are often rooted in family of origin (FOO) dynamics. This isn’t about blaming our parents for our problems: blaming wastes energy and turns us into whining little cry-baby victims. Gross.
Done properly, a little exploration into our family of origin can help with self-compassion. It can shed light on the experiences we learned from, the source of our patterns. Ultimately, it can help us have compassion for ourselves and for others.
And that’s what I want to talk about. The funny, reflective relationship between the compassion we (my dad) have for ourselves (himself) and the compassion we have (he has) for others. In other words how my dad’s relationship with himself taught me that I’m only acceptable if I’m working myself to the bone.
A step back for a thought experiment
Imagine yourself telling someone what you’re up to these days. Now imagine their response. The body language, what’s going through their head, what they say out loud.
When I was doing this the other day, it wasn’t a cool thought experiment so much as it was just the voice of anxiety, but it went something like this: If I told people that all I’m really doing right now is focusing on self-care, they would think I was being selfish and lazy.
Maybe they’d say something like, “Is that all you’re doing?” Or here’s one I feel like I’ve heard before: “But you have so much potential, you could do anything.”
Who would say that? Seriously, what kind of person would say those things? Someone who loved and supported me? Definitely not. Then who??
Well, I’d say those things to myself. Yes. I would. I’d give myself a disappointed look, or accuse myself of being a “non-contributor”. That’s probably one of the meanest things I could imagine saying about someone – basically that they are worthless. I’ve been telling myself I’m worthless.
Where did I get the idea that I’m worthless?
From my dad.
No, he never actually said stuff like that to me. He’s a really sweet guy and was always super proud in his own quiet way. My parents never said, “Keep busy or else we won’t love you.” They were pretty positive and encouraging about our performance in sports or music or school. I don’t think we ever got hard time about how we were doing in school, we were only urged to do our best.
My dad also “said” some really awesome stuff with his actions, including that I was capable of anything. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s a feminist in his own way. I say “don’t tell him” because he’d take it in the angry/political man-hating feminist sense, which is maybe not even “real feminism” (whatever that means), but you know how labels are. I mean it in the sense that he just handed us the handsaw or the hammer (and, later, power tools), and let us give it a try. He talked to me about carburetors and clutches and leverage and which wire was “hot”.
But he also said to me what he said to himself: I’m not good enough. I have to keep working and suffering and sacrificing for other people in order to earn my right to exist.
I watched my dad doing his very best at everything. I saw how hard it was for him when he was overlooked or underappreciated. He always worked extremely hard, too hard, and never took breaks. Still, at 70 and nearly ten years into retirement, he always has a project on the go, usually ambitious, and almost always to help someone else. Actually, scratch that. It’s always for someone else. He’s driven by love and generosity, but also guilt and shame. And fear that he’ll never be good enough.
So, when I did the thought experiment where I imagined telling my parents I was resting, relax-and-enjoying, and basically just focusing on self-care, it didn’t go well. I pictured them going quiet, the tension in the air, I pictured the disappointment and worry in their eyes. They were thinking they had failed as parents and maybe I wasn’t going to turn out all right after all. I was going to squander my potential and my existence.
Stepping back, I can see that their imagined reaction was whispered to me by the voice of anxiety. But it’s also the message I think my dad speaks to himself. Or, maybe I should say it’s what the voice of anxiety whispers to him. It says he’ll never be okay. He has to keep working.
I really identify with my dad. I think we’re a lot alike, and I’m proud of that. I’ve always looked up to him and I’m coming to realize (gratefully) how much I’ve patterned myself off him. It’s had its downsides, though. It means that I hear the messages he tells himself as messages directly to me.
“It’s okay for you to rest, but it’s not okay for me, so it’s not really okay for you either.”
As I practice resting, relaxing, these old messages come up. I feel like I can rest if I’m sick or exhausted from sacrificing, but I can’t just relax in an enjoyable way. That’s self-indulgent. I have to recognize this as the voice of anxiety, fake news. The voice doesn’t belong to my dad, and it doesn’t belong to me, either.
I have to be patient and compassionate with myself by empathizing with my own past experiences and the messages received by my inner child. My parents didn’t mean for me to intercept these harmful statements and attribute them to my self-worth, but they weren’t able to shield me, either. But now I’m the adult, I’m the care-giver, and I can protect myself from the lies. And, I can replace them with the truth that I’m okay, everyone (including me) deserves rest and happiness. It’s a process, a life-long practice.