I will always be deeply grateful that I grew up with two parents whose love I’ve never been in doubt about since the day I was born. So much of our formation genetically and environmentally is well out of our own control. We are born with certain genes and we grow up in certain families and before we get very far these two broadly defined forces determine much of the course of the rest of our lives.
And in the case of my parents, growing up with a strong consciousness of how much I was loved I believe laid that crucial emotional foundation that makes me a positively cheerful, optimistic, open, and good natured person. When you grow up assured you are loved, heard, and understood, you feel the world as a place where you will be loved, heard, and understood—or at least where these things are possible.
One of the ways my dad was invaluably good to me was in the way he fully let me be who I was. I was never forced to do anything that I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t pressured into a sport, an instrument, a career, or a hobby that didn’t resonate with me. I wasn’t even forced to go to the top of the Empire State Building if I was afraid of heights. I grew up entirely free to find myself and to be myself. And when I was devoutly religious and my whole world revolved around Jesus, my agnostic father indulged my enthusiasm quietly. He didn’t share it but he accompanied me on a mission trip to Costa Rica when my mother was going to refuse to let me leave the country. When it came time for college he researched and found me a religious school that fit my temperament and desires like a glove. And when we went to fill out my freshman year schedule as I was an aspiring theology student with dreams of teaching in a seminary, he shrewdly nudged me to take 2 philosophy courses my first semester freshman year since they would count towards the theology degree. And that immediate double exposure to philosophy my first semester was all it took to turn me into a philosophy major. And from there it was just a short two years until I was an aspiring philosophy professor and then from there it was just a year until I was out of the faith all together.
And now I live a life where I earn my pay doing what I love most in the world. I get to teach philosophy and write about philosophy full time. Could anything be better? And when I was an undergraduate with this incredibly impractical major, not once did my dad try to dissuade me from pursuing this dream. Not once did he try to scare me with the cold hard facts of the real world and making money. Instead he has always at every stage vigilantly stayed on top of my financial needs and been there with thorough, eager advice. He has always been the guy watching my back and making sure I’ve taken everything into account. His criticism always has reflected a concern for my well-being and for my excellence. He is a man of high standards well aware of the imperfections of the world around him and within himself and within others. Although we are philosophically very different in many ways and he does not have a philosophical temperament, I learned a great deal from his role model as a critical thinker, coldly and soberly spotting the flaws, insisting on checking other angles, on doing one’s research. I’ve learned from him, or maybe just inherited through his genes, the ability to take your own press with a grain of salt and to note in every success and every bit of praise the bit of falsehood in it.
My father is a brave man who has always thrived in jobs in which people’s lives are in his hands and in which his sharp mind was put to solving puzzles with serious impacts. He spent a decade as a firefighter, a decade as a fire marshall (and eventually supervising fire marshsall) and then midlife became a physician’s assistant. He has been one of those brave men willing to rush into fires, chase after criminals, and cut people open and take on the awesome responsibility of attempting to heal them. After September 11, when dozens of his former fellow firefighters perished, he never even mentioned it to me. I hadn’t even realized he knew any of them since he’d already been out of the fire department for 9 years and since I was only 23, those 9 years from when I was 14 felt like 20. But he had known and trained some of those heroes and yet he felt no need to bring up his own personal relationship to those men, no need to see or discuss that day as somehow about him.
This past summer I stressed to him how amazing I thought it was that he’s spent nearly 4 decades making his living off of high risk, high pressure jobs in which he holds people’s lives in his hands and yet that reality never sinks in to him. As I encouraged him to think about how many people were alive today because of his work it was as though he’d obviously never dwelt much on it. He almost seemed a bit embarrassed to do so.
Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the most sinister and dangerous evils of our age, the banal evil. In studying the case of Adolph Eichmann who handled the logistics of deporting Jews to extermination camps with a bureaucrats indifference and lack of emotionally felt malice, she realized that the kind of evil that could be so desensitized and matter of fact as to not stem from anything more radical than thoughtlessness. Evil was positively mundane.
By contrast, my dad, and the many hundreds of thousands of doctors, firefighters, soldiers, and law enforcement agents who like him earn their pay saving and protecting lives, is the living embodiment of the banality of goodness. An every day hero mundanely taking the awesome responsibilities of other people’s fates in his hands. He, and they, make it look so ordinary that we can forever underappreciate what an awesome thing is being done.
But I don’t take it for granted, I admire the hell out of my dad, am proud every time I discover a trait, a quirk, a facial expression, a habit, or an expression that I realize comes from his genes or from mimicking him since I was little. Some people dread turning into their parents, I relish the thought given how much I love them.
So, forgive me, Dad, for putting this out in public for the world to see, but thank you for the ways you have letting me be me and wanting me to be me. And thank you for making me want to be like you without ever asking, but just by being a role model of hard work, critical honesty, unblinkered realism, modesty, and reflexive courage. I hope like you I never feel like settling for boring work that does not stretch me, challenge me, and impact people’s lives in ways I will never really know or be able to comprehend. I hope I will always have the patience with those I love that you’ve had with me to let them be who they are without trying to change them.
I can’t think of any better ideals by which to live or anyone else I want more to be like.