Monday, November 30, 2009

The Hard Way

I’m riding next to my father in his pickup, my dog sitting rather awkwardly on my lap looking happily out the window, when my father reprises one of his most persistent questions: Do you have to do everything the hard way? Of course, I answer this question precisely the same way each time: Yes, I do. But the real answer to his question is much longer, and involves closer contention with the question itself.

What does it mean, exactly, to do things the hard way? To me, doing things the hard way means asking things of myself that I would never ask of anyone else. It means working and living only where my heart is. I do things the hard way because the hard way is the only way. I don’t, any more than anyone else, relish suffering and struggle. But neither am I afraid to struggle or to suffer, if I do so honestly. This lack of fear pains my father, perhaps understandably. He wants life to be gentle to me. I want life to challenge me, to make me work for it.

The funny thing about the conversation with my father is that I came to feel this way about life, in large part, because of him. He has shown me, in thought and in word, that being honest, particularly with yourself, is so terribly important. And being honest, for me, means coming to know myself the way I only can through the clash of life, through facing all of its challenges.

I remember, often, a particular moment with my father. I was young, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. And I was suffering. I have no recollection why, but in the memory of it I can feel the pain deep in my body, the ache of it. My father, seeing my suffering, spoke to it. He asked me to join him on the couch in the rec room, where through the window I could see the sun setting. He put The Moody Blues on the record player, and we sat, silently, listening. This was, he told me, what he did when the fact of life was hurting him.

I’m not a fan of The Moody Blues, but that moment with my father was one of the most significant of my life. He taught me something, something I hope I’ll never forget. He taught me I wasn’t alone. And that knowledge has made me fearless. If I have to do things the hard way, my father has only himself to blame. He taught me that I could.

I value the freedom and independence that fearlessness has bought me almost as much as a value the honesty for which I fearlessly strive. Of course, I’m not always honest. But the only suffering I can’t bear is the suffering that comes of my own dishonesty, especially my dishonesty with myself. That is the suffering that brings no solace, the suffering of despair, the sickness unto death.

I did things the hard way the day, when I was perhaps seventeen years old, when my father wouldn’t let me borrow the car to drive to the nearby town. I, angry, set out on foot, a distance of perhaps fifteen miles. I walked all day long, accepting a ride only once I reached town, and then only to another town a good fifteen miles away. Walking home, bone tired, I watched as the sun began to set. That moment I passed over a culvert, the vibration of my steps awakening the dozens of birds lingering beneath. They flew over me in a magnificent arc, disappearing, finally, into the sky. When I arrived at home, my father was furious. But, I think he was also proud.