Wisdom is one of those concepts that is hard to define in writing, but easy to identify in the lived world. You know wisdom when you are in its presence. Wisdom has nothing to do with formal education, but rather is a combination of head and heart and experience and perspective and humility that comes together in some sort of hidden algorithm. I have several wise mentors in my life; chief among them is my dad. For Father’s Day this year, I want to share the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my dad. Not through lectures or even through conversation, but rather by observing the way he moves through the world.
1. The right thing and the convenient thing don’t frequently overlap—do the right thing, even if it is deeply inconvenient.
My parents have been working on a fence project at our family farm for years. There is no end in sight for the project, and in the interim, while the fence is in disrepair; the cows keep getting out into the road. My mom and I were ready to urge my dad to sell the cows and grow hay for a few years until the fence was truly ready. In response, my dad said, “the cows are in their third trimester. It would be cruel to move them in the heat of North Carolina summer from their home this late in the game.” Instead of selling the cows, we made improvements to the temporary fence, slowing progress on the true fence project, and also, doing right by the animals that are under our care.
2. A life of service is the only meaningful life. Service can come in many stripes and flavors—it can be focused on those in your immediate circle or broad reaching—no matter the style, service is at the heart of a life well lived.
A few summers ago my mom, dad, and I were walking on the beach, and we saw a man in distress out in the water. His family members (clearly non-swimmers) were shouting on the shoreline for help. In the time it took for my mom and me to understand what was going on, my dad was already swimming out to the man. To help is as instinctual for him, as breathing. Service is the consistent guiding pulse in his life.
3. Don’t seek to insulate yourself from risk, perceived or real. Living is risky. Tunnel vision focus on mitigating risk drains the life out of living.
My dad should have been killed many times over at this point. Just last week at age 62 he hopped out of the bed of the pick up truck with the chain saw whirring in his right hand. He has the strength and agility and reflexes for such antics (even if my mom and I don’t have the stomach for it) and he takes risks small and large that are within his scope (generally) and that enrich his life. As a nation, we are strangling ourselves in red tape that is meant to enhance and protect but does just the opposite, and somehow my dad demonstrates a way to gracefully ignore policies and rules that are senseless and chart an authentic and loving course.
4. Know your world and you will never be alone. Spend enough time outside that it feels like home to you.
When I was fifteen and left home to go to boarding school in California, I found a gift from my dad on my little wooden desk in my dorm room after he and my mom had left campus. It was A Natural History of Western Trees, and in the front was this inscription: “Dear Arrington, Know your world, and it will comfort you like home. Love, Dad.” Most people view land acquisition as a personal investment. My dad, however, views it as a personal conservation project. Our farm is largely under a conservation easement, and the fencing project is not just for the benefit of the cows and goats that we own, but moreover is guided by a desire to create a good habitat for the wild animals that call the property home. Just a few weeks ago, I got a text from my dad stating: “Two copperheads in the pole pile, three mice. Two turkeys and a flock of twelve goldfinches [in the pasture]. An excellent farm day.” I’m not to the point where I would claim a surprise encounter with two venomous snakes to be an excellent day, but for my dad, when it comes to the wild world, the whole cast of characters is welcomed and celebrated.
5. Death comes many times before your body dies. It comes when you lose a loved one or a vision and have to completely re-calibrate your life. You can rise out of your own ashes and rebuild. People are counting on you to do so.
When my paternal grandmother learned she had an aggressive, malignant brain tumor, she announced to the doctor and the assembled family members that it was time to go get ice cream. She was not interested in learning the futile ways they could poke and prod at her as she declined. My grandmother, is of course, one of my other wise mentors, and was my dad’s chief mentor in life. She died several months after that ice cream cone; my dad was the only one in the room with her at the time—other family members having stepped out for a short walk. Losing her was like losing our family’s patron saint, and the loss unmoored my dad in ways I probably still can’t comprehend. I shudder to think about what the loss of a parent will feel like—just the thought makes it feel like all the oxygen has been taken from the room—so the reality seems impossible. And yet, broken hearted, he rebuilt a new, larger reality that could hold both his grief and joy side by side.
My parents read aloud to my brother and me each night when we were children. There were the classics—Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web and the unconventional—Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry points out, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.” I will always be a student of my dad’s wisdom, and the music does indeed grow sweeter every year.