My father is an intelligent man, and an eccentric one, too. He’s a hermit, by shyness and by choice. His home is filled with model trains, cats, books and, well, garbage, frankly. His only heat source is his wood stove. (Yeah. I come from good stock.) Though college educated, he’s not a fact person. What he is instead is deep.
Dad has instinct. Though he believes come crazy shit, every once in a while, when he’s in just the right mood, he’ll stun you. You’ll be sitting in front of the fire together or walking down the train tracks that abut his backyard, and he’ll suddenly come out with something that you know is true, even though at the same time you’re sure it’s not, because it can’t be.
One of these conversations happened when I was in high school. It was a quiet moment, and I was feeling kinda melancholy. Dad puttered in the kitchen a bit, then brought me a cup of watery coffee with lots of powdered creamer and one sugar cube. I took it, then gathered the courage to ask him a question.
“Dad, do you think I’m a good person?”
He stopped puttering and looked at me. Then he started washing a dish. (He always washed each dish right after using it.) When he spoke a moment later, there was a rare quality to his voice: gruffness, I guess, but the kind that covers up emotion.
“Yes, Mollie, you are a good person,” he said. “One of the best. But don’t worry about that.”
Okay, I thought. That makes no sense. But I kept listening. He wasn’t done.
“Mollie, you don’t need to be good to anyone else. You don’t need to do good deeds or be a good person. The only thing you need to do is to be what God meant you to be. He made you just like you are with your own DNA, because that’s the way he likes you.”
Sometimes I wish I would’ve asked him to explain a bit, to tell me how his words squared with what I’d heard in church. But at the time I didn’t want to reward his honesty with stupid, mundane questions.
I wanted him to know I understood.
A year or so later, another evening talk, this time while snacking on candy from the candy drawer that in my memory had never been anything else and had never been entirely empty.
I ate a mini Snickers bar, then another, and another. Dad was just getting out of bed after a long rest. Wearing only underwear and socks, he came to where I was sitting and added another board to the fire. Then he started his waking up routine.
On this day, unlike the previous one, my mood was optimistic. I’d just gotten a high score on an essay I was proud of. I told Dad what it was about, then dropped another tough question.
“Dad? Do you think I’m going to be a writer?”
“Is that what you want to do?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“And do you think you can?”
“Yes. But what if I’m wrong?”
When I got home that night, I wrote down his reply.
“I failed as a writer. I don’t regret it. I regret some things–bad things I did to people. Those are the things you should regret. But I don’t regret failing.
“It took me fifty years to figure out that what you accomplish doesn’t matter. And I’ve only known that for fourteen years, but it was worth the wait. Now that I know this, I have peace inside. And it’s okay that it took fifty years to learn. Because that’s all I needed to do.
“Give it a shot, Mollie. You’ve got a good shot. But if you fail, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”
It was some of the best advice I’ve ever heard, including stuff I’ve read in books.
He really could’ve written more books.
There was only one problem with my dad’s unconventional wisdom: at the time, I didn’t quite believe it. I was still caught up in the fantasy of religion, the idea that if you input x you’ll get y. And nothing I’d experienced yet had convinced me otherwise.
Need more inner peace? Stop sinning, go to confession and attend church three times a week.
Want to get rid of anger? Pray for deliverance. If that doesn’t work, try a Hail Mary.
What my dad told me on these and other occasions contradicted this lifelong perspective. If you fail, he was saying, if you don’t do everything you’re supposed to do, it’s kind of . . . okay. Despite what you’ve been taught, you don’t need to be a good person all the damn time, Mollie. Just be who you are and the rest will work out all right.
And even though part of me didn’t believe him, part did.
The Christian in me said, “Yeah, Dad, that’s okay for you. You’re old, and you’re ready to make peace with your mistakes. I’m not there yet. I’m not ready to give up. If I don’t constantly work on myself, improve myself, achieve things, I won’t please God and I won’t be happy.”
A deeper part of me, though, knew he was right.
On both occasions, I thanked Dad for his suggestions. I didn’t mention how they differed from my spiritual beliefs. He was being vulnerable, I realized–letting me see the parts of himself that didn’t quite jive with his religion. The least I could do was accept the gift graciously, without judgment.
I did more than that, though. Not only did I accept his gift that day, I held onto it for a very long time. I carried it with me from college to college, apartment to apartment. Then later–much later, after the dust settled following my deconversion–I revisited Dad’s words, reopening them like a dusty letter found in an attic.
Hey, whaddya know? I thought. Dad was right the whole time. People don’t suck; in fact, they’re pretty great. They’re unique and beautiful and most of the time they’re doing the best they can.
I’d even say that people are holy.
Later, I read about a few other people who agreed.
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