He's supposed to be the rock, the head of the family, the protector, in the right order of things.
But classic family identity roles are under tremendous cultural pressure and social commentators won't dare talk in those terms anymore. That doesn't change the truth.
My father passed away last week and the impact of that loss is huge and clarifying. He was elderly and broken and diminished by late stage Parkinson's, but still dignified and honorable. Even in his most broken and vulnerable years, when those qualities were less obvious, he was always who he was, and that was dignified and honorable, deep within. He embodied values up for cultural debate these days, so his life is instructive.
Some brief background…
Children aren't born with biases, they are learned. I didn't learn them and so when my first trip out of the Midwest as a child was to the deep south with my father, I was mortified to see the reality of segregation. My father always told the story of when we were in a drugstore and I saw a sign at a water fountain designating (in cruder terms) that it was for whites only. He said I shouted 'Dad!' (as if he was the only one who could hear me since he was the one I was imploring). 'Dad, they can't treat people that way! Do something!' I was a little human rights activist.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of my heroes and even as a youngster I followed his marches and speeches. When my high school introduced the first African American studies class, I was the first one to sign up. We read the 'Autobiography of Malcolm X' and discussed it, and I listened and learned more than I spoke.
We aren't listening anymore (maybe some people never did). We're certainly blurting quickly and often, in a knee-jerk reaction. Some people never have an unuttered thought, facilitated by the Internet and all the means of social networking. Dialogue and exchange is good, attacks are not. Attacks are happening often. Indefensible assaults are happening often. We're lashing out at 'the other', as Pope Francis refers to the classes of people who make us 'uncomfortable.' People are so ready to impugn reputations, question motives, doubt intellect or integrity when someone expresses a thought or shares information that is even perceived as running counter to what they believe. At what cost? Pride? Ego? A perceived 'gotcha' moment?
Pope Francis has been getting at this from the beginning of his papacy, every time he talks about being 'self-referential', needing to get outside ourselves.
Author and blogger Elizabeth Scalia was my guest for a very engaging hour of reflection on all this because her book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life became a more powerful indictment than even she imagined it would when it was published and Pope Francis was soon after elected to the papacy and began talking about idolatry and making idols of ourselves and our beliefs. Both of us being bloggers, both being women in media who try to bring the core truths of right and wrong, human dignity and right order in the world into our work, always seeking to understand it and do it better, we had a lot to talk about. And realized, together, that the gut-check for false idols has become a daily necessity.
It's humbling to go searching for where the truth may lie, even if it's beyond what we may have thought or believed. But refreshingly challenging and freeing. My father was very instrumental in that quest, that burning desire to search for truth and engage.
Long before I ever heard the terms 'Catholic social teaching' or 'social justice', I learned them from my father who fed the poor and hungry, brought comfort to the afflicted, gave work and purpose and dignity to the impaired. I was his 'little sidekick' on these missions, and it bred an adult who seeks constantly to be a peacemaker, a unifier, a bridgebuilder, a caretaker. Without compromising the truth of human dignity at the core of the mission.
Just hours after learning of my father's passing, I had an important speaking engagement as the keynote speaker and panel moderator at a medical professionals event. I kept it in honor of my father, and the dignity our family and his healthcare providers showed him throughout his final years of life. Everyone has that dignity, and everyone deserves for it to be recognized and honored.
At his poignant funeral Mass, the Beatitudes spoke eloquently of his life. While we're all fussing and sniping over the politics of healthcare law and political scandals and state elections and partisanship and hot-button social issues, my father's funeral Mass helped me re-set the importance of life lived in service to others, with faith as the moral compass.
I chose the prayer for the program that seemed to suit his life purpose the best, the one commonly attributed to St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen. Thank you, Dad, for your witness to human dignity and the care of the feeble, impaired, disabled, elderly, suffering, lonely, despairing and forgotten. They will always have a champion in you, and your legacy.