By Owen Phelps
Director, Yeshua Institute
I heard the words again Sunday in Verona, WI. One of my granddaughters, Nicole, was giving a graduation speech before an audience of several thousand. It was quite an honor because she had been chosen for this task by her classmates.
If she was nervous I couldn’t tell. Her voice was strong and expressive. Soon enough I heard some very, very familiar words. They were absolutely unexpected ... and brought a tear to my eye.
Her words took me back to a night many decades ago when I was a young father back home visiting my parents and siblings for the holidays. As was our custom, my dad and I had stayed up after the rest of the big crew in the house had gone to bed for the chance to drink more beer and passionately trade perspectives on the many facets of life.
It was at a time in our lives when fathers and sons seldom see eye to eye. At the moment in our discussion we definitely were not of one mind. We weren’t angry. I respected my dad’s intelligence and insight too much to completely dismiss his opinions even when I vehemently disagreed with them.
But I welcomed the opportunity to tell him how wrong he was about so much in life.
Back then we were both used to thinking very differently about a lot of things in life. But fueled by an ample supply of beer, we had both become very passionate … and pretty loud.
Our love and respect for each other always kept the rifts manageable. But at one point my mom climbed out of bed and came back into the kitchen to tell us to hold it down.
She also wanted us to shut it down and go to bed. But as Mick and his buddies in the Rolling Stones would say, “You don’t always get what you want.” We weren’t about to stop.
I don’t know what we were disagreeing about. But it must have been pretty intense. Because suddenly my dad was reaching for his wallet, saying he might not know everything there was to know about life, but he did know what mattered to him.
Not to be outdone, I reached for my wallet too. We both pulled out clippings we had laminated and put in our wallets. “Here, read this” he said, as he handed me his clipping. Not willing to give him the last word, I handed him my clipping and replied, “And you read this.”
It took no more than a second or two for us to both stop reading and look each other in the eye. Damn! Our mouths were agape, shocked at the realization that we had handed each other the same verse.
All through the night we hadn’t agreed on anything. And here we were inadvertently affirming that we embraced identical values.
We shook our heads, shed some tears and hugged tightly – absolutely amazed at the incredible miracle we were living.
You deserve to know the words we had each saved as a reminder to us of what mattered most in our lives. Here they are:
“To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived,
This is to have succeeded.”
The reflection is almost universally attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, although my youngest son did a little research and discovered it really belongs to Bessie Anderson Stanley, who wrote it in 1904. In any case, with both Bessie and Ralph long gone, matters of authorship are peripheral.
What matters is the perspective, the incredible insight. And in my case it matters that my dad and I shared that perspective -- long before we knew it.
When my dad died we passed out that short reflection to everyone who came to his funeral lunch. After being married for over 50 years and raising 10 children, it was clear to everyone that he lived by the words in that little clipping he had buried in his wallet.
I was blessed to hear my children proclaim those same words in their high school valedictory speeches – and since then I’ve seen ample evidence that they live by it.
Now a grandchild – one of 17 – has professed it too.
I look forward to the day when all of them will embrace it -- in their words and even more in their deeds. I may not be around by then, but that won’t matter any more than issues of authorship.
What matters is that a healthy, generous, grateful, thoroughly Christian perspective on success has found a home in my family going on four generations now.
As Father’s Day approaches, it’s a good time for me to say, “Thanks, Dad, for giving me that perspective on success – even though neither of us knew it for many, many years.”
And it’s a great time for me to confess that I couldn’t have a better Father’s Day gift than to know that perspective will survive me in the lives of my descendants for at least two generations, God willing more.
Let’s lift a glass to healthy children, spiritually as well as physically.
Thank you, Lord, for fatherhood … now and forever. Amen.