4 Infrequently Asked Questions in Becoming a Good Father and a Good Son

. 11 min read . Written by Russell Smith
4 Infrequently Asked Questions in Becoming a Good Father and a Good Son

My Speech at the Father-Son Weekend at St. Paul's School for Boys

My dear friend Pat Mulloy serves as the Upper School Head at St. Paul's School for Boys near Baltimore, Maryland. We grew up on the same block and attended the same school. He knew my Dad and family, and I know his Dad and family. He enjoys my musings on Solvitur Ambulando, especially my reflections on my relationship with my father and mother. Pat kindly asked me to speak at this year's Father-Son Weekend at St. Paul's.

The text of my speech is below. Or, you can listen to the speech here too. Thank you, Pat, for a special weekend.

St Pauls School for Boys Speech 11 4 23

Thank you to my lifelong, dear friend Pat Mulloy for his kind invitation to join you today. Thank you to Kevin Benzing for all his efforts in making this Father-Son Weekend so special. And thank you to Dr. Trusty and Chaplain Meck for a beautiful chapel service this morning. You both gave me a great deal to reflect on.

I’ve been asked to share my thoughts on this question – how do we become a good father or a good son? We need to ask ourselves difficult, maybe uncomfortable, maybe stirring questions about ourselves. Questions we don’t often think about. I call them “Infrequently Asked Questions” or I. A. Q’s. Asking them is the best way I know to make progress toward becoming what we want. 

For the next few minutes, I would like to share four Infrequently Asked Questions which I believe can help us reflect deeply into becoming a good son and a good father, pursue beautiful relationships with our son, with our father, and with many others, consider well our time on this green jewel in space, and ultimately, I think, live a noble life despite the fact absolutely no one will remember a single thing about us less than 100 years after we die. And you’ll see, questions splinter into more questions; layers come to light, like the compressed and pressurized rock of eons past rising up – finally returning to sunshine and breath of the surface of life.

The first question, “What does it mean to claim a son?”

In the Second Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, King David’s son, Absalom, revolts against his father. The great day of reckoning comes, and David’s men will do battle against Absalom and his army. David’s advisors urge King David to remain in the city. And David tells his key leaders, Joab and Abishai and Ittai, and listen to the words: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

As it turns out, some of David’s men, Joab and Joab’s armor bearers, find Absalom and kill him. Absalom’s army is defeated and the revolt thwarted. Joab sends two messengers back to King David to tell him of the victory. 

The first messenger, Ahima-az, arrives and tells David, “All is well.” David then asks, and again, note the words, “is it well with the young man Absalom?” Ahima-az replies, “When Joab sent your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.”

The second messenger, the Cushite, now arrives. He proclaims, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has delivered you this day from the power of all who rose up against you.” King David asks and again, pay attention to the wording: “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”

The Cushite tells David of Absalom’s death and David “was deeply moved…and wept”; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The poignancy, the wretchedness of this chapter comes from David claiming his son – calling Absalom “my son!” – only after it is too late, only after Absalom has died. We almost conclude Absalom revolted precisely because David would not claim him, would not call him his son. Maybe if David had treated Absalom as his son, maybe this terrible chain of events would never have started. 

We sons in the room should ask a similar question: “Have I claimed my father as my father?” Do I call him “my father” proudly? Or do I shun that title, instead using other terms, as if backpedaling: “old man,” “pa,” “pops,” and so on. 

I suggest we as fathers ask this question: Have I claimed my son? What does “claiming my son” mean in our family life? For us sons, “have I claimed my father?” And how exactly do I claim my father in the coming days and years of life? Does my life reflect how important fatherhood is?

Our second Infrequently Asked Question: How do I show my love?

My Dad was not a hug it out, touchy feely man. That wasn’t how he showed his love and that was okay. He showed his love, in the Dark Ages before the internet, by cutting out articles from newspapers and magazines, and writing – by hand in his perfect cursive – a short note about the article, and mailing it to me at college. 

He also showed his love by his writing. Dad used a tailor in Louisville named Herb Melton at The Tom James Company. He worked with Herb for decades. In 2010, Herb celebrated 35 years with the company and in honor of that milestone, the company invited customers to write Herb a note of congratulations. I was also a customer of Herb and I sent in a short, cliche filled note; undoubtedly I felt too busy with whatever ultra-important work I had going on to do more. 

Dad sent in a beautiful, two page recounting of Herb’s and his relationship, its impact on Dad and a broader reflection on the significance of dress in culture. In one of the most touching parts of the letter, Dad reflected on a topic I should have considered more carefully:

“Perhaps my thoughts and feelings about you and our long relationship are best reflected in what occurred about 17 or 18 years ago when I first asked you to advise my son, Russell III, about clothing and then a year or two later I asked you to do the same thing for my other son, Brooken. You have been a wonderful mentor to both of them on clothing quality, taste, style and appropriate attire for any given occasion. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, you have been a fine example to them of how to honestly and professionally conduct the business of providing quality goods and services to others.”

I learned a lot from Dad in that letter – about spending time for others, about beautiful expression of sentiment and ideas, and about revealing admiration and regard and love for a person. 

Another story about Dad’s love comes to mind, one I have never shared before. Dad enjoyed a few nice things – nice-fitting, nice-looking, comfortable clothes, nice restaurants, and one vacation spot he adored. Otherwise, while he was not an ascetic by any means and he could afford anything he wanted, Dad did not spend much money on himself. 

I believe I know why. I never discussed this with Dad, so maybe I am wrong, but my distinct sense is this. I was born with a congenital heart defect. I’ve undergone two open heart surgeries. As I got older, the possible repairs for my insides became less and less tenable. Dad knew at some point I might require a transplant. Of course, a transplant is an enormously difficult and hugely expensive surgery. If you have insurance, fine. But if for any reason I didn’t have health insurance, I believe, Dad wanted to be able to pay for my transplant himself, in cash, zero questions, zero hesitation. And I truly believe his self-denial in so many financial moments and decisions over decades was his supreme act of revealing his love for me.

A final story here, one of regret in not revealing love. In 2006, my Mom got cancer, had surgery and chemotherapy, and recovered. She and Dad smoked cigarettes for decades – Dad usually had three or four or more packs per day from his late teen years until he was 58 years old – more than 14,600 days of smoking. After Mom’s diagnosis, her doctor of course told her she had to stop smoking…he also told Dad   *he*   had to stop smoking…otherwise his smoking would be a huge temptation to Mom. 

I don’t know how he did it, but Dad stopped smoking. I can only imagine the grip the nicotine addiction had on him and the struggle he endured to cease. 

I felt enormously proud of him. I never believed Dad could or would stop, but he did. But, I never told Dad that I felt proud of him. More than 12 years after his passing, I regret not expressing to Dad my pride in him and his achievement. I wish I had. 

Sons and fathers – don’t wait to reveal your love.

Our third IAQ: How do I spend my time?

Time is finite, life is finite, Dandapani, author of The Power of Unwavering Focus, says. How we spend our days matters. We all know that…and yet how often do we not act accordingly? So I urge us to ponder and take stock of how we spend our time.

My Granddad, my mother’s father, John B. Gaines, owned and ran the newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He pulled it out of near ruin into a thriving local paper. He served as the President of the Kentucky Press Association, and last year he was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. He lived to the ripe age of 92 and came into the office every day until a month before his death. 

As I toasted him on his 85th birthday, he was a simple man – but not simplistic. Over the years, I became aware that he spent his time carefully. He enjoyed spending time with his wife, my grandmother, his children, his grandchildren and a few, close friends. He was sociable but not too much. He served his community on boards and commissions – but only a few and then with drive and dedication. He took his time with meals – enjoying the company around the table, and the food, without rushing. He took a walk every night. He went fishing most weekends and hunting in season. 

In short, he focused his concentration, attention and time on the people and efforts that mattered the very most to him. He did not spread himself thin. He did not get distracted. 

I learned more about living from seeing him on his walks and while fishing than seeing him at the office. These activities gave him joy, reduced his stress, and offered him time to think and feel his way through life and work quandaries. They served him extremely well. 

My father, who served on the board of the newspaper at Granddad’s request, and my uncles Raymond – Dad’s brother – and Pipes – my Mom’s brother – lived and live the same way. Focused on the consequential few. 

They have all served as my mentors and I want to suggest that an excellent way to spend time is pursuing the spirit of our heroes and the lessons of our mentors. It’s funny. As young boys, we all have heroes – firemen, policemen, Batman, Spider-Man, our fathers. As we grow, we turn our backs on heroes; we find them quaint or silly. It is worth us re-discovering our heroes. With mentors, life is so much an apprenticeship. Whose knees do I wish to learn at? What are they teaching me directly? What are they teaching me by their silence? 

We can discover heroes and mentors through books too. We live in an age of unparalleled access to the accumulated wisdom of humanity — almost anyone we seek to emulate, we can learn about their paths, struggles and lessons. And that goes for learning from and through fiction too. Let me offer a few outstanding books which may introduce you to a new hero or mentor, or anti-hero or anti-mentor, which can be equally instructive:

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. Read the full, unabridged, 1250 page version. It flies by. You’ll inhabit the world and mind of Edmond Dantes through the cataclysmic destruction of his world and hopes, and find resurrection with him as the Count, brilliantly, suavely, inexorably enacting his wrongdoers’s annihilation. 
King Lear, by William Shakespeare. I named my second daughter Cordelia after one of King Lear’s daughters. His most stubborn and loyal daughter. 
The Last Lion, William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill. It’s three volumes. They’re all outstanding, all worth reading. Churchill lived a truly unique and remarkable life, from early battle experiences in South Africa and Cuba, to his rise in Parliament, to his barren years on the outskirts of politics in the 1930s, almost singularly warning the world of the coming Nazi menace, to his political revival and triumph as wartime Prime Minister, to the dissolution of the British Empire in his waning years.  The 40-page Preamble in Volume I is my very favorite piece of writing in any book, period. I re-read it at least once a year. 
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. This may be the greatest Western novel ever written. A sweeping tale of a cattle drive, you follow the trails and travails of friends Gus and Call. Your heart will soar – and break; and if you pay close attention to them, you may learn something about leadership too. 

For our fourth and last IAQ, I want to tell a story of a small man…if you saw him, you might think he was starving. If I saw this man on the street today, almost certainly I would cross the street to avoid an awkward entanglement or  unfortunate smell invading my private space. Much to my shame. He lived in poverty much of his adult life. The people in power in his country hated him, grossly misunderstood his religion and never really tried to appreciate its millenia-long chain of vibrant wisdom, insight and beauty. 

One day, he boarded a train. As it pulled out of the station, a newspaper man asked him for a quote about his leadership. The small man took out a pen, and on a scrap of paper wrote the words:

“My life is my message.”

And so it was. With his life, with his message, Mahatma Gandhi freed a subcontinent of foreign ownership and domination. He gave hope and liberty to hundreds of millions of people.

Later, he spoke his final words as he collapsed from an assassin’s bullet piercing his aging, frail body. No bullet could sunder his life’s meaning and message of liberty, self-determination and non-violence. He looked with compassion and love into the eyes of his assassin, collapsing in agony. His mantra, the name of his god, his invocation of pure love, came to his lips again and again:

“Rama, Rama, Rama.”

I believe Gandhi’s statement about his life – my life is my message – is true of us all, and always true. More than our words, our writings, our accomplishments – our lives, our very being, always communicate our message to the world.

And so I leave us with the Fourth and Final  Infrequently Asked Question: What message is my life sending?  Is my life the message I would want my son – my children – to learn from me? Is my life the message I want to leave the world?

Thank you all for your kind attention and for your hospitality. It has been a great pleasure to join you this morning. 

I’ve received so many beautiful responses to my survey on Prayer, Meditation, and Spiritual Practices. If you have a chance to respond, I would truly welcome your insights on your own practices and rituals.

Thank you to my Foster friends, JG, Nicolás Forero, Minnow Park and Jude Klinger for discussing this speech with me, and for their invaluable feedback and edits on prior drafts. And thank you to Dan Hunt, Lyle McKeany, and all the team at Foster for a beautiful Season 4, which encouraged me to ask A More Beautiful Question.

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