Wednesday
Aug062008

Last Letter to Dad

June 17, 2007

Dear Dad:

On Father’s Day, I think it is fitting that I share with you how thankful I am for all that you have meant to me as my father. I wish I had done this sooner and more often, but better late than never. Please make your self comfortable and accept my gratitude by reading this.

The obvious place to start is to thank you and Mom for giving me the priceless gift of life. I am grateful for your choice to create me and for all of the work and sacrifice that you invested in nurturing me into adulthood. In a very real sense, I owe everything to you for this gift. Every joy that I have experienced, every lesson I have learned, every success I have had, and every blessing that has come my way are all the result of your gift of my life. It is the greatest of all gifts. It is a gift so dear to me that I have chosen to pass it on eight times myself.

There are so many experiences in my life that are connected with you that it is quite a challenge to put words to them all. I’ll start with my childhood and work forward from there.

I am thankful for every football you ever threw to me, for every baseball you ever caught from me, and for every hockey puck you ever passed to me. With every game you played with me, with every encouragement you gave me, with every suggestion to hold my glove this way or to skate that way, I developed a lifelong appreciation for sports. It is a joy that has stuck with me my whole life, and one that I have passed along to my kids. These seeds that you planted in me have become so much a part of my life that it is not possible for me to smell the leather of a baseball glove or feel the threads of a football between my fingers without thinking of you. It is a bond that perhaps only father and son can know, and I know it very deeply because of you. One of the images permanently seared into my brain is you looking out from a window of the American Seating Company above 9th Street field as I practiced football. I felt your presence then in such a profound way, that I am sure I will always feel your presence looking over me.

I am thankful for the way that you encouraged me to learn. I am so grateful for the sacrifice you and mom made to send me to a private school and give me the opportunity to excel. Riding with you every day as you took us to school on your way to work is an experience that has stuck with me so vividly that I can close my eyes and it will spring to life in my head as if it happened just yesterday. I can’t listen to a Johnny Cash song without thinking of your car radio. I can’t ponder how to correctly spell a word without recalling the impromptu spelling tests you gave us in the car on the way to school. I can’t even drive home from work in traffic jams without reliving the seemingly endless hours that we spent in your car after school waiting for you to be done with work. I can’t write a well-crafted sentence without thinking of the Latin that you inspired me to study. I can’t hear the snap of a clicker without thinking of playing Jeopardy with you. Sometimes you tell me that you respect my intelligence and knowledge. You might as well compliment yourself, because that is where the credit is due.

I am thankful for the camping trips that we took as a family. They say that the memory of smells persists longer than any other kind of memory, and I think it is true. I can smell the Coleman stove and the lantern as if you are trying to light them right next to me now. I can smell the must of the tent and the peanut butter sandwiches. I can smell the muck of Arbutus Lake and the gasoline of the boat motor. I can smell a fire crackling in the darkness. I can even smell the sound of your harmonica. Those things were so special to me as a child that I have made sure to pass them along to my kids. When we pitch our tent up north, I see you pounding a stake. When we light a fire, I see you stoking the embers. When I watch my young son swing an axe in an act of nascent manhood, I see myself as a boy hoping I grow up to be like you.

I am thankful for the home that you provided us. I had everything that a young boy could wish for. I had a sandbox in which to build castles. I had a swing upon which to swoop and soar. I had trees to climb and hills to slide down. I had a creek teeming with frogs and snakes and crabs and a thousand other adventures and mysteries. I had a field across the street in which to play baseball and football in summers that will always go on forever in my mind. I never wanted for anything. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anyone else’s.

I am thankful for your passion about Notre Dame football. My first memory of it was when you promised to give me a quarter if Notre Dame beat Michigan State in 1966 in what would become the game of the century. You were very excited about something I didn’t quite understand yet, but I remember being excited about the twenty five cents. Strangely, whenever I see I quarter now, the scoreboard numbers “10-10” flash in my mind. From there, it didn’t take me long to understand what you made you so passionate. There are so many great memories of Irish football that have come along since then that we have shared. It is not possible to separate you from any of them. When I see replays of the Rocket running back two kick-offs for touchdowns against Michigan, I can feel the smack of your hand against mine. When someone mentions Eric Pennick’s 89 yard touchdown run into the student section against USC, I can hear you shouting “Go! Go!” (and a dog barking and a lamp crashing to the floor). When they talk of Tom Clements hitting Robin Weber on a long pass from the shadow of his own end zone to beat Alabama for the National Championship, I can feel your jubilant hug. I am so glad that you had an opportunity to be an usher for Notre Dame. You were meant to do that, I am meant to cherish the image of you in the yellow uniform and the Golden Dome in the background. I know that whenever I go to a game there, you will always be with me in the stadium.

I am thankful for our trips to Ireland. The adventures we encountered as we researched our heritage there are stories that I will tell my grandchildren. Whenever I think of our family tree, I see you following me through an endless series of Irish cemeteries. I see you paging through church archives that are two centuries old, helping me decipher the scribbled Latin on crumbling pages, in search of John Keena’s baptismal record. I see you smiling quietly as I tell Catherine O’Flaherty that we didn’t come three thousand miles to be told ‘no’. There are so many images etched into my memory from our trips. The Ghost of Durrow Abbey, the breathtaking Gap of Dunloe, the winding drives down narrow mountainous lanes on the Ring of Kerry, the glistening of heather after a light Irish rain, and the smell of peat smoke pouring from the chimney of a thatched-roof cottage all haunt me in a way that is indelible, and in a way that is inseparable from you.

I am thankful for your ability to build things and to repair things. There have been countless times in my life when you have come to my rescue by fixing my car, helping me build a deck, remodeling an attic or a bathroom, doing repairs on our condo, among a thousand other things. I have always admired you for this skill, but I will never equal your ability. I try, though. In every nail that I hammer, I feel the strength of your forearm. With every wrench that I twist, I feel the scars on your knuckles. With every board that I measure and cut, I am guided by your unerring eye. There is something infinitely reassuring about all of this. Perhaps it is the comfort of living amid the handicraft of my father. Perhaps it is the security of knowing that if something goes wrong, my dad will help. Or perhaps it is simply the joy of being loved by an unselfish father who would do anything for me.

I am thankful for your music. Perhaps this is the way that I have experienced your fatherhood most deeply. There is a joy that emanates from you when you play. The cares of the world melt away when your harmonica rings out and your guitar reverberates and you sing the songs that echo back to my childhood. It is then that I realize one of the great lessons in life, that no matter what the hardship, life is meant for fun. It is meant for singing. It is meant for Jimmy Crack Corn and She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain. It is meant for images of you and Grandpa playing music as if it might be alright if tomorrow never came. It is meant for those moments when time stands still and memories are born. I love music. I love it because of you.

I am so thankful for all of this, and yet there is one thing that I have failed to do. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s not manly to do it, or because I am not equal to the ways in which you have loved me, but I haven’t told you I love you nearly as much as I should. So, let me say it now. I love you, Dad. I love you for everything you have ever taught me, everything you have ever done for me, and every time you have loved me unconditionally (and I know that some of those times were challenging for you). I love you for the character you have shown throughout your life, and your courage in the face of the challenges that confront you now. I love you for showing me how to be a father. I try hard to apply your lessons with my own children, but I will always stand in the shadow cast by your example.

Happy Father’s Day.

Your loving and grateful son,

Jim


Wednesday
Aug062008

Letter to Peg

Dear Peg:

Happy birthday!

Thanks for the Easter card and your thoughts and concerns about my faith.

I am deeply touched by your concern, and the concern of the rest of our family. Such concern is one of the things that I truly appreciate about our family. It is such a special thing that our family bias is toward support and concern, rather than condemnation and criticism. I count this as one of the great blessings of my life.

I don’t talk much about my beliefs, partly because there is a depth and complexity to them that does not make for good casual conversation, and partly because I don’t want to threaten anyone in the family (especially the impressionable ones) with unorthodox, alien thinking.

I do spend a lot of time contemplating things, and I believe that I have come at my provisional beliefs with an openness and intellectual honesty that is unusual. I do not have an axe to grind with anyone or anything. I am simply interested in discovering truth, and the pursuit of this truth is one of the great joys of my life.

Despite my normal reluctance to talk about such things, I am going to open up a bit with this letter, primarily because you asked and appear to be genuinely interested. So, in no particular order, here is a look at some of my provisional beliefs.

1) The question of existence. To me, this is the most mysterious of all questions. Why is there anything at all? To believers and unbelievers, this is a challenging question. Of course, believers say that things exist because God created them. Unbelievers are unfulfilled by this, because it doesn’t really answer anything, and only leads to the next logical question, which is why then does God exist. In my view, no one has the answer to either question, and the questions themselves may be unnecessary. I default, then, to the simplest explanation possible (Ockham’s Razor), which is that existence has always existed, in some form or other. There is no beginning or end.

2) The question of evil. Why does evil exist? This is one of the most difficult things to reconcile with the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God. There are two possible theorems to describe the relationship of God to evil. Theorem one: God created everything. The problem with Theorem one is that it necessarily implies that God created evil. Theorem two: God created everything but evil. The problem with Theorem two is that it necessarily implies that something (evil) exists outside of God, which ruins all other arguments about the nature of God. Theorems aside, when I observe the world and see the hatred, randomness, brutality, violence, cruelty, and devastation that results from both human and natural causes, I find it difficult to see an all-powerful, all-loving God at the root of it all. If the common notion of God has any meaning, it must be that he had something to do with the existence of evil. I find this thought so appalling that I am compelled to discard the whole notion.

3) The question of morality. What defines and motivates right behavior? Believers, of course, put forth the idea that God defines right behavior, and love of God (or fear of God, more commonly) motivates us. Unbelievers are skeptical of how this is known, and are puzzled as to how early humans managed to get along before they discovered God. How do we as a species come to know God’s wishes? The trite answer of believers is through the Bible and the Ten Commandments. Upon deeper examination, this answer is useless. “God’s wishes” have been interpreted by hundreds of religions and thousands of prophets around the world. There not only is no agreement between them, there is radical disagreement (e.g., about a billion folks believe it is okay to fly airplanes into buildings and kill innocent “heathens”). Even within Christianity, there is a terribly uneven history and perspective about what constitutes good. Some Christians are for abortion, some against. Some Christians are for capital punishment, some against. Some Christians are for war (e.g., the Crusades, or the “Troubles” in Ireland), others against. Setting these obvious (and numerous) issues aside, a far deeper issue for me is what did early humans use a moral guide before they discovered religion? Religion is a very recent development (perhaps in the last 10,000-20,000 years). Humans in some developmental form or other have existed for an estimated two million years. It seems ludicrous to think that they did not have a moral code of some kind, even early on. Surely, there had to be a way to maintain peace and stability within tribes and relationships. Surely, such things as trustworthiness and familial loyalty were natural elements of early human relationships, religion or no religion, god or no god. I find it much easier believe that the relatively recent arrival of religion was in part to codify pre-existing moral developments that evolved naturally, than to believe we were amoral and directionless brutes until God scribbled something on stone tablets. For the sake of brevity on this topic, let me summarize by suggesting that morality began without religion, and can stand alone without it. This is not to say that certain religions have not added to our general wisdom about morality; indeed, I think they have. But they were not the source of morality, nor are they even a necessary precondition for it today. I have greater respect for a person who does the right thing because he recognizes its inherent rightness, than the person who does right solely because he thinks God is watching and he might go to hell.

4) The question of Man’s origin . Where did Man come from? This has been a lively debate throughout the ages. On one hand, the Creationists (and more recently, the Intelligent Design advocates) believe that God created man in his own image and likeness. On the other hand, the Darwinian Evolutionists believe that Man is one branch of an enormous river of genetic change that began 3.5 billion years ago. A sincere observation of the evidence for each of the two positions can yield only one intellectually honest answer. I say this for two reasons. First, I have an open invitation to anybody to present a single piece of evidence supporting Creationism or Intelligent Design. Just one piece of evidence. I’m still waiting, after 30 years. Second, the body of evidence supporting Darwinian Evolution is staggering. Are there gaps? Certainly, just as there are gaps in every theory man has ever developed about anything. However, I would rank Evolution as the one of the best documented theories we have, just behind Quantum Mechanics, and just ahead of Gravity. With recent developments in the mapping of the genomes of humans and other species, it is impossible to doubt the reality of evolution. It is written into the genetic code of all living creatures, and it can be observed happening in real time. The body of evidence from so many different disciplines (biology, archaeology, anthropology, geology, genetics, chemistry, history, math, etc.) is so overwhelming and so consistent that only people who willfully choose ignorance can deny it.

5) The question of love. Is God love, or is love a natural outgrowth of being human? Many believers prefer the perspective that love is impossible without God, that it is a feeling of such potency and purity that it must surely have come from pixie dust sprinkled by a benevolent Supreme Being. Non-believers prefer the perspective that love is one of many emotions that arise naturally out of our evolution and circumstance. As a thought experiment (this will be hard for you), picture yourself in a world without God. Do you think you would not love Robert or Theresa or Mary? I think that you would, and you would love them just as much. You would love them because they are flesh of your flesh, because you have invested your life in them, because you have a genetic propensity to care for their survival, because you have a rewarding relationship with them, etc. etc. We love because we are human. And that is not a bad thing. In my view, to suggest that love is only possible in the presence of God is to diminish the true meaning and power of the emotion.

6) The question of what happens after death. Does life go on? Emotionally, this may be the most compelling mystery confronting us. Most religions (not all) believe that there is indeed life after death. This is a natural hope of all humans, I suppose. Life is precious, and the notion of it ending is terrifying. But is life after death a reality, or is just a delusion we nurture as a species in order to avoid the stark finality of our temporal existence? Like everyone, I hope that the life-after-death theory is the correct one. However, this is another case where there is no evidence to support the theory. From a practical and objective viewpoint, we see billions of people die, some very close to us. All of them decay, and none of them rise from the dead, as near as we can observe. Aside from a few unsubstantiated myths (e.g., Jesus, who not even his fellow Jews believe rose from the dead), there truly is no evidence of folks being alive after dying. Despite all of our hopes and wishes (mine included), the idea seems to contradict everything we really know and have observed about existence (especially the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics).

7) The question of so many religions. If the “truth” is so obvious and ordained, why are there so many conflicting views of it? Let’s say there are a hundred religions (there are undoubtedly more, but it would be hard to argue that there are less). Within these hundred religions are widely divergent views of whether god exists, who god is, how many gods there are, what the moral laws are, whether there is life after death or not, whether reincarnation occurs or not, etc. etc. Believers of each of the hundred religions will all profess that theirs is the “true faith” (or else they would be the believer of one of the others). This creates a situation in which believers doubt the veracity of 99 out of 100 religions. Non-believers go just one step further and doubt the veracity of 100 out of 100 religions. For me, I draw the conclusion that no clear answer emerges from the polyglot of religions, so I am therefore content to use my own senses and mind to interpret the world I live in. I feel closer to the truth this way. And, the investigation and discovery that comes from it (rather than blind acceptance of dogma), is a great joy.

In closing, your concern about my faith is very much appreciated. I’m guessing that what I’ve written is not what you wanted to hear. But, I’d like for you to consider two things. First, I have no interest in changing how you feel about your faith. I wrote this letter, not to convince you of anything, but to thank you for your concern and to let you know that there is some depth to my thinking. If your faith fulfills you and brings you joy, then the last thing in the world I would want to do is to ruin it. Second, my own beliefs, as partially sketched out above, are the result of some very long and very deep contemplation. I do not hold these beliefs because I am angry with the Catholic Church, or because I want to hurt or disappoint my family. I hold them because, at this point in time, they seem to be true. But, I am always open to greater wisdom when it comes along…