We all have those moments where deferring to our parents is the safe thing to do. We let them convince us that one course of action clearly outweighs another. We convince ourselves that listening to them that one time when they are clearly wrong will not harm us. Some parents are savants, possessing the right knowledge base to give the best advice or feedback. Other parents lack that knowledge base altogether, sometimes falling prey to preconceived notions of what’s the right thing to do. That said, what is the last lie that my parents have consistently told me during my life? Let’s find out.
“Bottom line: Family comes first.”
When you come from a loving family, with people who genuinely care about you, you should give some credence to the old adage “family comes first.” But in my case, my parents reaffirmed a toxic precedent. This adage, “family comes first,” has created some rather disconcerting situations in my life, starting with my father (the biggest offender as to this lie). Although my mother perpetuated a similar lie, Lie No. 6, my father took a useless familial obligation and made it a sunk cost.
My father lived in a county just on the outskirts of the City of Richmond and took several tips to a rural county right on one of Virginia’s four major rivers. As he grew older, my father made nearly annual trips to this rural county. He largely made those trips to see his mother, one of my grandmothers. She was one of the nicest, most considerate people I had ever met. She truly cared about her family. Although there is nothing wrong with that, it planted the seeds for one of my father’s most tragic flaws.
When I was a kid, I never appreciated my father’s past. I had known that he had an ex-wife and two daughters. I knew that my mother did not particularly like her. I even knew my father’s ex-wife wasted more space than I could imagine. But I did not appreciate the obligations that my father owed to those two daughters. As I got older, I learned that my father had to pay 100% child support to his first wife to pay for those two children. A court ordered that obligation, so I cannot particularly object to him paying it. Can I object to him being a clueless, irresponsible teenager? Of course, I will, but that is neither here nor there. My biggest objection comes from the continued support as those two daughters got older.
I never learned my father’s annual salary or his financial situation. I only knew that he would give me some decent presents and even cash for my birthday and Christmas. But once I moved out, I noticed that my father developed a bad habit of funding a particularly wasteful and problematic lifestyle. Once he gave $2,000 to his second oldest daughter to buy some things, only to have her spend it on drugs and alcohol. Another time, he gave that same daughter one of his old cars (actually my first car at that). Although he thought he was doing the good, Christian thing, I noticed that he was basically acting out of inexplicable familial obligation.
Doing things for your family, especially those people you want in your life the most, can be rewarding. You are helping them find themselves, get them back “on their feet,” even grew into more responsible, productive members of the society. I have seen the right way to do this on several occasions. But when that assistance looks more like waste and irresponsibility, it sends the wrong message. My father funds his daughter’s toxic and wasteful lifestyle not out of kindness or benevolence, but rather out of some deep-seated familial obligation starting with his mother. I have started to see this conduct as a lie that my parents told me.
Again, when your assistance goes towards a good cause, putting family first can have a rewarding and beneficial effect on your life. They are your family; it is what you do. But what pisses me off is when family uses that kindness or benevolence (maliciously or unknowingly) for the wrong reasons, it becomes toxic. Does that make me sound bitter? Of course it does. My father never once made the effort to “fund,” or even encourage, my goal to become a lawyer. Rather, he always thought “well, he is going to be a lawyer, so I do not need to help him financially at all.” So much for family first, I guess.
My father consistently acts contrary to his best interests out of a familial obligation to a pair of sunk costs that will never amount to anything. That may sound harsh, but it merits expression. Family comes first when there is a legitimate reason to be there for them. One’s family can be the closest security blanket he or she may have. Investing time in one’s family matters, but only if there is a good reason to do so. When that time only goes towards toxicity and carelessness, you may need to sever those ties, or at least keep those toxic family members at arm’s length.
By now, you probably know that my childhood had some particularly screwed-up aspects. But reflecting on those events and relationships have taught me several life lessons. My father’s continuing lie has taught me some of the most powerful lessons of what not to do in my own life. The first lesson is to always ask “why am I doing this.” We can easily diagnose the “what” we are doing and “how” we are doing it, but the “why” provides the most clarity. “Why do I associate with certain people?” “Why should I care about something?” “Why do I want X or Y?” “Why” matters because it clarifies our thinking and forces us to appreciate our actions’ results. My father’s “why” regarding his conduct stems from a misplaced belief in familial obligation.
The second lesson my father’s lie taught me is choose the people in your life carefully. Some of my best relationships came from fortuitous meetings. I met my best friend from high school by having a conversation about computer passwords. I met my fiancée in college when I tripped in front of her. I even met nearly all my groomsmen in law school by just talking to them. Those incredible relationships came through careful selection and cultivation. My father maintains relationships out of obligation. His childhood best friend who nearly him in jail. His first wife who gave him his deadbeat children. We should not maintain relationships just out of obligation. We should want to cultivate relationships because those people matter to us and we enjoy spending time with them.
The third lesson is invest in your children’s future. It might sound cliché, but it is true. Our children are the future, and when they want to pursue something productive and creative we should invest in them. Shouldn’t the goal be to have our children do better than us? Yes! Taking an interest in their futures and providing them proper assistance can help them achieve their goals and even help us feel proud. But when assistance goes to a child who makes proven bad decisions, like drugs and alcohol without any desire to get better, the parent must make the hard decision. Ultimately, encouragement is a parent’s best investment tool because it reaffirms good behavior and decision making. If the child needs some financial assistance, the parent should give that whenever possible.
The final lesson I learned from my father’s lie is to recognize that all the most successful people in the world had some assistance. Whether it is financially, spiritually, or interpersonally, success does not come from only one person. Although the motivation must come from inside, outside assistance helps in realizing goals. The old saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” applies perfectly here. The ancient Roman Empire as we know today did not grow because of only one person’s drive to build it. It came from a network of people working together to arrive at an end goal. That also applies to success and fulfillment. I would not have accomplished nearly as much as I have if it weren’t for my fiancée’s encouragement. My parents’ financial assistance would have been nice too, but it stands to reason that the right assistance for the right reasons goes a long way.
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