My Dad was a Nazi. This is not hyperbole. He had a khaki uniform with a red armband emblazoned with a swastika. He once stood in front of a local municipal building decked out in his outfit protesting something — I can’t remember what.
It’s not easy to write about this. I think it’s important for others to know that no matter the situation there is something to be learned. It’s not the circumstances that matter most — it’s what you do with them that makes the difference. I’ve mustered up the courage because I believe this message is so important and perhaps my story will help one person realize what I did – what happens on the outside is secondary to what happens on the inside.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, put it so well: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I can’t think of a more appropriate quote from a more appropriate source.
Despite — NO — because of the beliefs of my Dad, I learned some very important lessons. These lessons have served me well in all aspects of my life and I wouldn’t be the same without them.
Your parents are authority figures when you’re a child—no matter who they are or what they believe. Your teachers are, too. This put me in a strange position because what my Dad said about the world was on the opposite end of the spectrum from what my teachers said.
In order to keep my sanity and to satisfy my natural tendency to argue, most of the authority figures in my life fell under suspicion. I questioned my teachers and my Dad. Neither liked that very much. The plain truth to one was radicalism to the other.
It was this environment that led me to question everything from everyone. I felt adrift with no moorings to what was actually true and what was propaganda. It was unsettling and alienated me from those I should have been drawn to for guidance, learning, and mentorship.
I learned quickly that people in positions of authority were just as flawed and questionable as anyone else. I can trace my suspicion of authority back to these early days in childhood and the diametrically opposed positions I encountered. To this day, I still value my healthy suspicion of authority. It has given me the drive to question what others presume to be true and has sparked a vast number of intellectual inquiries.
Because I encountered so much diversity of information I was determined to learn as much as possible so that I could decide for myself. I read books that most kids my age had never heard of. I surfed the internet (do people still say “surf the internet?) for all kinds of information. Sometimes I thought I might pop up on an FBI list somewhere with all the different things I would research.
I sought out information on all the things my Dad would claim about the U.S. Government, Nazis, minority groups, media monopolies, history and any other radical topics of the day. I also read Anne Frank, mainstream books on religion, history, and politics, and research on economics.
I would not settle until I had accumulated enough information to make an informed decision. This took a while and I struggled with the emotion of it all. I was frustrated, angry, confused, and suspicious (question authority much?) I’d say it took me about 10 years. Ten years to gather enough information to formulate my own opinion about the world and the way it worked. Of course, it’s always a work in progress.
To this day I still have a deep intellectual curiosity. It has served me well in all that I do. I don’t accept things at face value. The status quo is always under suspicion. ‘The way it has always been done’ is an unacceptable answer to me. It reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
Good advice, Mark.
Empathy and Forgiveness
My Dad was drafted in 1967 to fight in Vietnam. At 19 years old he was in a strange country fighting and killing people he had never met. I can’t imagine living my formative years in a strange jungle trying to survive bombs, bullets, and bayonets.
At first, I was upset at my Dad for the way he was — for many years. But who is to say that if I had lived his exact life I wouldn’t have turned out the same? No one knows for sure. I realized that he was who he was and that I had to make the most of it.
When it came to the treatment of animals, he was the kindest person I knew. He wouldn’t even kill snakes. Once there was a diamondback rattler in our yard. He trapped it in a plastic garbage can and then released it far into the woods. I asked him why he didn’t kill it and he told me that the snake was necessary in the wild to eat rodents and play its role in the environment.
For many years I blamed my Dad for so many things. I’m not sure exactly when but I did come to the realization that I needed to assume responsibility for my own life and show empathy to him. He was tortured by his past and consumed by anger and depression. I prayed and pondered long hours over my past experiences with my Dad. I’m not the only person in the world who had to deal with something like this.
Tony Robbins was raised by a very abusive mother. He credits his success today to his experiences with his mom. “If my mom had been the mother I thought I wanted, I wouldn’t be as driven; I wouldn’t be as hungry.” His suffering gave him the capacity to care for and help others who suffer.
Eventually, I found the courage to forgive him. Not to him but to myself. It was so important for me to forgive him so that I could move on. It was not easy but because I went through this process and arrived at a place where I could forgive him, I’m now so much more open to seeing other’s pain, problems, and behaviors more closely and allowing myself to forgive.
I am better today for having my Dad in my life. The struggles and turmoil have given me insights, understanding, and compassion I may not have had otherwise.
I have a great family and each day is better than the last. I wake up every day and thank God for all the blessings in my life. I resist the urge to judge others and I seek to empathize with those I disagree with. I’m not always successful but it’s progress.
And what about my own beliefs, you may wonder? What conclusion did I reach through my intellectual curiosity? I believe that the best path to human flourishing is maximum freedom. I believe people should choose what’s best for them and that no one has a better claim to their well-being than themselves.
Freedom is what matters: The freedom to question authority; The freedom to explore your intellectual curiosity; The freedom to forgive; The freedom to live as you see fit and to leave others free to do the same; The freedom to chart your own course despite life’s challenges.
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