Do you ever wonder what’s happening on the inside of another person as they make a big decision? Your seemingly self-assured boss moving forward on a risky venture? Your friend who needs that little nudge? Your father, just diagnosed with an incurable cancer?
I’m genuinely curious about the conversations people have with themselves. While I listen to what they are saying, I’m captivated by what they are not saying. As I sit in reflection, spurred by Dad’s diagnosis, I’m moved to understand the man I’ve known longest. The one I’ve looked to and maybe not always understood.
For years, I worked on the inside of energy companies. My interest in motivation so obvious that teams would invite me in to be a ‘sounding-board’. They would offer a discreet peek into the inner workings. Able to hold the space between echo-chamber and harsh judge, I learned a lot about what went on behind the stoic postures, external confidence and composed voices of big corporate decisions.
This month, I’m far removed from the corporate world. I’m spending precious time with my parents and siblings. Together, we’ve been riding an emotional roller-coaster. Hanging on tight. Anticipating, then dreading Dad’s appointments with the oncologists. Tests to be had. Decisions to be made.
The biggest decision is now made. Dad’s lung cancer is so aggressive, he has chosen quality of life over quantity. We’re in full-on palliative care.
January days at the farm are cold and blustery. Dad spends his waking hours watching black-and-white John Wayne movies. In short bursts of laboured breath, he regales caregivers and friends with stories of his 82+ years of living. He’s a remarkable story-teller. Dad recounts his decision to quit high school and come home to farm. His decision to nurture the same slice of land for his entire life.
I wonder. What motivated Dad to make these life choices he now candidly narrates with a thoughtful look, a twinkle in this eye? I listen intently, as one does when time becomes precious. The answer couldn’t be clearer. My Dad has a super-sized sense of Duty. That’s duty with a capital ‘D’.
With a heart-flinch, I also wonder: How will this giant sense of Duty guide his choices in the days and weeks and months ahead? We all lean in to catch rare glimpses into his internal workings.
What motivates the big decisions?
Young children ask ‘why’ questions. They do so without hesitation or apology, sometimes incessantly. Teenagers ask ‘why?’ too. With a little more attitude. Of course, to get anything done, you eventually have to focus on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. Yet, it’s the ‘why’ that stirs me.
In those company days I had the audacity to craft a business tool, a ladder of motivation, to deconstruct, to understand, how people made their decisions.
I wasn’t judging. As long as people complied with laws, these were their decisions to make.
It was fascinating stuff. Big brains inside companies struggling to grasp what drove their corporate decisions. It was a thrill to see the light bulbs go off as people figured out what was really behind their choices. My goal? If people inside these companies could recognize what was driving their choices, they usually did a better job walking their corporate talk. Integrity matters.
The bottom rungs of this ladder are fear-based motivators. You want to avoid punishment. You ask questions like, ‘if I make that decision, will I get in trouble, even go to jail?’ Then came decisions motivated by reputation. People asking, ‘how will others see me?’ Then there were compliance-based decisions. People felt obliged to comply with laws, with rules. All of these lower-middle rung motivations are externally-imposed.
Nearer the top of the ladder are decisions made ‘beyond-compliance’. These are choices motivated by a person’s internally-generated will. To do no harm. To create a legacy. To reach beyond the corporate boundaries and just do something good for others.
So, you wonder, how do I make the leap from corporate decision-making to understanding what compels my father’s choices? Especially Dad’s end-of-life choices.
I think I can. What I learned inside companies does help.
There’s no written or judge-made law that requires my father to feel obligated to others in the way he does. There’s no fear of punishment. Dad doesn’t really care if anyone else knows what he’s doing.
He’s does what he does because he wants to. Dad simply believes it’s his responsibility to act. Occasionally, I’ve met corporate leaders, even politicians, who act like this. Their critics often don’t believe them. Regardless, they are resolute.
When an aging neighbour, Orton, was on his death-bed, he asked Dad to care for his widow. My father took on this huge responsibility. When their small country church, Bookton Presbyterian, needs to have snow blown out of the parking lot for Sunday service, Dad just does it. He’s been doing it for 27 years. He looks after the tile-beds and eaves troughs too. Nearly invisibly. It’s not just the Holy Spirit that’s meant to flow in this church.
My father’s sense of Duty aligns to the ‘beyond-compliance’ rungs of my ladder. He’s a man largely propelled by an internal engine called Duty.
I’m a lawyer. Duty is one of those old-fashioned words our profession throws around willy-nilly. It’s a tad cryptic. Duty suggests a responsibility to do something, even if it’s not written down in a law or rule.
What does ‘Duty’ really mean?
A Duty is owed to someone else. The responsibility arises because of the relationship.
Lawyers have a fiduciary duty to their clients. A doctor to a patient. A politician to constituents (really, this is true).
When you owe a Duty to someone else, you are expected to put their interests ahead of your own. That’s why directors of companies are expected to put corporate interests ahead of their personal interests. Ditto for politicians.
My Dad is neither a lawyer, doctor nor politician. He’s a farmer. Always has been. So if not from formal relationships or training, where does his absolute sense of Duty come from?
A 21st-century Man of Duty.
It’s always amused my kids that their Papa Wally can wiggle his ears. We tease Dad that he’s a genetic throwback.
In this same spirit, I dialed back time to 44 BC and re-read Marcus Cicero’s book, On Obligation. I’m determined to locate the wellspring from which Dad’s sense of Duty flows.
Cicero is helpful. We’re all bound by obligations to each other. “We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone; our country, our friends, have a share in us.”
For Cicero, that means you don’t harm another. And common interests have to be protected. Timeless insights. 44 BC Cicero helps explain my 21st-century father.
Dad feels responsible for others, especially the vulnerable. He doesn’t have the hubris to think he can save the world. His boundaries of responsibility extend only as far as the outskirts of the rural community where he’s lived his whole life.
Dad adapts to change, but only incrementally. Over his lifetime, his farming pursuits have evolved step-wise. From dairy to beef cattle. And, then, following the disruptive expropriation of a feedlot operation by Ontario Hydro, from tobacco to ginseng.
Dad prefers his facts unvarnished. Opinions are interesting, but facts are far more useful. My stomach lurches, listening to him discuss radiation and chemo options with oncologists. He’s blunt. To the point. If you can’t cure this cancer, and treatment is that rough, I’m better off with quality of life than quantity of life.
And, Dad rarely allows anyone to see how deeply he feels. Moderation and self-control shape his accountability to others. You wouldn’t want to be a burden to others.
Values of a former day.
Reading this, you may conclude that my father is dedicated to the values of a former day.
A day when a nanny state wasn’t needed to tell you what to do. A day when people resolved differences through common sense discussion of the facts, not litigating the opinions of highly-paid lawyers. A day when emotions were buttoned up because you didn’t want to burden others.
I’m watching for signs. Will Dad judge others in the community, those who don’t or can’t reciprocate now he’s the one who is defenseless? He must know that not everyone chooses to shoulder Duty, with a capital “D”.
I’m a little wary, too. Is this aggressive sense of Duty hard-wired? Are my siblings and I prone to this gene? Did we pass it on to our children?
I’ve thought about this, a lot. When I hold a baby, I just sense it. This baby is born with dignity. Dignity is inherent in the child. (That’s why we have ‘human’ rights. We’re simply born with them.)
When I hold a baby, I don’t perceive a sense of Duty in the child.
Perhaps I see the potential for Duty, a certain proneness. Maybe more so in an eldest child. Duty is a motivation that seems to surface over time. In some, with great force. In others, it remains dormant. Often, it’s triggered by life events. Much like cancer.
Dad was the middle child in his family. He was fun-loving and sports-minded as a youngster. One of Dad’s most enduring memories is of his father. Grandpa Kennedy contracted rheumatic fever in his 3rd year of university, had to quit school and return to the family farm. He suffered from a weakened heart and died at sixty. Grandpa’s declining health may well have been the trigger that stimulated the growth of Dad’s sense of Duty. As a young man, my father resolutely stepped in to fill the gaps on the family farm.
A palliative care team has now stepped into my parent’s home. Their kindness, medical awareness and friendly banter are a gift to us all. With a new-normal routine taking place, the most useful thing for me to do, my duty right now, is to pray.
And, I do. I pray, fervently. I pray to God to lift this heavy load of Duty from my father’s rounding shoulders.
Unburden this dear, dear man.
Duty isn’t his only badge. It isn’t his only truth. Duty fulfilled, what’s left?
When I hug my shrinking Dad, I sense the Dignity. That’s Dignity, with a capital “D”.
Donna Kennedy-Glans, January 21st, 2018
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11 thoughts on “Capital D: Dad, Duty, Dignity”
Thank you for sharing this, Donna. My heart goes out to you, to your family…to your dad.
This window you’ve opened into describing your father is an honourable one, and I appreciate it for a lot of reasons — including the fact that my family members exhibit some of these same qualities.
It’s been a long time since I read any Cicero (by mandate and for school…so maybe not with the greatest intent), but I’m thinking about my farmer grandfather and wondering if a close relationship of working the land creates some of these tendencies. And if so, what does that mean for us as a society that seems to turn increasingly to screens and machines?
Kelli, you aren’t the first to make that observation about the connection to the land. The courage to walk into death with eyes wide open and ‘with his boots on’.
As for the worry that our society won’t have that attachment to land, I’m not that worried. When we need to, we do seem to turn back to land. In the Chautauqua article I wrote last summer, that became very clear, to me. Even if it’s a park, or a garden, the land is there for us to walk on and feel.
really appreciate your feedback. Right now, I’m working on a piece on gender equality – another piece- and have been reading White Awake by Daniel Hill. It reminded me of what you have been telling me.
Beautiful! Not ashamed to say that I had to fight tears in order to see all the words. Beautiful, just beautiful. No wonder he spoke with so much pride when he talked about you.Thank you Donna.
Ron, I shed a lot of tears writing this piece. Healthy tears. Thanks.
Enjoyed reading this and a couple of your other posts. It seems to me that we learn the most from our parents when they pass on…..we are left to contemplate and internalize everything they were.
Hopefully we can also do it while they are living!
Donna, your Dad was a fine man, thank you for the writing. His memory is indeed a blessing.
You reminded me of Tony Blair’s 2003 speech in Congress about Duty:
“and in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I’ve never been to, but always wanted to go…
I know out there there’s a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, “Why me? And why us? And why America?”
And the only answer is, “Because destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.”
There’s no way you can walk away from it.
Phil, thanks for taking the time to read this post. Yes, Dad was a fine man.
Your Tony Blair quote resonates; thank you. Right now, I’m writing about the leadership of Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s premier from 1971 to 1985 and this reminds me of what Lougheed would have said, too. When it is your time to lead, you must. It’s that simple and that complex.