I love learning. Truly. There are times when I have only half-jokingly said that you can get me to willingly walk through pretty much any hell so long as I feel I am learning something in the process.
Every family develops a story, a way of ordering their small world in an attempt to ensure all essential roles are filled and some sense is made of the daily drama that inevitably ensues. In my birth family the story was that I was like my father, while my brother (who was a year younger than me) was like my mother. My father and I were fair-haired, supposedly even-tempered, and slow to anger, while my mother and brother were the hot-tempered, emotionally volatile brunettes. It made for a symmetrical if not necessarily accurate family portrait, and some very competitive broomball games after dinner on the rink in our backyard where, at forty below zero under a star-studded sky, my father and I played together to consistently out-score my mother and brother who were. . . well, not playing so well together.
Broomball victories aside there were many ways in which I was not like my father. But it did always seem to me that my father and I shared an endless curiosity about how things worked. He was the one who encouraged my dinner time musings and questions about faith, God, social justice and human responsibility. It was only as an adult that I realized how greatly our areas of interest differed with my father’s curiosity primarily and almost exclusively directed toward concrete problems while my own musings ran less exclusively but more generally to abstract, spiritual questions. Realizing this, I was all the more appreciative of how he had supported me in my esoteric and ethical explorations.
But, despite this difference, what I shared with and learned from my father was a delight in and willingness to learn- to go to what Buddhists call beginner’s mind- the mind that knows it does not know and is willing to learn. Dad candidly confessed what he did not know, never pretended to know something he didn’t, and was willing and eager to learn from anyone and everyone- regardless of age or position- if they had something they were willing to share. Although he had always done physical labour as a Hydro lineman, when he retired at fifty-five he set about learning how to use a computer- something he doggedly pursued by asking questions of library workers, computer store clerks, the kid next door and pretty much anyone else who appeared to be the least bit computer literate.
There is one story that stands out for me when it comes to understanding what my father taught me about learning. One day, long after my brother and I had left our childhood home, while trying to figure out how to make a household repair my father found himself needing to know how to calculate the volume of a cylinder. Neither my brother nor I were available by phone (although honestly I am not sure I would have remembered how if he had reached me.) He was not yet on the internet, and there were no math text books in the house. So, after trying unsuccessfully to figure it out my father called the local high school and asked to speak to a math teacher. When the receptionist asked why, he explained his problem and told her that he assumed a math teacher would have the information he needed. He told her that he himself had not graduated from the eighth grade and, if he’d ever been taught how to do the calculation, certainly could not remember it now. She put him on hold and, after a few minutes, a bemused sounding teacher came on the line and told him the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder.
My father taught me to enjoy the process of learning for its own sake- for the beauty of the questions, the fun of the investigation, and the satisfaction of figuring something out or at least trying to. One of the hardest things about watching him journey deeper into the mental confusion of advanced Alzheimer's is knowing that this joy has been taken from him.
This coming Sunday is Father’s Day, and I am grateful that my father taught me to love learning, take pleasure in puzzling and embrace beginner’s mind over and over. Thanks Dad. I love you. Happy Father’s Day.