When I was about ten years old, I found a letter my father had written to someone who had treated him unfairly, even abusively. In my innocence, I asked my father about the letter. I asked him what the person he sent the letter to had replied back to him. It took him some time to answer as he struggled with a variety of emotions. As a child I didn’t understand why my questions had affected him so much, but now I imagine he suddenly felt embarrassed, vulnerable, angry, sad, and unsure of how to explain the situation to a child. “I didn’t send that letter,” he finally said. “I wrote it for myself.”
From a young age, my father had to learn how to deal with difficult people. He was an unusually intelligent child, but also highly sensitive and emotional. He had to find a way to keep other people’s issues from hindering his intense enjoyment of life. As a child he was known for having a terrible temper but by the time he was an adult, I only remember seeing him lose his temper once: Dad had bought a very expensive bull calf to raise for breeding, and an employee unwittingly sent it to the slaughterhouse.
How did my father achieve this dramatic improvement in his character? By practicing self-mastery. Every day he got a little better at not losing his temper. He had a vision of the man he wanted to be and he didn’t lose sight of that vision. He didn’t give up and it took years. Cultivating inner beauty requires diligent effort and constancy. That, and a hell of a lot of self-forgiveness and patience. There is no plastic surgery quick-fix to make your soul beautiful.
My father was not perfect, thank God. He was a mischief-maker and he did all kinds of bad stuff, I’m sure. But for me and for many other people, my father was a king. He was so strong, and yet so tender-hearted. He achieved this by building his inner citadel, by making his soul an inviolable stronghold of freedom. Dad was free of judgement of others and largely, of himself, and he managed his expectations. This allowed him to love others freely and happily, while keeping hurt feelings and resentment to a minimum.
When I was a child I often wondered why my father was so strong and brave and I was so weak and cowardly. I followed him around the farm in hopes that his awesomeness would somehow rub off on me. I was constantly testing myself, daring myself, and taking on greater responsibility. Lately I have those same feelings of inadequacy I had as a child. I lose my temper and I let people get to me. I let others interfere, I interfere, and I’m unable to enjoy life as much. Lately I have failed quite spectacularly at self-mastery. I’m trying not to judge myself too harshly for it because I know Dad wouldn’t. He would tell me to get up, dust myself off, and get back on the horse.
In a few days it will be seven years since Dad passed. People still write to me to tell me how he helped them in some way or changed their lives for the better. If someone reading this has written to me, I want to thank you again for that. It means a lot to me.