According to a survey I saw recently in Psychology Today magazine, a large majority of the world’s psychologists agree parents are the number one influencer in shaping their children’s emotional attributes and character. While there are dissenters who would argue society plays a greater role in this process, I am not one. Without question, I am who I am – good and bad – because of my parent’s example and influence. Before he became, in 1895, the first black student to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, W.E.B Du Bois noted “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” I am with the great civil rights activist on this one as throughout my life, without question, this has been the case.
In earlier posts I have underscored the ways my mom helped mold me into the adult I am today. So, it is only fitting, now, that I take a moment to provide my dad with a shout out of his own. Of the number of good qualities I learned thru his example, by far the two most critical to my success have been perseverance and grit. Englishman, H.G. Wells, “author of the acclaimed science fiction novel, War of the Worlds , noted with a challenging tone “If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.” Though emanating from the pen of the esteemed British writer, this prose could have just as easily been bellowed from the diaphragm of my dad for it has been his mantra for all of his 77 years of life.
In my lifetime, I have seen my father fail numerous times but with each setback, I also witnessed him rise up, move forward and in every instance, ultimately succeed. In this regard, he embodies, with perfection, the Japanese proverb, “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” A ninth grade dropout and father at 17, in the early years my dad worked three jobs to provide for his family. As an adolescent, I saw him only on Sundays.
Offsetting the lack of a formal education with tenacity, common sense and an obstinate desire to succeed, my father pushed forward working for others until he was ultimately able to start his own business. In an observation seemingly penned with my dad in mind, American author, William Feathers, wrote “Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.” I never saw my father ever let go regardless of the adversity or blow or more importantly, hang his head in shame.
To the contrary, he all but embodied the ethos Portuguese philosopher and writer, Fernando Pessoa, noted in his tome, The Book of Disquiet, “I carry my awareness of defeat like a banner of victory.” It is difficult for me to overstate just how important these examples of perseverance and doggedness were to me during the early years of my development. My father demonstrated stick-to-itiveness in spades and I was the beneficiary. Long before writer of young adult fiction, Gena Showalter, wrote and I read, “Giving up is the only sure way to fail”, I learned this important lesson from my dad’s example.
When he wasn’t putting bold and vibrantly colored brush strokes to canvas, Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh, was also a person of words. In one of his more memorable verses, he asked “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” I cannot help but to think of my dad when I read this stanza. He has spent almost his entire adult life attempting, and for the most part, accomplishing, what those around him deemed improbable and forlorn.
Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, declared “It always feels impossible until it is done”; a claim that could be my father’s credo. Looking back at his life, he proved every critic and doubter wrong and accomplished more of the impossible than many people achieve of the mundane. In the process, he validated a pledge from college football deity, Paul “Bear” Bryant, “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride – and never quit – you’ll be a winner.” More importantly, my dad’s unyielding example underscored for me the importance of never giving up.
In addition to the exceptional life lessons I gleaned from watching as my father refused to buckle under adversity and never yield to a challenge, as a young kid, working with him in his own business provided me with another positive boon to my development. I did this from age 12 until I left home at 19.. The hours were long – time in school being my only respite – and the work was quite arduous. Many days I wished I could have been anywhere else and lamented the situation where fate had placed. Now, however, in my Second Fifty, I can say without equivocation, I was quite blessed to have had those experiences.
Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, an 18th Century English Member of Parliament and social reformer, remarked “With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.” This is a statement that typifies my life. Learning thru observation of my father and the tenacity and fortitude I developed working for him allowed me to overcome my rather pedestrian talent and enjoy a life in which I achieved moderate academic and professional success.
Some time ago, my father, feeling remorseful and melancholy, called and said he was sorry for, in his words, working me so hard has a kid. I told him then and I will repeat it again now: Dad, you do not owe me any apology. What I learned from your example and those experiences were invaluable in forging my character and molding me into the person I am today.
Because my dad never lost faith in himself, I came to realize as 16th Century French Renaissance, philosopher, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, did “A wise man never loses anything, if he has himself.” By watching my father move forward each time he failed, I came to realize the fidelity of British playwright, Oscar Wilde’s, recognition, “I have learned this: it is not what one does that is wrong, but what one becomes as a consequence of it.”
In watching my dad take chances many thought foolish or ill advised, I came to appreciate the sagacity of President Theodore Roosevelt’s boast, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Because he never cowered in the face of adversity or uncertainty, I came to appreciate the importance of pushing myself to the limits. I gained understanding of the criticality of moving outside my comfort zone in order to reap the potential benefit of an opportunity many would be too fearful to take. To realize as English author T.S. Eliot, did “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
That my father failed many times but never gave up and ultimately did succeed due to tenacity of purpose, allowed me to appreciate the significance of American journalist, Leigh Mitchell Hodges’, observation “Failure is often that early morning hour of darkness which precedes the dawning of the day of success.” That my father constantly continued moving forward in the face of extreme hardship, never took a knee and always refused to offer an excuse left an indelible mark on me. The former slave who became one of America’s foremost botanists and inventors, George Washington Carver, noted “Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.” I never heard my father make an excuse.
Almost 3,000 years ago, the Roman poet, Ovid, chiseled into limestone the following words that resonate as loudly today as they did then: “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” An example I learned from watching my dad. And, an admonition I have carried with me through life and one that has served me well.
The American odist, George Edward Woodbury, rhapsodized “Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.” This is a phrase as unknown to my dad as it is to me. My father has always dared to try and as such, so have I. In the end game, this is his greatest gift to me. Shortly before he was assassinated in1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, proclaimed “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” In his life, while he has failed greatly, so too, has my father achieved greatly. In his shadow, I think I have as well.
Dominican Order nun, Saint Catherine of Siena, remarked “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.” I will add, to endure is to succeed. A lesson in perseverance I learned from my dad. Never give up. As, British author, Rudyard Kipling, penned in his poem, If a Father’s Advice to His Son:
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”
When I was promoted to US Army Colonel in 2005, I read this as a dedication to my dad, George E, Reynolds, Jr., during my promotion ceremony. I offer it again today as it is just as relevant. It is an excerpt from a speech, “Citizen In a Republic”, my favorite President, Theodore Roosevelt, delivered in France, at the Sorbonne, in Paris, 23 April 1910.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
In the Second Fifty, always strive to be the “man in the arena.”
The title of this blog entry is one of many iconic quotes from the legendary coach of the National Football League’s most storied franchise, the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, Jr.
Tom and Marianne Mabry, this one’s for you!
Me and my Dad “working” together in his Mobile gas station, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1968. Good times and humble beginnings.