5 Life Lessons From the Man Who Understood It All

dancing dadI hesitated to hit the publish button, because this post is a bit more personal than my other posts, and sometimes people can get a little uncomfortable with personal things. (But life is personal, is it not?)

This past weekend my dad would have celebrated his 68th birthday. Here’s what it would have looked like (if time stood still): We’d be driving to dinner in the green mini-van with mom and dad upfront, my two brothers in the middle, and me in the back. We’d be listening to oldies, again, and would listen to them the entire month because dad would have dubbed it his “birthday month” and awarded himself keeper of the music. My brothers and I would have rolled our eyes, even though we secretly loved it because love comes in funny forms, and families are funny things. And then after dinner, as a birthday formality, we’d eat cake and open presents. My dad was never really one for gifts. He’d say, “I don’t want anything, I have everything I need: family and health,” leaving us scratching our heads about what to buy him.

Then one year he no longer had his health to be grateful for and so he passed away in early 2008 after a very quick battle with cancer. He crammed a lot of living into his life, though. A whole lot of living.

My father, Freddie, understood life more than anyone else I’ve known. He just got it. Innately and intuitively. And more importantly, he enjoyed every ounce of it and retained his light-hearted and welcoming presence up until his passing. He never hardened as so many adults do.

Through his perspective, character, and quirky zest for life, he empowered others to be the best versions of themselves that they can be, usually without even realizing it. He was a natural leader and a profound teacher of life.

Below are a few impactful life lessons from Freddie himself:

1. Don’t be so hard on people.

I heard this all of the time growing up, verbatim. And it’s not because I was a particularly critical young adult (although I’d argue that all oldest children share a general impatience that they must learn to tame with age), but rather because my dad was acutely aware and understanding of the fact that everyone, at any given moment, is dealing with his or her own crap. He never excused poor or unjust behavior. Instead, he approached everyone he encountered with a gentleness that made them feel at ease, as if he was saying (without saying it): I know you’re doing the best that you can and I’m here to make things easier for you, because we are in this together.

2. Always put humanity before money.

Growing up, my dad drove a dark blue 1984 Chevy Impala. (This is where I urge you to take advantage of Google images if you can’t already visualize an ’84 Impala.) It was a tank. He drove that thing as long as he could, refusing to give it up out of equal parts practicality and sentimentality. (Practical because it had good bones and drove just fine with some tune-ups from his mechanic at Goodyear. Sentimental because he was attached to the memories the car held, such as driving my brothers home from the hospital in it.)

My dad finally started looking to purchase a new vehicle once the Impala entered its teenage years. I bet he would have held out even longer if it weren’t for his mechanic, who was in desperate need of a car for his wife but could not afford to purchase anything. The mechanic liked the Impala; it was large and safe for his family, and he knew how to maintain the car since he had worked on it for years. But he didn’t have a cent to spare and refused to take the vehicle for free. So, my dad thought up a solution; he told him something along the lines of this: “Just take the car and send me money whenever you are financially able to, and don’t worry about it for a second.” The mechanic took him up on the offer. In the years that followed, every once in a while, out of the blue, my dad would receive a small $10 or $15 check in the mail from the mechanic. My dad cared far less about the money and more about providing this man with a reliable source of transportation for his family, because that was the human thing to do.

3. Cultivate and Nurture Relationships

I feel most vulnerable sharing this bit of advice because I keep it close. About a year before his passing, my father sent me an email packed with life advice. The email was a response to a decision I was trying to make. At the time, I was a senior in college, having just returned from a semester abroad in London, and I wanted to drop out of my sorority. I felt I had outgrown it; I wanted freedom from the formalities. But my dad urged against it, knowing that I had developed some great friendships within that circle of girls. At the bottom of the email, he wrote this:

“You have some really special relationships with the close friends you met… Cultivate them and nurture them, and they will be with you the rest of your life, which is a good thing.”

Cultivating and nurturing deep relationships was an art that my father excelled at; his social network was as equally rich as it was vast. This advice has singlehandedly changed my life. I’m a hard worker but if I have to choose between work and relationships, I choose my relationships. Sometimes it’s difficult. Getting older means we get busier. Our lives become full with obligations. We’re tired, stressed. It’s so easy to work too much or postpone calling an old friend until tomorrow (which turns into the next day, and the day after that). But remember what he said: if we take the time to cultivate and nurture these special relationships, they will be with us indefinitely, which is a good thing.

4. Life is what we make of it.

In the same email, he wrote, “Life is what you make of it, and that also applies to your time with [the sorority].” What he meant is every day we make choices. We make choices in our attitude. We make choices in what we choose to absorb from the various events in our lives. Every situation, every experience, every relationship is what we make of it. You can find beauty in the most heartbreaking of times. You can find enjoyment in the mundane. Life is made up less of our circumstances and more of the lenses in which we view them. We create our reality because life is what we make of it. Period.

5. Dance. (Or do whatever else it is that makes you feel free.)

Anyone who knew my dad knows he loved to dance. He wasn’t a dancer by trade; he was an engineer. But he loved the act of dancing, of movement, of being one with the music. And so he danced. At parties. In the living room with the record player on. At weddings, where he would out-dance my mother and I, leaving us exhausted on the sidelines as he continued to command the dance floor with any receptive stranger he could find. (The photo attached to this blog post is actually the Dancing Freddie himself.)  He never said it, but I suspect he loved to dance because it made him feel free and alive. Not everyone shares his passion for dance, but we all have something that makes us feel free and alive.  What is that thing for you? What moves you so much that you’re willing to exhaust yourself just to experience that feeling in full? Go do that thing and awaken the Dancing Freddie in you.


I’d love to hear which lesson you enjoyed the most in the comments below.

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