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June 17, 2012
FatherhoodThere is a great deal of public misunderstanding about the purpose of life. Much of this may be attributed to fathers. Others contribute to the confusion, too, but traditionally fathers set a certain tone in a family, and by extension to society at large.
Of course, the complete absence of fathers in many contemporary households also sets a tone.
This will be my fourth "Father's Day" without a father of my own to thank, except through prayer. His death changed the relationship between us in several ways. In the time since that November night in 2008, I have perhaps got to know him better, not only from intimate papers I inherited, but also from meeting him again, "sub specie aeternitatis," or from the perspective of eternity.
Things look different from that point of view. There are depths and shadows, lights and heights that could not be seen from the perspective of the diurnal. There is a whole, once obscured by parts. The material presence recedes, yet his identity grows clearer. He speaks to me now in a new voice.
Let me mention one big thing I learned about him. It was that his work life, which took so much of his time, was not terribly important. The world did not benefit, decisively, even by the polyethylene bicycle carrier he designed in the 1950s, that sold in the millions all over the planet (and for which he earned, I think, $500).
He was himself a little disappointed, not by the financial return, but by the hard fact that his plastic basket, though attractive and serviceable in its kind, had probably displaced millions of hand-woven wicker baskets, and thereby subtracted from the beauty of the world. But what can you do?
Ditto on many other polyethylene products from that era. Someone had to design them, and adapt the machine tooling to make them cheaply and efficiently and identically; papa turned out to be the cheap and efficient human instrument for the job, in the calculations of several small-minded manufacturers, who got rich without deserving, but also without fully intending. They, too, had families to support, in the days when a father's first duty was to support his family, come what may.
It was a means, all labour is a means, towards some purpose. Materialism (I was about to write, "pure materialism," but there is nothing pure about it) foresees certain immediate objects, such as practical utility, sales utility, and the profit to be made. Get these ducks in order, and we create jobs, jobs, jobs.
Meanwhile, the jobs we eliminate, and the "intangible" qualities that are lost, belong on someone else's ledger. The exhilaration of handiwork - the focus of soul through hand and eye - is lost, becomes an ironical joke. The character of the citizen may be lost.
But no accountant need factor such things, for we live in a "pure" money economy today.
Notwithstanding, these off-book intangibles entered into every aspect of my father's work as an industrial designer. In this he lucked out. By some accident of talent and chance, he found himself in jobs that required some creativity, rather than on factory or office assembly lines.
My standard analogy is to the symphony orchestra, in comparison to a chamber ensemble. In the latter, we have musicians playing instruments. In the former, a conductor playing musicians. From e.g. a conversation of violas, we "progress" to the model of fascist central planning. From craftsmanship we progress to the "plant," or plantation; to management and workers, master and slaves.
This is, in the materialist view - the vision of "progress" shared by capitalist and communist alike - the very purpose of life. Both exalt the statistic; both rely on the bureaucrat or office-worker to organize vast enterprises in the service of Mammon.
Papa's work wasn't important; he came to realize this himself. His purpose lay mysteriously elsewhere. He was earning a living the way he knew how, from people who pay by the hour or to the deadline and who do not brook nonsense. Later he taught design students to do the same: to perform their tasks with the requisite minimum of skill and to deadline; to eschew nonsense.
But the purpose of life has more to do with nonsense, with intangibles such as the development of character and expression of love.
My father somehow knew this, had learned it, partly, from his own father. That is what he really taught constantly by example, occasionally by instruction.
We see this ourselves immediately when we turn our attention from homo economicus ("economic man") to a person's other persons. For like the Godhead, a Man has different "persons" - may be in the course of life not only father, but also son, and husband (there's the Trinity for you). And, in each of these persons, towards family and society, he is also homo reciprocans ("co-operating man"), and homo ludens ("playful man"), and many other kinds of "homo" - always bound together in one.
In thinking of our fathers, especially those who are dead and can be seen anew, we can begin to grasp how badly the purpose of life has been misunderstood.
© Ottawa Citizen