Thursday, November 12, 2009

Disabling Cain

I received a particularly neat e-mail the other day. It came from a man who I have never met but who - based upon what he wrote - made me think that he is someone who I know quite well. Someone I know quite well in spite of our unfamiliarity with one another and the reasonable likelihood that his life will continue upon a certain trajectory - as shall mine - and we shall likely never cross paths (again if one considers a one-time exchange of e-mail communication to rise to the level of a path-crossing).

A few months ago, I wrote about the passing of a man who I - and who I daresay most of the students who were fortunate enough to study under him - considered to be a great man. On Saturday when I checked my e-mail I had received one from his son. It was brief, simply acknowledging that he had read my e-mail and thanking me for saying such nice things about his dad. And he added something that told me that even as strangers we might very well be the twin sons of different mothers. He wrote that it is always an interesting experience for him to read and to hear his father's students speak of him as he of course saw him from a different perspective. He offered no insight into what that perspective was. And I did not ask.

I did not ask because it belongs to him. It is his and is not something to simply be shared with a stranger. And I wondered if - regardless of the perspective - he chose not to share it not because it is his and because he did not want to impact mine to any degree whatsoever. The two can most certainly co-exist.

And I realized - sitting alone in my office in the wee small hours of Saturday morning - something that had eluded me all these years, which is that those two perspectives can, and should, co-exist. For years I have struggled with the feeling (guilt I suppose) of not sharing the same point of view regarding my own father as too many of his students to count or even accurately estimate have long held. And I have struggled because I have tried in vain to fit these two separate and distinct perspectives into a neat little package, suitable for sharing.

What hit me squarely between the eyes was what had been staring me in the face for the past thirty years but what - for whatever reason - I had been unable to see. What is mine is mine, what is someone else's is someone else's. There is no right or wrong. There only is perspective. And it is unique to each of us. History is in the mind of the teller after all.

For a long time I have had an uneasy and uncertain relationship with my youth, a number of people I knew when we were all young and, most pointedly, the institution that dominated the final quarter of my father's life. The root of my unease was the discomfort associated with being the son of a man who was for a lot of my peers "The Man" in any number of ways while he was not that man for me. It turns out that regardless of whether he was for me what he was for them is not very goddamn important after all.

You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames. It is what you do with them that makes all of the difference.


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