“Sam, let me tell you something important,” my dad said.
I knew what he was about to say, because he had only told me about a hundred times before. But, in the moment, each new time always seemed different. I shifted the phone to the other shoulder, while I rinsed the dish I was washing and placed it in the drying rack.
My dad and I have lived in different cities since I was about 16, so our most common method of communication has been the phone. As a younger man, I tended to call him disproportionately at times when I was in a bit of trouble, either with money, or with work, or with a girl. As a result, we’d often have discussions where at the end what I was looking for was advice. Sometimes, I’d already made my move, and I was looking more for validation. But, it was advice I’d get, in any case. I am better about calling just to say hello these days, but I still value the advice. And I still get it.
“OK. Go for it,” I said, picking up another dish.
My dad continued. “There is no one thing in life that is either going to make you, or break you. Life is a series of decisions, and some are more important than others. But in the grand scheme, they are all relatively small compared to your whole life. It’s very unlikely any one of them is going to completely screw you up. At least not in a way that can’t be undone or you can’t recover from.”
It is interesting to think about this now, as a father myself. This is an incredibly important lesson, and if there is one thing I struggle with in parenting Isaac, my seven-year-old, now, it’s this one. Isaac is a really sensitive, intuitive kid. Which means he has a lot of friends. He’s very outgoing and gets along with pretty much everyone. His emotional literacy is very high for 7, something Angelina and I worked on intentionally as we raised him. But, as a result, he can get really affected emotionally by the behaviors and actions of people around him. There are times, many times, when I find myself talking him through something he has to deal with where this same advice from my dad bubbles up to the forefront of my mind. And out it comes, and darn it if I don’t sound just like my dad when I say it.
“Also, you only have a certain amount of control over the outcome anyway,” my dad continued.
That is definitely true. There were so often things I would ask my dad about that were more about something external I was worried about rather than something I needed to do myself. Would I get the job? Would she return my call? Those kinds of things are the most difficult. It was hard for me to imagine, just a few years ago, that Isaac would start having problems like this. He isn’t working or dating yet, obviously.
But as soon as he got to first grade, the social order became a lot more complex. The bureaucracy is bigger, and there are more rules and expectations. The kids are more complex emotionally, and there are social structures and norms to get used to. In short, it’s a little village ecosystem, with all the drama and complexity of any social environment. And Isaac has already run into some tricky emotional territory, either from his own behavior, or more inexplicably, that of others over which he has no direct control. That’s the most frustrating and confusing for him, and my dad’s last piece of advice is my go-to response to these situations.
“There is no use getting all worked up about things over which you have no control,” my dad said. “Just make the best decision you can with the information you have, and move on. Things will work themselves out. Or they won’t. But either way, you’ll live and you’ll learn something from the experience.”
This last bit is probably the most valuable thing my dad has ever taught me. I don’t know that intuitively as an expert judge on advice or anything. Rather I know it because I have repeated this advice over the years to friends and colleagues in a jam, and every one of them seems both surprised and moved by it. My dad said it to me so many times, it seems obvious to me. But it is so easy to lose sight over what you have control over and what you don’t, and to get yourself all wrapped around the axle on something you can’t change anyway.
“Alright,” I said, turning off the faucet, and drying my hands. “That makes sense. There is just one other thing I need to ask you.”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Can you lend me some cash?”
Sam McAfee, East Bay Dad of Isaac, 7, and Malcolm, 4, spends his time working in The City, living in The Town, and generally not panicking due to the sage advice of his New Yorker Dad, The Great Steve Fahrer.