Personal Essay: Practical Wisdom
Every second weekend, as my friends got ready for the beach, my brother and I would be shovelling blue steel in the driveway. It could have been soil one day and mulch the next. We might be destroying some old part of the house crawling with termites. Or we might be cutting some infested beams and slats into firewood. By the time we had finished working we were too tired to do anything but switch off.
Every other weekend I was at my father’s two-storey house by the beach. It had a spiral staircase running down the middle. We had Foxtel and my father and I ate out at least twice a week. We had professional cleaners who came once a week.
In a working-class family personal endeavour hangs low on the list of important things to do. To my father, personal well-being was all he strived for.
Being poor taught me plenty of things. How to build fences and mix cement was among them. It also taught me two halves of a family could be on the brink of poverty and still manage to be a strong and loving family. If my father taught me anything it was that if you only ever think of yourself you will only ever have yourself.
I never loved reading. It was when I came down with food poisoning my stepfather handed me The Pearl by John Steinbeck. With reluctance I read it to take my mind off the pain. Afterward, I worked my way through the entire bookshelf. The stories and ideas being told and expressed in literature have captivated me ever since. Experiencing the emotions of another person on the page is a feeling I’ve come to know and love.
An idea developed around literature. It came out of experience, and what I read and heard about writers and readers. That idea was actually a promise: that anyone could be like the characters of a novel.
I waited for enlightenment at the end of each book and some sort of instruction on how to be. If a story ended tragically I found I would enforce laws on my own life so I would never make their mistakes. If the story was triumphant I would make edits to these laws. And eventually I was so confused I focused primarily on the emotions of the character.
But they were no good to an adolescent experiencing his own pubescent emotions. Privilege can bring out traits in people. For some it is arrogance. For me it was shame. If literature is concerned with hardship and the human condition then I felt I was coming up short of understanding. You can’t experience the range of human existence when you’ve had every opportunity handed to you. Can you?
I did anything I could to hide the existence of my father. Each morning I woke for work at my stepfather’s I felt this spur in my side. My aim in life was to be as working-class as possible. I spat, smoked, drank and swore. All because I thought having flaws and problems would make me more human.
Is it true that when you feel one thing too much you overcompensate? By rejecting privilege do you forfeit opportunity?
This thing I felt was my father’s fault. He is the epitome of privilege. He inherited land, units, houses and all his wealth from his parents. He was hardly independent or courageous. He was a wall between who I was and who I wanted to be. At least, that’s the way he appeared to me then.
Angry at this barrier, I worked on breaking it down. By berating him, disliking him, and differentiating myself through the idea of manual labour and literature I suppose I believed I could wear away my privilege, disinherit it or disown it. It was a reaction to the disappointment I had about being created by him. And even then he maintained his love for me.
There was great pride in being able to lord my lifestyle and experience over my father. The more I read the more I began to read into things. I began lifting layers of meaning from stories and ideas, and I held what I knew over my father’s head. Behind everything I did and said was a spur I intended to hurt him with. Living the stories I read somehow made me better than him. But what I was doing only ever brought him down. It never lifted anyone up.
There was never any satisfaction or growth in our relationship. There was never any growth in me and I never gave him the opportunity to grow either. Instead of alleviating my shame and disappointment, it only breathed life into it. The more I acted like I was better than him the more I felt that thing being put up higher and higher. I was gravitating towards something. Or maybe I was gravitating away from something?
A friend of mine told me the greatest thing we learn from literature is empathy. I’d always known how to empathise with a character. It was one of the very first things I identified as lacking in the character of my father. Empathy was never a part of my grand scheme for reading. The way to apply this connection between humans never seemed possible.
Insight never came from literature. It came from a motorcycle instructor. She was unassuming and spoke with rhythm. Sometime during the course she said, ‘what you focus on is what you end up hitting.”
In that moment the penny dropped. This thing had been all I focused on. It was heavy, dragging me down, making me miserable. The thing I found blocking who I was and who I wanted to become was me. I was becoming the very thing I hated by focusing so intently upon it.
In this moment I saw my father very differently. I saw him as a man with shortcomings. Flaws that are not necessarily mine to inherit. He has problems and deals with them as best he can. The tragic character of a story perhaps, but no villain.
Even now I think literature fails to teach us anything new. But you have to recognise its potential to facilitate change. What changed my life was my ability to empathise and understand a character – one of the first things about literature I fell in love with. Applying empathy to the way I saw my father gave me the power to change our relationship, to change my life.