On my father’s eightieth birthday, as we sat around the crowded dinner table, I posed a question.
“Dad,” I said, “you’ve lived a long life, reached this ripe old age of eighty. Do you have any words of wisdom to impart to all of us on this momentous occasion?”
My father looked at me and then glanced around the table at the rest of the family, everyone wondering just what he might say to such a question. His gaze turned to the table laden with food and he simply said: “Pass the butter.”
Laughter erupted, but that was all he said. He didn’t follow it up with a single word and we were left to wonder. Is that really what it’s all about? Pass the butter? Was he telling us that his opinion didn’t matter or that he just didn’t have anything to say about life? Was he suggesting that nothing really matters in the end, that the only things that matter are what comes next? Was he implying that my question was too much to respond to, too impertinent to spring on him like that?
My father was not an outwardly expressive man, kept his thoughts private for the most part, though I always suspected he had a thoughtful, rich inner life, as I expect everyone does. At one time in my youth I had admonished him to quit wasting his imagination on fears and put it to creative outpourings, for I saw, at an early age, how fear consumed him. I knew that in his youth he had been a poet with aspirations of becoming a writer, but those dreams got interrupted, usurped by duties of marriage and family.
As I experienced my father turning from my question that evening at the dinner table, I felt not only a pang of rejection, but, by far, a deeper sense of dismay, for I could not fathom that someone could have lived so long and not been able to speak from the deepness of his heart to his own family. At the time, I was deep into my recapitulation, investigating myself in a most thorough manner, constantly asking myself challenging questions and demanding that I find the answers within. I was learning to trust my heart, turning to my inner self for the answers I sought, and thus I could not imagine that he had not, at some time, done the same. For, as I said, I expected everyone to have a rich inner life. But now I know that not everyone chooses to explore the inner world of the deeper self in quite the same way and beyond that, that many roads lead to a path of heart.
I will turn sixty this year, and I hope that if my children ask me to impart some words of wisdom that I will be as succinct as my father, that perhaps I will be able to wrap it all up in a nutshell and say, this is what life is really all about: Pass the butter. For I think my father’s answer says it all.
He was really saying, without self-importance, without attachment, without needing to uphold anything: This is how I do life, how are you choosing to live your life? And indeed, that is a most private endeavor. Can I be as detached as my father and fully own my own journey, and without judgment let others live the life they choose?
From my father, I have learned that life is not about making a point or being right, or having the answers. Life is really just about choosing how you want to live and then doing it to the fullest. I know that my father lived his life according to his own values, that he made choices in alignment with what he felt was right. He was extremely honest, hard working, dedicated to serving others less fortunate, though he himself was not well off by any means. I know that in his own way he lived every day from a deeply caring place and that he gave without asking for anything in return, only that justice be served, that right be done, knowing that everyone matters. A man of few words, he expressed his inner life in his everyday actions, traveling a path of heart, giving wherever he met resonance in the world.
So, what’s it all about? I fully agree with my father. Life is just about choosing how to live and then living that life to the fullest, in whatever way is right for you.
Pass the butter,