I think there’s a strange paradox which is that if I can be totally true to myself and be my own person it enables the other one also to be her own person. It sounds a paradox but is, I believe, true.
The man who said this, Australian psychotherapist Neville Symington, could have been speaking about my father. My father lived his life like this: totally true to himself. In doing so, all of us around him were liberated and accepted.
Everything my father did he did with great brio and love, including his work. He had been obliged to leave school at the age of 12 to help support his 11 siblings in the midst of Depression-era Sydney. He got a blue-collar job, and over 50 years later, retired from the job, still loving it.
He took such great pleasure in life, and somehow had divined one of its true secrets: devoting part of every day to activities that delighted him. While some of us might think creating joy for ourselves is something to feel guilty about, my father never indulged in that type of inauthenticity. He created joy and contentment for himself, and through him, it was created in all of us.
He did not give false praise or say the expected thing, so when he said something lovely I regarded it as precious and profound. His freedom from conventional pieties could often lead to amusing results, such as when he took some inexplicable set against someone on TV or in the news. At the height of her fame, he was very funny and scathing about the singer, Norah Jones, whom he thought had a lousy voice, and also about the sideways profile of a certain politician who was on TV most nights.
In the last decade or two of his life, he liked nothing better than sitting in his shed listening to radio stations speaking in foreign languages, and he often watched foreign language TV for hours too. I asked him once why he listened to radio programs he could not understand, but I forget his answer.
When he was 84 he had a massive heart attack, the first time he’d ever been sick. In the hospital, they said he had four blockages and a leaking valve, and needed bypass surgery and a valve replacement. After a couple of confusing and terrifying days, he calmly told the cardiac surgeon he was declining the surgery.
He didn’t want to risk the possibility of stroke which would leave my mother having to sacrifice her life to care for him, and he’d lived his whole life on the principle of non-intervention, the principle of acceptance of what is. In the end, he told the surgeon,
Mate, I’m running my race.
Three and a half years later, at the age of 87, he died. In those three years, there had been anxiety and, for the first time in his life, he told me, dreams and nightmares, but right until the end he lived life on his own terms, true to himself.
Image: Chrysanthemums, Ah Xian
* My school motto: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Hamlet, Shakespeare)