A Father’s Unconditional Love
The following is the transcription from a talk I gave at Memorial Church for their Morning Prayer’s service on 4/21/2022. The audio recording of the service can be found here with the talk beginning at the 8:30 mark.
I was chosen to represent Dunster House, my on-campus housing, in providing a reflection about my time at Harvard. The reflection begins with a piece of inspired text and concludes with a short prayer.
Today’s inspired text comes from the ancient playwright, Aeschylus. It reads,
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart. And in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
I stand before you all today not only as a senior from Dunster house, but as nothing more than a kid from a small town in northern Michigan, as the product of a loving family and community, and as a human who has felt the gravity of moments that only reflections on life’s hardships and painful mistakes can afford.
Tasked with reflecting on my time here at the college, I have spent the past few weeks digging deep into the formative experiences that have shaped my story in hopes of imparting some wisdom to you all.
While I do not believe, as the text suggests, that suffering is a prerequisite to learning, I have found that reflecting on times of pain has provided me with the most wisdom — the most poignant example being a diagnosis my father received shortly before I began my time here at Harvard. At the young age of 54 he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzhiemer’s disease, and while I am eternally grateful that the disease’s progression has defied doctor’s expectations, I would be lying to you all if I said that observing from over 1000 miles away has been easy.
Painfully marked by indications of the progression, I have spent many nights in sorrow, as pain felt as if it were literally falling drop by drop upon my heart. However, as both Aeschylus and God’s word remind us, even in our own despair, against our will, wisdom comes to us by the grace of God. It is that wisdom, afforded by God’s grace, that I hope to share with you all today through a lesson of my father’s unconditional love.
I was once told that my dad has a bigger heart than the hundred acres of field and forest our home and farm animals reside on; and while his condition has caused some things to slip away, he certainly has not forgotten how to love, and how to love deeply.
For me, his love has been felt from the start, in times of celebration, and more notably, in times of trial, after losing a hard-fought football game or in my worst mistakes. I know my dad loves me, not because of my achievements, but simply because I am his son.
For others, my father’s love has been felt in his profession. As a third-generation funeral home director, my father has spent countless moments with family members and friends who were grieving the loss of a loved one. In their most vulnerable moments, his profession has provided him with opportunities to share his love with those who need it most, regardless of where they come from or what state of despair they might be in.
The best example of the love he shared came when a man had died in our town who had no family or friends to attend or afford his funeral. My father and grandfather who ran the funeral home at the time, could have simply had the man cremated, and his remains disposed of. However, they felt that this man with no family or friends to be found, deserved a proper funeral and ceremony of his life. There were three men that attended his funeral that day: my father, my grandfather, and a pastor they brought in to conduct the service. Despite the lack of funding, family, and friends, they met the man where he was, with an unconditional love and respect that they felt he deserved in his passing.
Beyond his profession, my father has found ways to share his love to those he does not even know. Whether it be providing snow removal for a stranger who lives down the street, or helping an elderly couple into their car after a trip to the grocery store, my father’s love has been felt by many hundreds throughout our small town. But beyond his stories and examples, how does one begin to define unconditional love? How might we understand this kind of love so that we can share it with our families, our friends, and those in our communities here at Harvard and beyond?
In short, unconditional love is loving in spite of one’s flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings. It is a love that doesn’t care about one’s culture, credentials, or creed. Unconditional love is recognizing the fragility of life, and making a conscious commitment to improving the lives of others through acts of kindness and compassion, not because of what they might do in return, but because they live, and breathe, and walk the same beautiful planet we do. Finally, unconditional love is knowing that even when my father’s condition enters its final stages and even when I may no longer be remembered, he will still love me, not because of who I am or what I’ve become, but simply because I will be there, right by his side.
I provide these stories and examples, in hopes that they inspire you as much as they have inspired me; to love yourselves, your colleagues, your classmates, your neighbors, and even your enemies, with an unconditional love so strong that no hardship or disagreement may stand in its way. The love I speak of is not intrinsic to our nature, and in many ways, resists some of our deepest primitive instincts. It is, however, a love that can be felt and a love that must be learned in both triumph and defeat, in times of happiness and hopelessness. If this kind of love can transcend even the most unforgiving neurological diseases, it can undoubtedly transcend the relentless challenges brought upon by the political, demographic, and ideological disagreements we see in our communities and our country today. The lesson here is simple: have faith in yourself to produce that love, have faith in others to provide that love, and have faith in the power of unconditional love as a means of mending our broken world.
I’ll summarize now with a few lines from a poem I wrote earlier this year about my father. It reads:
You taught me to love with unconditional grace always extending,
You taught me humility. Your lessons were never-ending.
You taught me to love the Earth and the wildlife all around,
Lessons of kindness and compassion throughout our small town.
Yet the lesson learned now is much different and much longer,
It’s harder for me to hold up, but I know I will become stronger.
I pray for peace to be found inside,
And for memories of you to be kept alive.
I pray for acceptance, for that I yearn,
To know that someday, somewhere, your former self will return.
As your memories fade it brings us much pain,
Your impact, your legacy, however, they still remain.
Evidence of your life abounds all around,
In family, in friends, and even strangers it can be found.
Some things still lost from this terrible disease,
But being reminded of your traits in me keeps me at ease.
I now walk in your old boots as a daily reminder,
To love the ones you hold close, and to always be a bit kinder.
Let us pray.
Dear Lord, grant us wisdom in times of sorrow, give us strength in our darkest days, and let us be a beacon of your unconditional love to all of those around us. Into your hands we commend our bodies, our minds, our souls, and our spirits.