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first person

This week First Person pays tribute to fatherhood.

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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Getting anyone’s attention these days – other than through Facebook or Twitter or any of the other social media Sirens luring you onto their rocks of obsession and narcissism – is a forlorn task. If you’re not trending with the masses, you’re a missing person. You must get with the crowd. You must accumulate your respectable share of likes in your photo postings as you eat and vacation your way through life. Otherwise you’ll fall behind in what really matters. Being liked.

So I have decided to make an early claim on the time and attention you all always so kindly give me on Father’s Day to send you this letter. I do so with a heart full of pride for what all three of you have achieved, with a happiness in spending time with my grandchildren. My thoughts and advice are more for you to ponder now as parents than for you all as my children.

I imagine that you were saying to yourselves, with my opening salvo against social media, that it’s only to be expected. There’s no way I can be expected to keep up with it. Of course, my children, you’re right that the world of technology moves at warp speed and keeping up is tough. But I will submit that there’s another side to life that cannot be projected through flickering pixels on the screen of a tablet or phone. It’s your inner life – your emotional life, your spiritual life, your private world of feelings and thoughts that are always with you and to be shared only as you wish. For now, it does remain just your world unless or until AI’s mind soldiers break down that last barrier of our personal identity.

This probably sounds like one of my all-too-familiar rants delivered with more passion at dinner when the wine and conversation flow freely.

You may well ask why we should worry about understanding what really makes us who we are. Who cares that about that chestnut of a line, “To thine own self be true,” first spoken in Shakespeare’s Hamlet centuries ago but still quoted today.

Well, it does matter. And our inner sense of well-being is shaped by our own life experiences. I was born in 1946 in wild and rugged Wales – a very different time and place than yours. Just a year before my arrival, the Second World War ended with the surrender of Nazi Germany and then fascist Japan. When the guns stopped firing and the planes stopped bombing, the world had lost about 80-million souls – soldiers and civilians alike – in just six years. Humanity was weary of the carnage it had unleashed on itself.

The consequences of that war lingered on in my early boyhood. Until I was 7, I needed ration coupons to buy candy. But I knew from stories I was told that I had been spared the harrowing experience of others of my age when war had broken out. Yet even those experiences were nothing compared to the famine and the concentration camps that haunted Europe’s masses.

For me, that whole dreadful period of history was the consequence of individuals and societies not wanting to search and understand and speak out about what really mattered. People wanted to accommodate Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Then it was called “favouring appeasement,” or as it is now called “being liked.” Whatever the description, it’s something that you know deep down that you should be confronting. Of course, people will say all that is behind us now and nothing like it will ever happen again. However, anyone with but a smattering of history knows that the most fertile ground in which to sow the seeds for humanity’s decline into indifference is in the soil of personal and collective self absorption. When our preoccupation with ourselves matters more than anything else, its insidious effects numb us to our wider world.

And so I return to my advice – the only advice I wish to leave with each of you. It is to be true to yourself. Dig deeply into what you think is a fair and kind way to live your life with yourself, your spouse, your children and with all people whom you meet on life’s journey. Once you have satisfied yourself that they are your guiding principles, live them to the best of your ability. Worry not about pleasing me or your friends or those with whom you work. Respect others with their values but do not strive to appease them if you sense it conflicts with what you hold dear. At times, you may feel some discomfort or, even worse, some loneliness. It’s a small price to pay to live at peace with yourself and those whom you truly love.

Perhaps you will tuck away this letter in a drawer and reread it now and then when you feel challenged in your life with some difficult situation. Until then, I look forward – because looking forward nurtures the anticipation of happiness – to our future family gatherings over drinks and dinner when you will so generously allow your father the floor to rant in his frustrating manner about the world and its ways.

John Green lives in Mississauga.