Speech: on parental advice and responsibility

November 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is the text of a speech I gave last weekend.

In 1962, a few weeks before the wedding whose 50th anniversary we are here to celebrate, Charles Lyttelton ended his term as tenth Governor-General of New Zealand. Lord Cobham, as he was known, was such a good speaker that a book of his speeches was published. Dad gave his copy to me some years ago, its pages interleaved with old newspaper clippings and other artefacts.

Great oratory is marked by great insight. Before he retired Lord Cobham said ‘One of the hardest things to do is to be able to assess the value of what one is doing now in terms of the future…Human activities have to pass the test of time.’

I have turned my mind to insights I have been given by the guests of honour.

First, I credit my mother with the ominous view of opportunity ‘You pass this way but once’. That phrase has become the little voice in my head, the extra push to step into the unknown and broaden my experience. For that, mum, I have quietly thanked you over and over, nursing the glow of something ventured and something gained.

That we pass this way but once is of course literally false. I have passed many ways more than once and some hundreds of times over with neither positive nor negative consequences. As we stride and sometimes stumble through life, there is very little that cannot be patched up, resurfaced and tried again. More people would survive their darkest hour if they could hear – and believe – that you don’t just get ‘one shot’ at life. You get as many as you need.

However, every single moment is one that you pass but once as the person you are that day. So go for it.

My mother’s pocketful of wisdom also contains the grim warning ‘No one’s indispensable’. Picture a hand withdrawing from a bucket of water; the water closes over, the ripples disappear and the next person to come along will simply see a bucketful (water level a bit lower notwithstanding). As much as a warning about ego, this is a reminder about keeping things in balance. It is a reminder that life goes on.

My father’s advice has more often been specific rather than general. We are all, I think, compelled to check the weather before deciding whether to go over Arthur’s Pass or stay east of the divide. His adaptability, efficiency and all-round nous are part of the family ethic, even if few of us can match his technical skills. No one, thank God, can match the lowness of his engine revs or his thick-skinned allegiance to function over style. He is the original recycler, as prone to pick up a block of wood from the tip or a piece of metal from the side of the road as he is to strategically abandon an old bicycle or a (soon-to-be) homeless chicken.

But more than once he has told me ‘Your best decisions are your slowest’. This advice, statistically, is only right about half the time. Two of the biggest decisions I have ever made in my life – the decision to get married and the decision to get unmarried – were slow ones. The first one was wrong, but I accept it for what it was. The second one – the one that led to this man and these children – was right.

I have also suffered the paralysis of indecision and learned that sometimes, any decision made is a good one. Humans very quickly adapt to whatever course is set, whether that course is set for us or by us.

Still, careful decisions have served me much more often than they have stalled me.

Finally, I credit both parents for instilling in me a desire to occasionally ‘Rock the boat’. In fact, I remember them using this exact phrase on many occasions. It is associated in my mind with the Gladstone years; the church and its community offshoots; the smelter. As a teenager, I was left with the impression that you can – playfully or on principle – stand up and stand out. I hope that I do this at times.

Make the most of opportunities.  

You are not irreplaceable.  

Make your decisions carefully.  

Stand out from the crowd.  

These are pieces of advice that I have both adopted and ignored, depending on the situation.

Mum and Dad, feel proud that I have benefited from your advice on many occasions. Feel relieved that I have walked away from it on others. You don’t want to be carrying that much responsibility.

There is a constant undercurrent, when you are a parent, of wondering to what extent you are to credit for your child’s strengths. And, by inference, to what extent you are to blame for your child’s weaknesses.

The answer, I think – I hope – is: not terribly much. As that line from Khalil Gibran’s poem says of parents, ‘You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.’

We are just the bows from which the arrows fly.

Nature’s blueprint is hard to erase. Like a palimpsest, we can always see the original writing underneath. Genetic accident determines so much of our physical aptitudes, mental abilities and even emotional quirks.

But nurture – what happens to us after we are old enough to absorb external influences – plays a huge role because it sets us up with experiences, education and values. As Lord Cobham said, ‘A child is first influenced by the importance that his parents place upon anything’.

There are people who conceal doubt behind confidence. I think that I am the opposite. My confidence lies beneath the surface, but it is there. When the spotlight is off and the door is closed (or the nerves gather and the trail stretches out in front) I think: I am this and I can that. Surely, you helped weave this fabric of self-knowledge and self-belief.

I thank you for enriching my life so far.

I thank you for providing me with a secure upbringing that was neither shy of adventures, nor overburdened with challenges. I think you got the balance about right.

Congratulations on your epic partnership that has passed Lord Cobham’s test of time. It is a small but important part of the inner keel that keeps my sails up where they can catch the wind.


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