Learning From Dad

Everything I Needed to Learn about Law and Gospel I Learned From my Dad. 

Will Ryan / 6.16.21

I think I have a good relationship with my dad. He was a good dad, one I try to emulate now that I’m a dad. He got me started on a lot of different things I love: baseball, golf, cooking, reading. He also gave me a gift I’ll always cherish — everything I ever needed to learn about Law and Gospel I learned from my dad. 

Did he set out to do it? No, I don’t think so, but it happened all the same. 

You see, growing up I was put in the “Gifted and Talented” program for my school district. Apparently, I showed aptitude and promise when it came to schooling, and this program was meant to engage those inclinations I already possessed. Basically, I got to hang out with the other nerdy kids who loved building roller coasters with K’nex, spending their time immersed in the fantasy worlds of their favorite books, and taking trips outside of school hours to learn more about stars and astronomy. 

I internalized this idea that I was “Gifted and Talented”: that I was smart, that I was special. Instead of being a gift, it functioned as a little-l law of self-accusation. “Am I doing enough?” I compared myself to others, all the while trying to climb this Gifted and Talented ladder to the top of the school hierarchy. 

My childhood house of cards came crashing down in middle school. The Gifted and Talented program was only for elementary school-aged children. When you hit middle school, there was no program. You were just thrown to the wolves to outperform one another. Because of the promise I’d shown earlier, I was in advanced math. But unlike when I was younger, the problems didn’t solve easily. I couldn’t do them in my head, and I wasn’t used to having to try. Throw in a teacher I didn’t connect with (and who didn’t try to connect with me), mixed with the regular peculiarities of adolescent boys, and you get a recipe for apathy.

I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t study. I didn’t care. And my grades showed it. 

My parents caught wind of how I was doing and they were understandably upset. I don’t know if they uttered the famous “we’re not mad, we’re just disappointed,” but I do remember the refrain I received from my dad: “You have so much potential.” Meant to inspire, it did anything but. Telling me I had potential obviously meant I wasn’t living it out. I was failing, and it was being noticed. It’s one thing to feel like a failure, quite another to have your fears confirmed. My dad didn’t mean it that way, but that was how I took it.

His off-handed quip brought me to the end of myself. It was a judgment not on my work, but on me. I need to do more, strive for more, and simply be more so I could achieve that golden goose of potential.

And when the first ever “D” came back on the report card (in math, of course), it ruined me. I spiraled to the point of no return and tried to end it all. What I tried didn’t work, thankfully. Instead, I received therapy and counseling that helped me get through the worst. I still harbored those ideas of “potential,” but they were kept at bay with more realistic expectations (and doing homework!).

Fast forward about five years. I’ve done pretty well academically and in extracurriculars (band, jazz band, football, & baseball). I’m not the best, but that doesn’t matter as much. I enjoy what I’m doing, keeping the nagging feelings of failure at bay. 

Out of the blue, a book appears on my dresser with a note from my dad. It seems as if the note was almost an afterthought, scribbled on the back of some hotel stationary. “Will — I don’t say it enough — I’m very proud of you. Whether it’s music, school, sports, or relationships, I know you try your best to do well. I’ve noticed something else lately too — leadership. You know, a good leader is someone who helps those around him grow and learn. You do that. Love, Dad. P.S. I thought you’d like this book.”

The book was a gift, but the real gift was the words he wrote. There was nary a sign of “potential.” Instead, he spoke of something that already was. He spoke a word of grace. He spoke into existence something that wasn’t there. I didn’t think of myself as a leader (still don’t really), but here I was being called one by the man I looked up to and (still) wanted to please. 

My dad didn’t say, “Do this,” as the Law does. He said it is already done, as the Gospel does. 

In a moment of his left hand not knowing what his right hand was doing, my dad gave me the gift of a new identity. Kind of like what God’s good news of forgiveness for sinners does too. 

Thanks, Dad. 

P.S. I still have the note. It’s crumpled and faded, but I will never get rid of it.