The banality of wisdom

My dad had a number of catch phrases when we were growing up. (I don’t mean to sound like he’s in the past tense – he is very much with us – though he has come through a pretty nasty bout of cancer, which certainly took its toll).

His catch phrases were usually repeated round the kitchen table when we were having tea.

“She/he seemed alright”

“There’s usually a good reason why someone has done something”

“Most things aren’t that difficult to do if you can find a book about it in the library”

I didn’t think of these as catch phrases at the time. Some of them he probably only said a few times but they have all somehow got lodged in my head and I find myself referring to them and using them in conversations with colleagues more and more as the years go by. They sound very ordinary…almost banal; but as the years go by I have come to see them as real pearls of wisdom.

(My dad’s name is Fred by the way. I have written about him once before here.)

She/he seemed alright

My dad was a maths teacher. At tea my mum would often ask him about any new member of his department or the wider team.

“Oh he/she seemed alright” would be the guaranteed response.

In a world where the media, organisations, many of us as individuals, are all too quick to cast almost everyone as either hero or villain, it is important that we remember that we are all just human beings. We all have strengths and weaknesses; talents and limitations; helpful and inhibiting habits.

It’s all too easy to hang a mental label on other people, often based on very limited contact, and to filter future interactions through that label.

My dad probably got it about right. The vast majority of people are neither saints nor sinners. They are just trying to muddle through life the best they can. It’s a helpful thought to keep at hand as we navigate each day.

There’s usually a good reason why someone has done something

My sisters (and honestly, it was usually them) would often come bursting in proclaiming ‘It’s not fair!’ or ‘you’ll never believe what X has done!’ or some such exclamation. I remember when I bought my first house – a little terraced property in Stoke – and started berating a previous owner for putting wood chip on all the walls. I wished I’d listened to my dad when the hired wall paper stripper took not only the wood chip but most of the plaster off most of the walls.

People are generally not stupid. If they do something that many might think is stupid – like borrow money from a loan shark; or walk out of a job after the slightest provocation from their employer; or punch a big hole in their nice housing association door; there is probably a reason why.

So for anyone working in a business that is essentially about people (housing association has always seemed a rather odd name for what we do) it pays to pause and think; to listen and ask a question or two before assuming you know why someone has done what they’ve done…and that the reason is probably that they are bad, mad or stupid.

Most things aren’t that difficult to do if you can find a book about it in the library

I first heard my dad say this when he casually mentioned that he had put the central heating in to his and mum’s first house.

“How on earth did you manage that?!” I asked.

I got a book from the library and just followed what it said.

When I was a teenager my dad built a boat….completely from scratch….in our garage. It took him flippin’ ages but it was a real boat… with sails (which he made) and oars and everything. I feel bad now that I wouldn’t go and sail it with him more than I did, but I am immensely proud of the fact that he did it none the less.

The point is that most people are capable of doing far more than we might think they are. With a bit of self-belief and a little help – from a library book, or a neighbour or a community – most people will amaze themselves and others with what they can achieve.

I just spoke to my dad on the phone. My mum is very deaf these days so after years of speaking to her on the phone it is now my dad who usually answers the phone. I think we’ve spoken more in the last year than we probably have in the previous ten. It’s been great.

My dad is invariably thought of as a man of few words. Indeed he is. But then he is surrounded by a lot of women who have rather a lot to say!

Like a lot of quieter people though, when my dad does speak, it’s well worth listening.

When I was growing up we never marked Father’s Day. In our house we said it was a consumerist invention to get us to spend money and buy stuff that no one wanted or needed.

I realised a few years back (I live about 150 miles away from my folks and my siblings) that everyone else in my family had started marking it without telling me.

This year I sent him a card and a small gift. Neither arrived on time.

So I thought I’d write this.

Happy Father’s Day Dad.




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