Birthday with My Father in Law

Food for Thought

I spent my birthday interviewing my father-in-law. He is towards the end of his life, and I’m somewhere in the middle at 54. We talked continually for four hours, and he seemed unfazed by the intensity of the conversation.

He was a scenic artist for movies. Now that he is retired, he draws and paints whatever he likes. He is a true artist in the sense that he cannot stop himself from making art; clearly, something compels him to paint. He didn’t seem to regret his career choices. He sounded grateful that he was able to do what he enjoys for a living.

Being born in Nazi-occupied Poland, he lived through horrors that I cannot relate to, and that is precisely the primary source of his sadness and bitterness. After immigrating to America, he was surrounded by people whose peaceful childhoods made them incapable of understanding the evils he has seen. It’s not a generation gap or cultural gap, but an experiential one that shapes everything he perceives. He feels chronically misunderstood.

In a way, it’s a modest wish he has for the world. He doesn’t want to be rich or famous; he just wants to be understood. Being understood and being desired are two different things. Most people spend their lives trying to be the objects of other people’s desires. As we age, staying “relevant” means being desired by others.

When we are young, this desirability comes easy because youth is desirable by itself. As it fades over time, we try to replace it with fame, power, or wealth in order to remain desired by others. We are terrified of being poor, old, and alone. But this game is ultimately futile, as death equalizes all of us. Desire is a social construct and has no value outside of it. For someone who is about to leave the society that imbues it with value, being desirable is no consolation. It’s like tossing the foreign currencies into the donation bin at the airport.

For dinner, I went to a Japanese restaurant that specializes in everyday dishes. Childhood favorites are satisfying in a way that does not depend on how desired they are by others. In fact, my wife didn’t care for it; she has her own favorites. And, we are better off that way as we grow older.