When I found out my wife was pregnant, all the old clichés about how the prospect of parenthood changes your perspective on everything all started happening.
I stopped seeing this world as something I inherited from my parents and started seeing it as something I have on loan from the fun-size human who tyrannically sends me out to the 7-11 on craving runs when I’d rather be asleep.
So, as part of my Lenten devotion, I decided to join with my father-in-law and a close friend and give the RISE challenge a try. It’s a 30-day challenge for Catholic men that pushes us to focus on our roles as sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers. It consists of watching a daily video, reading a reflection, and completing a challenge that relates to the day’s subject.
One such challenge was to write the obituary I want to have when I leave this world. I did it, and I find myself doing it every day now. Every time something gets difficult at work or at home, when a buddy needs help late at night and I’d rather let the call go to voicemail, I remind myself that if I want the words “loving husband, devoted father, loyal friend” to mean anything after I’m gone, I’d better start building that equity now.
The concept is an old one. Memento mori, “remember you will die,” encourages us to live and act with full knowledge that we will pass on from this world and that we should live our lives accordingly. Most people know of the concept through the art form, which usually depicts things like skulls as concrete reminders of mortality. It’s why I keep a clay skull on my desk at work.
Oddly enough, however, I have found a modern, likely unintentional, piece of memento mori art in the form of a popular network prime-time show.
I was initially hesitant when my wife suggested watching something so touchy-feely-looking as NBC’s “This Is Us,” which focuses on the triumphs and struggles of three grown siblings who lost their father as teenagers. But what the pregnant lady wants, the pregnant lady gets. I’ve learned that the exceptions to this rule are few and far between, if they even exist at all.
So we watched it, and it was good – very good, actually.
Initially, I was surprised that there’s still a major network television drama whose writers don’t actively hate me for being conservative. Sure, there are plot elements and one-offs that socially conservative folks aren’t going to stand up and cheer for, but in the current entertainment scene, you can do a lot worse.
Perhaps the reason this show is such a surprise to people is that Hollywood actually managed to make something that shows a dad doing what he should – one who’s not a total buffoon, mind you – and celebrating him for it.
Jack Pearson, the father the siblings lost when they were young, is the perfectly imperfect dad. He loves his wife. He doesn’t cheat on her. He doesn’t give up on his marriage when it gets rough. Rather, he admits his faults, takes his wife’s hand and humbly weathers the storm with her. He breaks his back at work and sacrifices his professional ambitions for the sake of his children. He’s not afraid to take the helm and lead his household. Sure, he gets prideful and jealous at times and makes mistakes, as we all do, but he handles those like a man, too.
The most important part of Jack’s character to the plot is the void that his death leaves with his family and friends as a result of the life he led. Watching this drama play out, I realized that Jack – like so many of the role models I had growing up – left the kind of mark on the world around him that all men should.
He’s remembered as a loving father, a devoted husband, and a good friend because he was. He earned those memories by doing what a man does, through constant sacrifice and service to those around him. He died, as we all do, but he also lived as we all ought to. By doing so, he touched the lives of those around him in ways that lasted decades after his passing.
And in a society where the traditional family is on life support, where fatherlessness is so common, where men are prolonging adolescence well into their 30s, where conventional masculinity is ridiculed as a toxic relic of days gone by, we desperately need more Jack Pearsons.
Good art guides our thoughts to higher, more important things, and in that respect, “This Is Us” is good art indeed.