A tribute to my son, Timothy Pfeifer Part 2i
Not long after my son, Timothy, died, I shared my grief with a friend. During a pause in our conversation, he said, “Now you have to carry on Timothy's legacy.” I sat bolt upright. “That's wrong. I'm supposed to pass my legacy on to Timothy, not the other way around.”
My friend's statement continues to challenge me. What has Timothy passed on to me? I now realize that much of Timothy's legacy is my legacy. I passed my conscious and unconscious values to him. When he died these values were handed back to me for my conscious development and growth.
One thing I admired in Timothy was his brilliant mind. But more than his brilliance, was his ability to act with authority and perseverance. During the Madoff investigation, he chartered a plane to fly his team into an airport in eastern Europe that didn't accommodate commercial flights. If I am to carry on Timothy's legacy, I need to acknowledge my personal authority. I too am intelligent and creative. I carry Timothy's legacy forward when I use my abilities with greater hope and confidence.
Timothy and I both enjoyed people. He deepened my appreciation of this fact through his photography. His subjects were more than a girl on a New York subway platform or a peasant on a street in Mumbai. They were people with hopes, dreams, fears, hurt and joys - people like me.
When Pope Francis visited Washington DC, he noticed a small girl in the crowd who who was a cheerleader in the Special Olympics. He smiled broadly and stooped down to greet her. This was not the Pontiff blessing a handicapped girl. This was one human being embracing another with no agenda other than to enjoy the moment. My heart swelled in recognition. In all of our differences, we humans are more alike than we care to acknowledge.
I spend time in a local coffee shop where I am the de facto welcoming committee. I nod and engage people in conversation. It has gotten to the point where I now recognize so many people, that I introduce them to one other. My coffee shop emulates the Boston tavern, “Cheers” where everyone knows your name. It is special to know that Timothy and I share this interest in people.
Timothy detested stereotypes. He once challenged me saying, “Dad, you see everything as black or white. People are much more complex than that.” He was correct. We raised our children to honor all people, even those with whom we disagree. When I was director of Madison Urban Ministry (MUM), I developed cooperative rather than oppositional strategies for dealing with community problems. Even in this, I stereotyped people as good or bad - for me or against me. I was still trying to manipulate people to achieve my ideal for Madison.
Timothy invites me to rethink my understanding of personal and social interactions. I now realize that we humans are subject to psychological, spiritual, and cultural forces beyond our control. Our engagements are more like a dance than a tug-of-war. Social action from this perspective is a different animal. It requires discernment as well as rational thought; emotional engagement as well as analysis; a feeling for the thing as a whole as well as recognition of the individual parts; empathy with all involved rather judgment of others through stereotyping and demonization.
As I engage life in this way, I find am able to relate to people; accepting my authentic self with all my strengths and weakness. This stance of humilityii reinforces another characteristic that I share with Timothy. Neither of us would play political games - games that forced us to be inauthentic. Although this insistence on authenticity may have cost us in our professional lives, it reaped long term positive benefits. We were more consistent in our actions and reactions. People could trust us because “what you see is what you get.” We did not have to pretend.
I remember a time when I, as director of MUM, confronted the director of the United Way at a public meeting. People thought I was crazy, because MUM was funded in part by the United Way. I challenged her and her agency to fund unpopular programs that addressed intractable community issues; like racism, sexism and economic discrimination. To everyone's surprise, she engaged me in a dialogue on this troubling dynamic. She knew I was not trying to manipulate her. She was able to respond from her authentic self. We connected at a deep level; as we acknowledged our community's inability to stand with the oppressed. Timothy's actions have fortified me to remain authentic and to grow in self confidence.
Timothy enjoyed life and lived it full-out, packing 80 years of living into 45 years of life. He lived outside the box: dressing extravagantly; giving fun and silly gifts to family, friends and co-workers; painting his toenails purple; and decorating his office with science fiction kitsch. He refused to be categorized politically or spiritually. This life-style caused him some anxiety and emotional pain and perhaps contributed to his death. Even so, his will to live full-out prevailed. Timothy passed this legacy on to me. He stated it best in a card given to his second cousin which read, “The world is yours - Take it! Share it! Love it!”
I have lived much of my life like Atlas, shouldering the cares of the world.iii I have toiled like Sisyphusiv, struggling to promote social change, often seeing my efforts undone by forces beyond my control. I can hear Timothy saying even now, “Dad, you take things too seriously. Lighten up! You care for the world. Now love it and enjoy it.”
Although Timothy espoused no religious or spiritual tradition, his advice reminds me of the admonition of the first commandment of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I tend to translate this as, “God is God, and you're not.”
I can't force humanity into my mold. My puny efforts are entirely insufficient for this task. Furthermore, I am not separate from the world. I am part of an amazing and complex dance that has been going on for more than 13 billion years. My opportunity is to attune myself to this cosmic flow of life, not because I need to improve on the flow, but because I am more alive when I do so.
I will close this reflection with a homely example relating to Woburn United Methodist Church. Our little congregation of 35 people recently conducted a “Worship Without Walls” service on our minuscule front lawn on Main Street. I had imagined this service as a recruiting effort for new members. The night before the service I had this insight: Our “Worship Without Walls” service is not a project that can fail or succeed. It makes no difference how many people attend. We, in our little church, are participating in something beyond ourselves that contributes to LIFE. This is why we do it.
Immediately the pressure was off. I relaxed and enjoyed the experience. The first commandment was no longer a judgment about how I should live my life or how we should conduct our service. It became an invitation to allowing something beyond ourselves to flow through us.
Timothy, I miss you and always will. Through my memories and your legacy, you continue to live in me. I thank you for that. Blessings my son.
i Thank you Keith Johson for prompting this reflection.
iiSr. Joan Chittister defines humility as the ability to accept ourselves as we are. This implies we not only identify our weaknesses without shame, but we also identify our strengths without pride.
iiiIt seems significant that a statue of Atlas stands outside Timothy's office in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
ivSisyphus committed crimes against the Gods. As punishment he was condemned to an eternity of hard labor. He was consigned to rolling a huge boulder up a hill. Once he had succeeded, with huge exertion, to attain the summit, the rock rolled back down the hill