Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

What Is A Moral Compass?

I was asked by someone following “Paul’s Heart,” to go into more detail about this “moral compass.” What exactly is it? Simply put?

Chances are in your lifetime, you have seen this image (though not this specific one), depicting an individual, facing a dilemma, and struggling to make a decision. In television and other media, when in that position, two “voices” appear, one at a time, to give their input on why a certain decision should be made. Decisions can have minor or major implications, especially if not made “morally.”

Even though this is an often used example of morality, the idea of doing the right thing, is not necessarily a religious tenet, though clearly it is mentioned quite a bit in bibles. You can have no religion, and still have quality morals. Why? Because morals are nothing more than knowing the difference between right and wrong.

But while cartoons and television programs are normally fiction, we do not have have specters or spirits routinely appearing on our shoulders to have a debate with us, in making a decision we face. We do however, have people in our lives, that we look up to, who often support us in our daily lives, whether intentionally or not, make us stop and go “hmmm,” to think about something we are about to do.

I mentioned in my previous post, my first “moral compass,” was my grandmother, pictured on the right. As a child, of course she did all she could to steer me in the correct directions when it came to right or wrong. And there would be guilt, if I chose the “wrong” direction because I would eventually have to face her. I lived with her. And those times, that I made those wrong decisions, they could not be hidden, because there was physical proof, usually in the form of cuts and bruises.

By the end of my childhood, I definitely knew the difference between right or wrong. I also had a strong foundation of looking out for others, and usually before and at the expense of my own needs (which by the way is not necessarily a good thing – think airplane oxygen mask and who is supposed to put theirs on first and why). When it came to making decisions in my youth, I had a great foundation.

Of course, as an adult, the decisions, and consequences become much greater. Thoughts can no longer be decided as they would at the level of a sitcom or cartoon. Real life, grown up life, requires responsible and moral thought processes.

And early on in my adulthood, my grandmother was still there for me as that support. Like many kids, I could get mad at my mother, quite mad in fact. I will never forget how quickly she would snap back, “YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MOTHER AND YOU MUST RESPECT HER!” Yes, she shouted that at me, one of the only times that she ever did raiser her voice. I had heard legend of just how tough she really was in her youth, standing at an unintimidating height of four foot eleven inches, and it was her moments like mentioned above, that not only made me listen, but never test her.

Career choices were also something that she played a role in. My grandmother would not only offer suggestions, but also support how to get from “point A to point B.” There was never-ending encouragement also. Even when it came to changing jobs, regardless of better opportunities, she always helped me to see everything before the decision was made.

And there would be difficult times as well that I faced, and my grandmother was there for me. One of those, was when I made the decision to file for divorce from my first wife. I remember talking to my grandmother about the possibility of it, and she was not pleased with me. She was a traditional woman. And it was not easy for her to have accepted that her own daughter, and youngest son, also experienced divorces themselves. My grandmother had married late, but still my grandparents were married over thirty years until my grandfather passed away.

I do not know how my grandmother dealt with my mother’s and uncle’s divorces as she did not talk about it. But I do know that she had opinions on my situation. My prior experiences with my “moral compass” had led me to believe that I would be put through the “ringers” (an expression for being “squeezed”) before any decision was made.

My first marriage was not a bad one as a whole. We did not fight. Actually, we got a long pretty well, including at the most difficult times in our lives, my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and her near death head-on car collision. But we did have one issue that ended up leading to a major problem, our communication was horrible. We did not talk, hardly at all about things that mattered to each of us. Sure, we talked about things that needed to get done, or where to go, but nothing about stuff that was really that important to us.

One day, that came to a head, in a bad way. One of the things I had always looked forward to, was becoming a parent. And this was one thing my wife knew. Years later, during a rare exchange of tense emotions, things got said, and looking back, I can honestly say that I am not sure whether they were actually true, meant to hurt, or just a total misunderstanding. But it led to me filing for divorce, immediately. I would offer no second chances. One comment that would change our lives forever, left her lips. “Don’t you think if I wanted to have kids, we would have had them by now.” I was mortified.

To this day, I still do not know if she actually meant it, nor do I think about it (other than writing it currently). But when I went to my grandmother, to tell her of my decision, I could see the hurt on her face. I am sure that my grandmother had gone through all kinds of challenges with my grandfather and there certainly were things that upset her about her children’s divorces. This situation seemed to have a different impact on her. Under normal circumstances, I should have expected a righteous “until death do us part” speech as the wedding vows imply. Instead, I got compassion.

My grandmother knew what I had gone through in my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, to get through all the toxic treatments. But I had survived it, and that meant that I could still reach my dreams, especially of parenthood. I spoke of nothing else. She knew how important this was to me.

In the end, we did try to resolve this dilemma, but I was faced with the concerns over time, how much time do I have left to pursue being a parent? I was in my mid-thirties and if I were to work on my marriage, and in the end, age out, unable to have kids, it would have been all for naught. It was not good enough for her to simply say, “I didn’t mean what I said.” That only left me trying to figure out which was going to be the truth, and which was not.

My “moral compass” had only one thing to offer, “you need to do what you must.” Feeling I had no other choice, I filed for divorce, in hopes that I might still have an opportunity at parenthood.

When my grandmother had passed, it may sound cliche, but I was definitely lost without that “moral compass.” I often found myself making impulsive decisions like a bull in China shop.

Sometimes the decisions were correct. Sometimes the decisions were wrong. I had no rhyme or reason behind what helped me to make my decisions. Whatever happened happened. This chaotic way of life was not how I was raised, nor was it really productive. But just as someone wandering a dessert or forest without any direction, because they have no compass to see which way to go, that is how my life was going. Without a “compass,” I was lost.

And then, enter not one, but two new “moral compasses,” my daughters.

From the days that they were placed in my arms, every decision that I have ever made, was made with the consideration of how it would impact my daughters. Every decision. I have not ever wanted to disappoint them with a bad decision (not to say that I have not), but I know that my daughters look up to me, as every parent should hope.

And as if coming around 360 degrees full circle, I realized a long time ago, that I will be their moral compass as well. Being older, I take all the opportunities I can to teach how “big” the little fibs can lead to something disastrous, the importance of prioritizing, and how things matter in the big scheme of things. It is important that they understand that they sound more intelligent not using foul language in general conversations, and one of the foundations of earning respect is demonstrating responsibility and accountability. But just as I did with my grandmother, it only happens when you know that compass helps you to get where you are going.

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