Nothing personal — my father’s deathbed Zen koan

Perhaps the most mysterious, profound and illuminating thing my father said to me the last night of his life was that none of the long war between us had been personal.   It took me a long time after he died to figure out what he meant by that.

“You have to understand, Elie,” my father told me in the strained voice of a dying man, “on a real level there was never anything personal about our battles.”   He explained that the hostilities had little to do with me, personally, though I was the one forced to fight.  He assured me he’d have acted the same way with any child, regardless of their temperament.  

Nothing personal.  When I fought you to the death every night, it was, strictly speaking, nothing personal.  My father was fighting his demons, the fears that tortured him all his life, those torments just took on my face when I sat across from him.  When he snarled at me it was difficult for me not to snarl back at him.   Nothing personal became intensely personal, though he told me that last night that I had to understand none of it had been personal, strictly speaking.

It reminds me of the moth joke Norm McDonald used to tell Conan O’Brien.   Norm took a ten second joke and milked it for seven minutes.   The set up is a moth walks into a podiatrist’s office and starts pouring out his heart to the doctor.  In Norm’s telling the moth is tortured by how much he hates himself, hates the reflection of himself in his son.   “When I look at my son,” Norm’s overwrought moth tells the podiatrist, “I am overcome with rage and self-loathing, it’s like looking at everything I hate in myself, and I hate that I hate my own son, which reminds me more how much I hate myself and how much I deserve to hate myself.  What kind of father feels revulsion when he looks at his own son’s face?  I tell you, doc, that kid, it’s like the worst in me condensed into a face I want to literally hit with a hammer.  I’m afraid one day I’m going to act on this rage, and I know it’s irrational, it has nothing to do with the poor kid, who I can see has some good qualities.  He’s actually a pretty good guy, my son, but I continue to stare at him with rage, I can’t help it, and I know how sick it is, doc, but I look at the kid’s face and I literally want to vomit, I’m afraid someday I’m going to murder him…” and Norm continues in this vein for several more minutes as Conan chides him and goads him on.

Finally the podiatrist says “listen, it sounds like you have some serious issues you need help with, but you really need a psychiatrist.  I’m a podiatrist, I treat problems of the feet and lower legs, I’m not the kind of doctor who can help you with what you just described to me.  Why did you walk into a podiatrist’s office?”

“The light was on,” says the moth.

Like the light that went on when I finally understood what my father meant by telling me I had to understand it was never anything personal, strictly speaking.  That he put it in context was helpful.   He told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years to make peace, but that he was always too fucked up to reach back.   He told me how much he regretted his lack of emotional maturity, imagination, moral courage.  He said he wished we could have had this kind of honest, back and forth conversation fifteen years ago, after only thirty-five years of constant, senseless warfare.

Nothing personal, like the universe itself had decreed it.  And we, hapless pawns that we are, blown like leaves in the wind, subject to forces too gigantic and terrifying to have any hope of overcoming.  Nothing personal, a great relief and a terrible curse, at once.  

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