Letters from My Father: Lessons I've Learned

George L. Nitti's memoir, remembering his father through his letters and what he's learned along the way.

As several months passed in Staten Island, I was working steadily as a waiter at a Café at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC, studying acting at the William Esper Studio, auditioning for anything I could find in the actor’s trade publication called Backstage, and trying unsuccessfully to get an agent. And I was doing all of those other creative things that I mentioned.  

Yet, I was dissatisfied, seeking and searching for greater success, not content with the rung of the ladder I was on while forever questioning my path.

A journal entry from the period expresses both my desire for success as well as my confusion about what I wanted to do with my life. “There is so much I want to be that there is almost nothing where I can say I am.”

My father picked up on my feelings of unease and helped me address the issues through his philosophical insight. He had a habit of saying the future is now. I think this letter encapsulates some of my father's feelings about success and the future.

We strive, even rush it seems to be successful. It occurs to me so much of this effort is wasted because we don’t take advantage of the opportunities that are everywhere and that occur every day. What is this nonsense I’m saying?

Let me try to explain. One man wants to say become a writer, another an artist and a third a musician. Each longs to achieve success. Let us say the artist and the musician are like you. They practice the instrument or paint every day, take classes and work a few hours a day to sustain themselves. Both are frustrated because their work is not recognized after some years of hard effort. They imagine success as a place or day down the road when finally their diligence and development of their art comes to fruition. In the meantime each day they ponder, doubt, sweat and worry if they have any talent at all, if their whole commitment has been nothing more than a gamble, a bet that destiny may guarantee that they will lose. Their minds constantly wander from what they pursue each moment to that date down the road with destiny. Their life is chronic anguish and distraction.

The writer has decided never to try and even peek into the future and isn’t even imagining that he is on any road at all. Success to him is too far away to even ponder. He prefers to live each day going about his work, going to classes, reading some books and developing the myriad of possibilities that happen every day, those interactions between the rest of the world and him, an interplay of his life touching upon those commonplace encounters the sum total of which in the course of a lifetime will be vast and in the end make his life relevant.

The writer, like the artist, the musician and the actor lives in a neighborhood. The writer makes time for everyone. He takes the time to listen to the clerk at the food store and has gotten to know about his life, his family, his problems, good fortune, illness, his habits etc. He does this with his friends, the gas station attendant, his landlord, the blacks next door. He doesn’t worry about success for the very longing for it is a downer for him so he blanks it out of his mind. So many good things are out there for his healthy body and mind.

I’m curious why my father placed as much emphasis on the writer than he did on the musician or actor? Perhaps he was coming from his own self definition. Or perhaps he saw something in me that I had not yet seen in myself: the potential to become a writer.

That letter did not do much for me at the time, in terms of impact, besides present an interesting perspective. Of course it may have grounded me, but I’m not sure how far it went in really changing my state of being. If change was to take place, it would be gradual and much more imperceptible.

My first and foremost goal was to become an actor. And that was exactly his point. My pre-occupation with becoming rather than being. Of becoming a broken-record rather than a jubilant being playing creatively on this planet, like kids do on a playground without care for the bell that will mark the end of their playtime. Do you think they are constantly measuring results?

In that same letter my father restated his feelings.

Are not most of us overly pre-occupied with making a success of ourselves? Is not the pre-occupation itself a constant distraction? Does the rush to success cause us to overlook the day by day happenings entering our lives to go unnoticed? I’m not advocating giving up classes, reading, practicing. But each day was also meant to be lived fruitfully. If we constantly live in a state of dreaming of our success, of second guessing our commitment, of constantly worrying whether we have the talent or if we will ever get an opportunity, we shall be consumed by those fears.

One’s destiny is determined not only by fate but by what a person does each moment of each day of his life that builds him into a whole human being, a person with confidence in himself who doesn’t need to constantly, or ever, look at himself in the mirror and wonder at what rung of the ladder of life he is on. The dreamer is always looking to the top and then checking where his feet are on the rung and how far from the ground he has climbed. Usually not far.

The person who enjoys each opportunity (not necessarily related to his chosen field), who makes the most of every encounter and who behaves as a gentleman ought, who finds joy with others and gives of himself as his conscience dictates, will never be seduced by the dreams of some distant success. The more he gives of himself, the better he feels. His state of well being will be each day and his success will begin then and there. Later, perhaps and perhaps much later another success may come.

George, we must like ourselves. To do this we must perform good deeds and do our work well. If we like ourselves we develop an image of self-confidence and this becomes a more lasting effect than any amount of fame.

Your future is hidden, but not the present. It is the only reality and you are demanded to take care of the things at hand. From it the rest will follow and never ask yourself again that question that no one nor you can answer, have I chosen the right path. Once you consume yourself in the present, a different you will develop. Love Dad.

P.S. Remember, make time for everyone. It’s a great cure also for loneliness.

Looking back at this letter, I take much solace in it, as it revealed my father as the kind of person he wanted to be and which I knew him as: Kind, compassionate, caring and generous, that part of each of us one can call the Higher-Self. My father had many layers and continually reminded me that everyone else on the planet did as well.

Indeed there was so much to becoming a whole person, with self-confidence the key to overcoming self-doubt, with the expansion of humanity the key to overcoming self-aggrandizement.

From this lesson of not worrying too much about the future and distant success, it opened up other opportunities and over time I did revel more in the present than fret over the future.

Finally one door opened that changed my life forever.

I became a teacher and started teaching, first briefly as a sub in the Staten Island School System and then later, at a high school in Newark, NJ, where I spent two very rewarding years.

One of the classes I would teach was psychology, in which I imparted knowledge about self-esteem, self-awareness and self-worth. Not only would I teach these concepts over several semesters, but I would raise my own understanding of self through the daily lessons I created.

It would take a little longer before I got there, but ultimately that little education would become the basis of a more lasting fulfillment.

When we speak of education as something that can’t be taken away, that is the great gift one ultimately receives through it, a reward that transcends the diploma. It is a stamp and mark upon your given identity, a gift that keeps on giving.

The lesson of trying to stay more present rather than worrying about "distant success" has been something I continually grapple with. Over the course of my life, Dad would continually remind me that the future is now. Thinking back on his death, I'm reminded about the value of living fruitfully today.