What Character Means to Me: SNL’s Grumpy Old Man & Coping With Cam’s Deployment

One of my dad’s favorite parenting mantras was “mind cheerfully.” It would roll off his tongue several times a week. Translation: it’s not enough to do what I say … do it with a smile … deal with it if you don’t like it, if it makes you sad, hurt or angry.

Sounds harsh, eh? But view it instead as my 70s version of SNL’s 90s “Grumpy Old Man” and you get to add some needed levity to my reflections on character and what my own character development has come to mean to me. The brilliant SNL comedian Dana Carvey perfectly caricatured that old dude we all know who part yarns bitterly and part brags about the hardships of his bygone days, like walking 10 miles through the snow barefoot to get to school, emphatically ending every tale of his generation’s affliction and woe with “and we liked it!” Grumpy Old Man seemed less bitter about the hardships of his youth than he was intent upon pointing out just how “soft” the younger generation was.

My dad was neither grumpy nor judgmental when he would very matter-of-factly remind me to “mind cheerfully” if I started to make some kind of comment or object to my daily list of household chores, pitching in for my working mom in the kitchen, watching my insanely hyperactive little brothers, riding my bike to swim practice through the snowy Maine winter months, rolling downed logs up a hill to split and stack a cord of wood in the late fall, or mowing acres of rocky, uneven lawn with a push mower in the summer heat (Jeez, sounds like my own version of Grumpy Old Woman!). He didn’t flinch if I tried to extract sympathy (which, of course, was code for “please don’t make me, dad”) when homework was too difficult, there was too much of it, or I got a bad grade even if I tried hard. My dad lived by “Just Do It” before Nike owned it. Over time, I came to appreciate that he wasn’t looking for demure subservience from this strong-willed daughter even though my initial, visceral reaction to those words continues to be mostly characterized by anger mixed in with a good dose of moral indignation (how dare he, after all!) and emotional hurt and anguish (he doesn’t love me! he doesn’t care that I’m hurting!). No, he had something else in mind.

As my colleague Jamie Paul so beautifully pointed out in his recent blog reflections on character, parents are so central to how we come into our own abiding adult habits and values, the features of our personalities that become our “character.” As adult children, our parents’ mantras that contributed to shaping our character stick in our heads decades after we endured their annoying, repeated admonitions. Pretty terrifying to think of the power we hold as parents, eh? Now we are the ones delivering these lessons through our own mantras, none of which are probably very original but take on special meaning as we hope to shape our own children’s character.

When I say my dad’s words out loud, they sound harsh, mean-spirited, uncaring, callous, without regard for my feelings (not to mention my aching back and stinging hands!). But my dad was and still is (thankfully!) one of the kindest, gentlest men I know. And if, like Grumpy Old Man, he was thinking about me ever turning out “soft,” it’s clear to me now that it would have been out of deep concern that I could enter adulthood without the qualities of character necessary to face a world that makes certain demands of us, an often harsh and unforgiving world.

These days we seem to talk about character as something inherently good while we mourn its absence in our leaders and in our own children (while perhaps also failing to recognize our own hand in both of these). But character from a human development perspective is actually just the abiding set of mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. It doesn’t assume good or strong or admirable moral or mental qualities. It just speaks to who we are, what we value, and how we show up in a mostly consistent, predictable way, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Whether my dad meant to build certain qualities of character in me or not as he waited for the edges of my lips to turn upward in a grudging smile, his seeming lack of concern for my feelings as I went about minding his directives in internal rebellion turned out to be a gift. I’m not endorsing this mantra for universal use, mind you. In certain circumstances and delivered in a certain way, it could be cruel. It just seems to have had benefits for this young girl who leaned toward heightened emotions and the melodramatic as she was developing the abiding habits and world view that would become her character.

These qualities that have become my character have surely been challenged of late as I face my own fears, hurt, anxiety and inability to control this world. You see, our younger son Cam, who is a US Army Field Artillery officer, is just past the half-way point of a 400-day combat deployment in Iraq. Lately, I have had to continually remind myself that I have the ability to pull out and use these qualities, that especially on my worst days I need to reignite them, choose to put on that smile and even allow some joy to seep in. From my dad’s influence, I became naturally adaptive and prone to lean into realities I don’t like. I developed the ability to reframe feelings and emotions that initially feel yucky into neutral or even positive reactions. So before Cam left, he and I promised each other that we would find one good thing (however small) about each day and be sure to share it with someone else if we couldn’t share it with each other (which, of course, we mostly can’t). When I was surprised to learn that Cam volunteered me to co-head his unit’s Family Readiness Group, the support program for deployed soldiers’ families, I wondered how I could take on such a huge responsibility and time commitment and do it well given my other daily obligations. But I’m “just doing it,” hardly aware of its demands on me and instead finding incredible reward in being able to be a source of support for these brave, incredibly challenged families. In return for lost sleep and packed days, missing and worrying about my son has become a shared burden.

Yes, I have of late particularly appreciated the Mind Cheerfully lessons of accepting that a lot of life is about doing what we fear, don’t like, or aren’t good at and being able to find some joy or at least satisfaction, regardless. I have also been reminded that working hard and being active actually (I mean literally, in a neuroscience kind of way) make me feel better and are a reward in themselves, regardless of what accomplishments they do or don’t yield. So I automatically lean into busying myself with work and I am always training for the next race or Spartan (my therapy!). Recently, I mixed my training habit with the Run to Home Base race at Fenway, which supports PTSD treatment for vets suffering from the invisible wounds of war, accompanied by a group of families from Cam’s unit.

After many a support zoom where we did our best to encourage one another to follow a self-care routine to help cope with our loved one’s deployment, we enjoyed an incredibly inspiring and fun day of fitness together! Dealing with Cam’s deployment has also made me grateful for my dad’s patient confidence that if I sat with my distress long enough and just kept moving forward, it would diminish or go away all together in that moment and even have the potential to be replaced with cheerfulness! And on any given day when I start to let life’s challenges get to me, I wonder what lessons of character Cam is relying on as he faces much more acute and higher-stakes struggles than my own. Perspective is such a gift!

It wasn’t the log rolling or wood splitting that ended up being the lessons I’d rely on later in life (this is just what Mainers do!), so don’t run out and purchase a remote cabin in the Maine woods to teach your kids character unless you love black flies and cold winters. It was my dad’s ability to let me do the work, the external and internal work, without jumping in to save me. As a mom myself, I admit I was less steady in my resolve to let my kids find their way through distress. It was harder for me to watch them learn how to struggle successfully than it was for me to muster that angry smile for my dad. While I have two terrific adult sons now, they could have used some “Mind Cheerfully” parenting to help them develop those adaptive skills that serve me well on my hardest days more readily and with fewer detours along the way. Thank God for boarding school, where both of my sons got the Mind Cheerfully lesson I wasn’t always able to deliver.

In addition to his impact on me, my dad’s lessons on character development inform the way in which we seek to help students who walk through our doors affected by the current epidemic of adolescent and young adult mental health challenges. While there’s no simple answer to this crisis, it’s clear that our youth’s ability to tolerate distress and develop an abiding sense of self in the face of adversity are skills that are critical to healthy functioning in the present and to the development of those character qualities that adulthood requires. Thankfully, we have the gift of seeing firsthand everyday teachers, mentors, parents and mental health providers’ ability to create the environment that allows for the development of these skills. Unlike Grumpy Old Man, our kids don’t like this intervention any more than I did. But it will pay dividends if we have my dad’s patient resolve to prepare our kids for life’s inherent challenges.

About The Author

Sarah McMillan, Ed.D.