"Gumption" was my father's favorite word. The highest compliment he could pay a person was to say, "He (or she) has real gumption." Conversely the biggest insult he could hurl would be that a person had no gumption.
As children with little or no gumption, we thought it was a funny word, an old-fashioned word. It seemed to come from a world with buggy whips and sassafras tea. In time we learned it meant: initiative, chutzpah, courage or guts. Why couldn't dad just say "guts?"
As I grew up, my relationship with my father changed. I became an adult. We were both adults, however we were not peers. I was never my father's peer. Before he passed away, I wanted to record his life on tape. We sat at a table many times during a week we were staying together, and I interviewed him. I pretended it was to preserve it for his grandchildren, but it really was for me. I wanted to know what made him tick. One of the topics we talked about was prayer. We discussed what we prayed about, and he told me, that at different times in his life, he petitioned God for money, health and world peace, etc. But the thing he prayed for most often was gumption. He wanted more gumption to get things done.
This was a man who, after growing up on a farm, endured World War II, worked his way through college, graduate school, and homesteaded in Alaska. He moved to California, built a solar heating system in the 1970s that kept his family warm. He protested when he disagreed with the government.
Once, when volunteering for our church, he acquired a shipment of brand new shoes and clothing. We wanted to send it to an orphanage in Mexico. He tried several avenues but met with quite a bit of red tape. So, relying on his God-given gumption, he decided it would be faster and easier to smuggle it into Mexico. So he did -- personally driving it across the border.
At times he was an elected official, and even in retirement, he led groups and constantly wrote letters to the editor. He took as sacred the notion of petitioning the government for the redress of grievances. This man, who was made up almost entirely of pure gumption, prayed for more. Really?
I am not sure of my mother's most recurrent prayer, but there was one prayer/bible verse that I heard her say the most in front of the children. It was part of Matthew 27:46: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It was probably a fitting prayer for a woman married to a man who beseeched God for more gumption.
My prayers are a lot more mundane. When I was young, I pleaded with God to have a different family, a family that was more "normal." I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to be in a family that did not live on a homestead, that had a color TV, that did no smuggling.
But lately I find myself asking for more wisdom and asking now for gumption. I wish for my father's gumption. I do not know if I could handle that gumption, however, because I don't have my father's faith. My mind is so full of doubts. I can almost hear him say to me daily to show more gumption.
My wife recently found an article reporting that some schools were noticing a lack of perseverance among their students, and so they are designing a curriculum to teach gumption (they didn't use the word, but we know that's what they meant.)
Can you teach it? Can you get it from the heavens? I don't know. I know you can discourage it.
When I was recording my father, I asked him about the doubts and regrets he'd had. It took him a long time to come up with any. He finally came up with a few small regrets of no real importance. Maybe that is the by-product of a life packed with gumption.
Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" column appears every other Friday.