The Lessons of My Uncle

The oldest of my father’s siblings, Tom Rostan, turned seventy a couple weeks ago. The Rostan brood didn’t gather for the occasion, but the event was still marked by nationwide toasts of Crown Royal and similar concoctions. We didn’t think he would last this long.

Uncle Tom

Photo by Cathy Rostan

Tom has lived enough for three lifetimes. He spent most of his existence at sea, serving in the Navy and on international shipping boats. He married several times and raised many wonderful children. He once took a year off to grow coffee in South America.

After decades on the oceans, he settled in Florida with his wonderful wife Angie, but he’s never lost the air of command. I’ve read several of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels, and Dirk’s boss Admiral James Sandecker always takes on the visage of Uncle Tom. When his giant body steps into the room and the mouth opens from amidst his great silver beard to speak in a hearty rumble, you listen. I’ve spent my life listening to him, including when he showed up in Boston on my 21st birthday and got me seriously tipsy on Jameson, Guinness, and Bailey’s while instructing me to try drugs, meet women, live to the fullest.

Landlocked, he’s become an active disseminator of Facebook memes and chain emails. Some are funny. Most are very political in nature. I think readers of this site know my own politics by now, and suffice to say he’s 180 degrees away from me. That said, he will post often post things I truly agree with, and a recent post made me think.

The meme in question bore the caption “Here is a list of everything a human being was born entitled to or was owed by the world.” The list was of a blank sheet of paper.

I’m feeling confident that this did not refer to parental love and a sustainable childhood, and in the broadest sense I agree. I’m speaking as someone with a fair amount of student loan debt, an apartment of his own, and an IRA. After grad school I nearly lost all my savings and worked hard to make sure I could hold on to what was left. I have never felt that I was entitled to anything and never assumed the world owed me a darn thing. Things aren’t perfect in my life, but I stay industrious, I work at both my job and my vocation as a writer with diligence, and I am happy.

That being said, I also know that part of our duty as decent human beings, and I would call it a Christian duty, is to provide help and support to those who need it most and who are thrown everything they can handle by existence. The widow, the orphan, the disabled, those affected by a changed economy our society is still adjusting to must be accounted for in our time.

One of the things that frustrates me the most about 2016 America is the “all or nothing” attitude held by so many. Right now it’s being expressed in devotion to presidential candidates, with so many dripping vitriol on anyone who isn’t their preferred choice. But it’s also expressed in what I see as a refusal to accept that many of the great issues we face are genuinely multifaceted, and two or more of those facets can be equally true.

For instance, as an artist I believe in capitalism and the free market as the best economic system we have: the ability to stand and fall based on public desire and the quality and effort you put into your work. But I also know that capitalism requires some measure of regulation–NOT socialism, but taxes and limitations–or else the gap between rich and poor grows so gigantic that the system collapses. Trickle-down economics, a theory that counted on human selflessness, has proved a failure because human selfishness is a greater urge.

I believe that racism is a driving force in the institutions of law and justice and needs to be seriously dealt with and offenders punished. It is a stain on our character and a burden we must work together to erase. I also know there are countless police officers who truly serve, protect, and risk their lives for their communities. Neither condition invalidates the other.

I know many people, my Uncle Tom being one, who own guns for recreational usage and are pillars of responsibility and clear-headedness. I also know the current laws regarding guns are creating an epidemic of needless destruction and need to be changed.

I struggle with the moral dimensions of abortion in some cases. I also know that it is not my decision to ever make, and that abortion is a legal human right which sometimes is absolutely necessary and needs to be defended. And I definitely know that one’s feelings about abortion should never be used to deny the right…and the right for basic health care…to any woman. Period.

Finally, I am an avid reader of history who has spent much of the past seven months devouring Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. It has reminded me that all history runs in cycles of certain ideologies rising and falling while the basics of humanity stay the same. What is left today will be right tomorrow and vice versa. And I read these histories knowing we have tried in this country, and mostly succeeded, to create a republic that endures. This allows me to face any political situation with calm and optimism. But I also know that this is a privilege given to me as a white, Christian, heterosexual, cisgendered male and those who do not share these traits have it far, far worse in ways I can never fully understand. This knowledge, as you will see in my post on Yankee Smartass, imposes on me the duty to work how I can for the benefit of others. As a person with a conscience and a follower of Christ, it is an imperative that experience has taught me to take seriously.

My uncle would agree with some of what I’ve written above and disagree with other parts of it. I respect that, because he and I have come from different frames of reference. Instead of dwelling on that, I would like to end with one other story about him.

Almost two decades ago, Uncle Tom came to one of our family reunions with his Honda motorcycle in tow and he insisted on giving me a ride. I’d always been fascinated by motorcycles but at the same time I was nervous; this was when roller coasters still terrified me. Still, I strapped on a helmet, we went cruising through the suburbs, and I remember the care he took with every maneuver, every acceleration, every turn. I never felt unsafe, and by the end of our journey I was overcome with a sensation of powerful liberation.

That joyride is impressed on my mind and is recalled every time I think of Uncle Tom. It was, in its way, an act of love, and he has always, no matter what his port of call or current aim is, given boundless love to his family and friends and made them feel it. He is no different in this from my father, my mother, my aunts and other uncles. He taught me that the power of love is enough to create something that lasts. It can be a memory. It can be a legacy that affects a multitude.

I try to live my life with that love pulsating through every inch of my being, and to use it to understand others, to support others, to demonstrate that even if their lives and beliefs are different from mine, I truly think those beliefs are meaningful and I know their lives matter and they must have chance to live them to the fullest of their potential. I can do no less. I have an example that guides me.

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