Sometimes I feel as if I am not my father's son. In other words, my father is a patriot and an activist, and I am not worthy of being called either.
My father, Jim Lamb, is a veteran whose first real exposure to issues of poverty and injustice came, ironically, after he returned from serving in the Navy during World War II. It was then that he began volunteering as a teacher in "Spanish Harlem" in his native New York City. In the late 1950s, he was exposed to third-world misery when he served as a missionary in a poor Mexican village destroyed by a devastating hurricane.
Propelled forward by strong religious convictions, and unable to turn a blind eye to social injustice, his conscience led him to Selma, Ala., where he joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others for that historic 1965 civil rights march.
In Cambridge, Mass., he received a serious head injury when a police officer clubbed him during a nonviolent demonstration at the height of the Vietnam War. He experienced firsthand the political violence in Northern Ireland as well as the social violence of extreme poverty in places like New Delhi while researching international peace and justice issues.
Today, as he approaches his 80th year, he volunteers regularly at a local homeless shelter in Claremont, Calif., where he lives. He also spends every Friday afternoon carrying a placard protesting the war in Iraq on a busy street corner.
As for me, my virtues pale in comparison. I have never been in the military service and have done nothing that can compare to my father's quiet and steadfast 60-year commitment to human dignity the world over.
In fact, I am still conflicted by feelings of awe and resentment. Awe at my father and mother's unwavering sense of purpose, and resentment at having grown up in a family where political and social activism often took priority over family time.
As I begin to raise my own children, I find myself wondering what the right balance is for conscience-driven commitments. Like many of my generation who were brought up between the radicalism of the '60s and the selfishness of the '80s, I am stuck between caring too much and not at all. I wonder what I can and should do to make sure that the legacy of my father is passed on to my children.
Perhaps I can learn from my father's example. If the son of working-class Irish Catholic parents – the first to go to college in his family – could give up his studies for a PhD in order to devote himself to a life of service, then how can I easily ignore things that I, too, feel in my heart are wrong?
Although my father is far too modest to suggest that I follow in his footsteps, his lifetime example speaks loudly to remind me that his decision to follow his conscience gave no guarantee that he would make one bit of difference in the world. Even today, the sign he stoically carries every Friday to protest the war in Iraq is greeted mostly by silent stares or jeers. But he continues on – because he believes it is the right thing to do.
I honestly don't know what example I will ultimately set for my own children, and I am not sure where my conscience will lead me, or them. But I do know that when my father can no longer stand on the street corner holding his protest sign, I will pick that sign up and stand in his place. I may not share the same reasons as Jim Lamb for lifting his sign high, and maybe I will be a little less certain as to why I stand there, but at least I will stand proudly that day as my father's son.
• Paul Lamb is a freelance writer.