In praise of fathers, warts and all

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  • June 13, 2013

Each year we celebrate Father’s Day, a day on which we’re asked to get in touch with the gratitude we should feel towards our fathers. For some of us this is easy, we had good fathers; but for many it’s difficult. How do you feel gratitude if your father was someone who was mostly absent or abusive?

Sadly, our world has too many absent and abusive fathers. Because of this, many of us go through life struggling, however unconsciously, with the capacity to find a healthy balance between freedom and discipline in our lives. Instead we are forever vacillating between being too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves. Moreover, if we had an absent or abusive father, we tend to go through life always unconsciously seeking something that has been withheld from us, namely, our father’s approval. This leaves us inhibited, often angry and hungering for a father.

Father-hunger, the hunger to be affirmed and blessed by our own fathers or by someone who represents him, is today perhaps the deepest hunger in the world, especially among men. Not enough people have been affirmed and blessed by their own fathers or the father figures in their lives.

What is a father? Anthropologists tell us that the archetypal father is meant to have these qualities: He is meant to order, carry, feed and bless his family. What does this entail?

First of all, he is meant to be a principle of order rather than disorder. A good father lives in such a way that his family feels safe and secure when he’s around. A bad father, through absence, non-reliability or by being abusive, makes the family feel unsafe. For example, we see how a father can be a principle of disorder in a situation where he is unfaithful, is an alcoholic or is nursing some other addiction. His behaviour then will be unpredictable and his children will be forever guessing as to whether he will come home or not — and what kind of mood he will be in if he does come home. Slowly the unpredictability will wear on his children to the point where they will feel their father as a principle of disorder, of chaos. Conversely, a good father, even if his family considers him boring and unexciting, will make his family feel safe and secure.

Next, a good father carries his family rather than asks them to carry him. A good father is an adult, an elder, not a fellow-sibling or a child (in his behaviour) forever demanding that the family carry him. A good father does not make his own problems and concerns, his own tiredness and heartaches, the centre of family’s attention. Rather he relates beyond his own tiredness and heartaches so as to make the focus of attention the heartaches and headaches of his family.

Beyond this, a good father feeds his family rather than feeds off of them. A good father does not demand, however subtly and unconsciously, that his children bring meaning, satisfaction and glory into his own life. Rather he is more concerned that his children and his family find meaning, satisfaction and happiness in their own lives. Good parents feed their children; bad parents feed off of them.

Finally, a good father affirms and admires his children rather than demands that they affirm and admire him. A good father expresses to his children his pride in them as opposed to being threatened by their talents and achievements. He doesn’t demand that his children express their pride in him. Daniel Berrigan, in a mature autobiography written late in his life, shares how he had to struggle with various issues his entire life, particularly with authority, because of the absence of a blessing from his own father. He shares, for example, how he would be afraid to share with his father the good news that he had just published a book because he feared his father’s jealousy. After sharing this, he asks his readers: Is it any wonder that he has been leery and suspicious of every authority figure during his entire adult life? The absence of a father’s blessing leaves us with a constriction of the heart.

Perhaps an image can be helpful here: When a cow gives birth, her calf comes out of her womb severely constricted, rigid, bound-up in a glue-like afterbirth. But nature has taken this into account and given the mother the proper instinct. She immediately turns round and licks that constriction off her calf. As soon as she’s finished, the calf stands up, tests its legs and begins to walk on its own.

As humans, we are born into the same condition. We also come into this life constricted, except that for us this isn’t so much a physical thing. It’s a much deeper and more complex constriction — and our parents are meant to remove it by ordering, carrying, feeding and blessing us. No father does this perfectly, but if your father did it even half-adequately, express your gratitude and count your blessings!

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at www.ronrolheiser.com.)

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