Year after year, I have been telling myself that one day I will start waking up earlier…so that my morning rituals can flow at a more leisurely pace…so that my children’s last memory of their dad as they step through the schoolhouse door, will be that of a peaceful, laid-back fellow, rather than the frenzied, hectoring, Darrin Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery’s TV husband ’66-’69) sort of a man that has launched them every school-day of their lives for the last ten years. Alas, something in my DNA always seems to subvert this earnest intention.
I like to think of myself as a man whose life is informed by his faith in Christ. But somehow, I doubt that Jesus looked much like me when he was in a hurry. “Peter, James, John, I told you ten minutes ago to get in that boat!” “You forgot your lunch again?” “If you’re thinking that I’m going to multiply loaves and fishes every time you forget your lunch…well…you’re sadly mistaken!”
Fortunately for me, my children know how to take me in stride. They can generally see through my tyrant’s mask to catch a glimpse of the best in their father.
I am thinking back to a humbling moment several years ago on a Saturday afternoon. In my role as “Coach Tom” of the Fourth-Grade basketball team, I found myself wearing a mask too thick for John Harry’s eyes to penetrate. Just a few seconds before the half-time buzzer, my son launched a clunker. As he came down, he got tangled up in another player’s legs, and landed on the hardwood writhing in pain. When I came out to inspect his sprained ankle, it was starting to dawn on my son that the pain in his ankle felt vaguely familiar. This was the same leg that he had broken several years earlier, almost to the day. In his eyes, I could see the beginnings of a kind of panic…a panic that was fed by the automatic thought that this pain would continue to grow like it did several years ago when his tibia twisted and snapped like a green sapling. Right there, in front of a bleacher full of fans, his eyes grew wider and wider, his wailing grew louder and louder.
I would like to say that I handled his reaction the way I would tell a client to handle his or her child’s feelings in a moment like this. But that’s not what happened. On a conscious level, my strategy was to firmly interrupt the growing apoplexy so as to avoid a self-reinforcing loop of anticipatory anxiety. “Son, it’s not broken. You’re okay! Now stop!” But on an unconscious level, I believe that my firm admonitions to “stop,” did not issue forth from the higher angels of my fatherly nature. In truth, I was reflexively denying my son access to his hurt feelings in the same way that my father taught me to deny my hurt feelings…the same way his father taught him. And I also have to admit, that somewhere from the dark, dingy recesses of my ego, a part of me wanted my star point-guard and his coach/dad to appear suave in front of their fan base.
This Sunday’s First Reading (Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18) presented that famous father and son Old Testament story about Abraham and his beloved Isaac and that awful day of testing with the knife and the altar. I have often wondered how this story would be told if Isaac were the author of Genesis. Classic stories such as this one are loaded with layers of meaning. From Isaac’s perspective, perhaps this story revealed the profound difference between the God of Abraham compared to the local Semitic deities of the time who required the ritual sacrifice of first-born children. In this story, the contrast between the Hebrew people’s benevolent God and the local dark deities became evident. God intervened and stopped Abraham from behaving like a religious man of that time and place. The children of Abraham do not sacrifice their children.
As a Christian parent, I want my fathering to be patterned after the God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus Christ. I never want to sacrifice the feelings or needs of my child to appease the false god of my public-image-obsessed ego. I want to end the practice of asking a boy to slay those portions of the self that cannot be crammed neatly into an overly constricted mold of manhood. I want to raise boys and girls who have access to the full range of human emotions and their healthy expressions. I want to be the kind of father who can let a child’s soul breathe.
Over the years, I have learned that what’s good for the gosling, is good for the gander. Even though I am a full grown adult, every version of who I used to be still exists within me. At times, my tantruming inner-three-year-old shows up who wants what he wants when he wants it. At times the rebellious teenager shows up wanting to rail at a perceived injustice. In moments like these, the tendency is to try to find Abraham’s old sacrificial knife to slay the immature parts of myself. But I have discovered that this is the wrong pathway to mature masculine living.
Even when it comes to dealing with our own ego, even when it comes to sin, we must follow the gentle example of Christ who said, “Let the children come to me.” Self-compassion, self-knowledge, and self-love are the tools of choice in dealing with parental miscues and mistakes. The proper fathering of our boys and girls starts with the proper fathering of ourselves.
An Exercise for Dads
Bring a spiral notebook with you to a quiet place. Begin by asking God for the grace of feeling his fatherly presence. Next ask yourself this question: “Who are my best examples of really great fathers?” See their faces, recall scenes of seeing them in action. Write down each of their names, and what makes them such great fathers. Having completed your writing, look back over what you’ve written, and ask yourself a few questions: (1) Do any one of these dads rise to the surface as your best example of a great dad? What makes that particular father stand out? (2) As you look over these dads, what adjectives come to mind? Is there one attribute that seems to repeat itself over and over again? (3) Look back over your own experience of fathering to see where you behaved like one of these dads. Ask the Lord to reveal to you some of your greatest hits with your kids. Avoid false modesty. Also, avoid discounting these good examples of your own parenting because these were times when God’s fatherly grace was flowing through you. In other words, as you locate examples where you behaved like one of your role models, slap a high five on God, because the two of you were a good team in those moments.
Part II of this assignment is to ask the question, “Who are my examples of fathers who were the opposite of great fathers? In other words, who are my negative examples of dads whom I don’t want to emulate? Write down their names, and what it is that makes them a negative example for you. Just like before, when you are done writing, ask yourself a few questions: (1) Who is at the very top of your list of bad dads? (2) What adjectives come to your mind to describe their bad behavior? (3) Can you recall times when you have more in common with one of these guys than you care to admit? (4) Take just a second to ask God for forgiveness for any of your failures as a parent. Let yourself feel God’s forgiveness and compassion, and resolve to do better in the future. Remember to bring a father’s understanding and compassion home to yourself.
An Easter Exercise in the Middle of Lent (for Sons or Fathers)
Write a letter to your son (or father) as if he were on a retreat. Reflect on the gifts you see in him. Express your love and affection for him. Do not use this as an opportunity to give him advice. No negative humor, back-handed compliments, or sarcasm. Pour on the unconditional love.
Give this to him in a hard-copy letter. If you want to take this to the next level, initiate a conversation about what you wrote in that letter, preferably on a walk or hike together. Try to spell out what you wrote in more detail.
An Exercise for Estranged Fathers and Sons Living in the Same House
For the rest of the Lenten season, do one kind thing for your son or dad a day, whether he deserves it or not. Do it whether or not your father or son expresses gratitude. Do it unilaterally in the spirit of Saint Francis’ Peace Prayer.