Somewhere around four or five years old, my son Gregory kicked a hole in a wicker chair in our bedroom. It was the first piece of furniture my wife Claudia and I had picked out for our new life together and it had a special meaning for both of us. When I saw the gaping hole my mind went straight to a picture of irresponsibility and flashed forward at the speed of light, making a movie of my son growing up into some kind of ungrateful, careless reprobate who didn’t respect other people’s property. St Mark the Ascetic’s three giants of “Forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance” were surely close at hand! Parental obligation to discipline loomed like a flashing neon light justifying the passion of my rising anger after a long and tedious day that had consumed my energies.
I found him downstairs and confronted him. Towering over him for just a moment it seemed like I had the moral green light. He had done wrong. I am the dad. I have the power and the responsibility to teach him right from wrong. I was standing over the little guy pondering how and when to release the steam. He knew my facial expressions well and seeing my anger, stood calmly and without protest, David before Goliath, Isaac holding Abraham’s hand while his knife trembled in the other. (Needless to say dear reader, the fragile and resilient gift of the Creator to us, now standing before me in all the glorious wonder of his five-year old self, had not fully registered at the moment. My mind was still grasped by the ruined chair. Odd…) But the slightest flicker of watchfulness at that moment revealed the hollowness of my “justification” for anger in response to the sentimentality connected to a precious memento. With a slight smile of love on his face and a kind of peacefulness, his lamb-to-the-slaughter look immediately broke through to my heart, and woke me up, stopping me in my tracks. Twenty years later, we smile about that chair, which by the way has a heart-shaped hole in it which we never repaired. It became a symbol of cherished things that break along the way on our journey to becoming whole persons. Better broken things then breaking each other. A taste of nepsis and of repentance and a returning to love, the greatest of all. Such encounters are the way we learn our theology in the home. It is our training ground.
A few years later on a visit to Great Granddad’s house when he was around eight years old, I shamed him for being hesitant about putting a pizza in the oven and turning it on. What kind of man was he going to grow up to be if he shied away from learning a new task! He immediately went to his room and closed the door, his body already contracted with shame. Instantly I felt bad and knocked on his door to apologize. In our discussion, he said some astounding words to me which I will never forget. “Dad I want you to finish your dissertation (I was working on my PhD at the time), but when you’re not around all the time it makes me feel like I’m not worth anything.” At eight years old he could already observe himself, his feelings, reflect on his sense of value and give words to it all in relationship with me. Boy had I missed the forest for a single tree I had been fixated on according to my own will and pitiful understanding. My eight year old recognized that his sense of self depended immensely on his father’s presence and yet he was willing to make continuing ascetical personal sacrifices in order for me to achieve something he knew meant a great deal to me. He was God’s messenger to me once again.
These weren’t the only times my son showed me what it is to be a man. How did he learn to be so articulate, so fully present, self-sacrificing, emotionally transparent and humble? Blessed are those men whose fathers enjoyed them when they were children, who listened deeply and thoughtfully to them and allowed them to express their pain and frustration without reprisal. All too often men are shamed for having feelings as children. They are rewarded for being “doers” only and not for being understanding, articulate and compassionate observers of their inner world which is so essential later in marriage and parenting and in our Orthodox spiritual lives. Lack of male presence in a boy’s life, or worse, repeated authoritarian dismissal and over coercion, means feelings get sealed-off in a secret vault opened so infrequently the combination is gradually forgotten. They are buried so far underground that even if remembered it seems like too much effort to dig it up. Such men have much to learn from the boys we in turn attempt to raise. Hopefully, we are as good a listener to our children as we are preachers and teachers. Jesus had to tell his disciples something similar “Let the little children come unto me.” This means the father and the mother welcoming the child they once were, at the invitation of the vulnerability of the child they hope to raise up in the way of the Lord.