First published in Valley Parenting Magazine, June 2008
After my parents divorced, my father abandoned me. His illness, schizophrenia, had landed him first in a jail cell and later in a mental hospital. He was ashamed of his behavior when he was psychotic and following my parents’ divorce, except for a couple of hour long visits on my birthday and at Christmas, I didn’t see him again until I was an adult. He told me then “When I came to visit you at your grandfather’s house, you would put your arms around my legs and cry ‘Daddy don’t go!’ I loved you and it was emotionally too painful for me to say good-bye so I stopped coming.” That was the decision and memory he’d lived with for two decades while paying his monthly child support payments regularly and getting news about me second hand through others.
My father’s fear of emotional vulnerability, and the shame that bound him like Lazarus’s linen wrappings, rendered him unable to bear the pain of saying “I’ll see you again soon. I love you.” Instead he said in effect, “Avoiding emotional vulnerability is more important to me than you are.”
There is an Iroquois word for “warrior”, which a Red Indian friend tells me translates loosely as “One who protects and serves the Sacred Origins.” Men are spiritual warriors and the battle we fight is for love. Not emotionality or sexual desire or romantic sentiments—all of which in our casual language go by the name ‘love’. This battle is something much more central and vital, upon which all family, community and civilization depends. This requires tenacity, courage, discernment, humility and a willingness to “endure all things” for the sake of those you love.
Having conducted numerous therapy groups for military, clergy and business leaders as well as thousands of hours of consultations with families and fathers over twenty-five years, I’ve noticed that though times change, certain patterns persist. Wounded and abandoned by their fathers, men often live ‘without the blessing’ that passes man to man through love from one generation to the next. Compensating for the emotional absence of a father, even when he is still physically in the home, men easily gravitate to caricatures of maleness, falling into extremes: authoritarian, rigid, legalistic enforcers who fear the shame of ‘not being right’; pandering playmates who avoid the sacrifices involved in real adulthood by becoming more like children ourselves, afraid to suffer the pain of taking a firm stand; or else disengaged workaholics so busy ‘providing’ we claim to have no time for intimacy and play in relationships until the proverbial mid-life crisis springs open the rusty gate of long-suppressed emotional hungers and we go AWOL trying fill the accumulated emptiness of years of neglect in ways that wrecks our families.
When my father was in the hospital dying of cancer from having smoked too many cigarettes, I called him and asked if he was afraid.
“Are you praying?”
I remember distinctly wrestling within myself at that moment whether to add, “I love you” or not before I hung up, knowing I would probably never talk with him again on this earth. I withheld those words. They didn’t seem honest emotionally. He had not been there for me growing up. My grandfather had stepped into that role. I was continuing the protection I had unconsciously learned as a child to avoid being hurt again. Go numb. Don’t feel. Don’t let yourself be vulnerable.
It had been too hard for my father to bear the emotional pain of having to say good-bye to his only son again and again when he visited him… So his response had been to leave and not come back. Why? Because he loved me! Strange logic indeed. Now thirty years later as he lay dying, it was his son who was holding back because it was too painful to say goodbye again.
This hesitancy to be fully available and transparent in love is consistently at the root of what stifles a man’s ability to share the gold of his humanity with his children and with his spouse on a regular basis. Just as our military warriors have a twin mission to be fit for the joys of life as well as fit for the rigors war, fathers are called to balance control and stability with presence and emotional availability in serving, teaching, protecting and enjoying our children.
Refusing to say “I love you” when my father was dying was a reappearance of the overwhelming loss I had experienced as a three year old. A young child does not understand and typically blames him/herself for such loss. Shame arises as a kind of stone blocking the entrance of the heart rendering one’s life a tomb, empty of intimacy and joy that are at the heart of our Sacred Origins. We spend years yearning secretly for a way to remove the stone so the heart can be resurrected to offer the love it was meant to give and receive.
So what does a father need to make a heart of flesh in place of the heart of stone in order to help his children grow into men and women capable of loving and be loved?
- He needs Grace, courage and forbearance to face the shame, loss and heartache that inevitably come with loving and forgiving.
- A father needs to place serving wife, children and community welfare above protecting his own ego.
- He needs the capacity to see the uniqueness of his children and the willingness to convey his delight and joy in each one in specific ways.
- A father needs humility to receive messages coming from a mother’s heart, knowing that she will sacrifice her own life for her children. Mothers respect real warriors and support them, but they will do battle with men who fall to the extremes of rigidity, irresponsibility or disengagement, for these are a threat to the family and to the marriage.
Most of all, a father needs to realize that loving comes from being loved. So the hardest thing for men (and for the women who love them) is not giving, but being able to receive, not maintaining control, but allowing the call and response of intentional vulnerability that overcomes the shame. In this way a man will be more likely to recognize and understand that his wife and son and daughter’s love and need for him and his interest in them are together a call from his Heavenly Father to risk uncovering the treasure buried in his heart beneath protective shame. From this living wellspring he can give gifts of humanity that mysteriously, will begin to fill the emptiness and heal the wounds he may have received from his earthly father. It is by loving in spite of our wounds that we are healed, but only if love first removes the stone that is designed to seal us off from risk of further loss.
How can a mother help?
- Stand beside your husband, not between him and the children.
- Be a partner, not a boss, a judge or an employee.
- Don’t take his silence or preoccupation personally. Remember you are good enough and so is he.
- Don’t wait for signs that you are loved before demonstrating your love for him.
- Assume that his actions are related to love, even when it doesn’t look like it. If you disagree, when you are alone with him ask him what he was trying to do.
- Gratefulness, appreciation, warmth, love and respect remove the stone from lonely, aching hearts. Rejection, abandonment, criticism, demands, and force of any kind only makes the stone thicker.
 (2005) “Fit For Life, Fit For War: Reflections on the Warrior Ethos.” Infantry. March-April pp. 11-15.