Dad’s Corner: Winners, Losers and Lovers

January 4, 1994

I came home from work today possessed by a mood, as in a dense fog, imagining myself devalued, disempowered and ignored. I thought I had worked it all out in the prayer room, noticing how the thin skin of my self-love had been pricked earlier in the day. I wasn’t still bleeding, but there was a soreness under the surface reminding me that egotism goes wherever I go, invited or not, ready at a moment’s notice, to collapse the house of cards out of which it’s imaginary status has been constructed.

After dinner the kids wanted to play the block-stacking game, Jenga. You build up a wooden structure and keep stacking blocks until someone topples it by trying to add one more block and it all falls down. Definitely a parable for the theologically inclined. We were having fun together and when Christi’s attempt to place another block failed, I spoiled it by blurting out in a playful way, “Christi has to clean them up since she lost!”

Cleaning up is never the fun part and I wanted them both to be responsible, but how did that schoolyard taunt find its way in there? What was I teaching them? Winners make the rules? Losers have to pay a penalty for losing? Better be a winner in life so you can have the power to tell others what to do! Gulp…

Christi and Gregory began to argue about who should pick up the blocks. Christi refused to. Things heated up quickly and now a different game was in play. Negotiations and debate. Who cleaned up the most? Who did it the last time?

Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. (Lk 22:25-26). I think this goes for parents also, but I wasn’t listening at the moment. “This is a new rule,” I proclaimed. “I don’t care about the past. The loser has to pick up the game.”

Loser. There’s that word again, like a scarlet letter. I seemed determined to make somebody wear it, without realizing what I was doing. Is that what I had been resisting wearing earlier in the day that had pricked my self-love? Was I protecting the nine-year-old within myself from being a loser by scapegoating my own nine-year-old daughter? That’s what scapegoats are used for – to carry burdens we expel from our awareness because our egotism can’t tolerate seeing it. I don’t want to be seen as the sinful one so you become the bearer of the sin I refuse to see in myself.

With those words from her father, invalidating her argument, Christi sat down in the floor like a lump, in a way I viewed as being a familiar passive-aggressive posture of self-determined stubbornness to not do whatever it was she was asked to do. I’d seen it before. Kids learn what types of protests work best to reduce parents to their equals so they can defeat us. They embody passions like viruses that act quickly to contaminate the unwatchful.

The evidence that I was affected by the magical shrinking rays emanating from her posture was clear. I escalated into that equally stubborn not-to-be-trifled-with clichéd parental firmness: “This is a direct order. Pick up those pieces.” I spoke the words firmly with as much gravitas as I could muster, in what I imagined was a very calm, unrefusable way. Then I went and did something else to give her a few minutes to comply and because I didn’t want to fuel further resistance by her noticing the affect on me of seeing her continue to sit unmoving in the same position, hair hanging down covering her face.

After a few minutes I returned and went over to her with quiet force and ordered, “Pick them up.” She didn’t budge and remained with her head lowered so that now in my beguiled mind, the hair covering her face was virtually shouting defiance at me.

Fr. Alexander Schmemman made a valuable observation in his journals about the nature of power and authority in the church. He pointed out that Christ did not give the Church authority, but the Holy Spirit. According to the Apostle John, our risen Lord breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”(Jn 20:22). Schmemman understands this to mean that, “the authority, in Christ, returned to God, and humanity was healed from the need to demand and govern one another” which is an effect of our fallen individualistic natures bound by a pride that refuses to willingly submit to another out of a relationship of love. Christ is the ultimate power and authority who protects our freedom to say to say “No” and endures its consequences, so that we can learn what it means to eventually say “Yes” with our whole being, as He does to us.

Love is the way of the Church and the home is the “little church.” So what was I doing? By now my emotions were not stacking up in me very well. The pile of demands was getting tall like the Jenga blocks and things were teetering on the brink of collapse. Every parent at some point faces the question, ‘What do you do when your child turns on you for no apparently good reason and says “No!” with his or her whole bodily force, by silent withdrawal without mouthing a single word?

Earlier that day I had encountered a boy in therapy who was enacting a similar drama with me. He was the embodiment of petulant resistance to his parents and had venomous-dripping disdain for the whole process of therapy, refusing to talk for nearly the entire fifty minutes. What he did, probably without realizing it, was show me what it felt like to be him, to be powerless and unable to make his voice heard by those who, rightly or not, expected to exercise power over him. I became his scapegoat through the empathic process linking us, and felt what he was feeling.

What makes posture, facial expression and silent withdrawal so much more powerful than words? Was she saying to me “Drop dead.” Or “Just try and make me. I’ll show you who is boss!” Was she withdrawing from relationship with me in order to defy my authority? Probably not intentionally, but I was reacting to her as if it could be nothing but what I was convinced it was. I certainly was not able to empathically listen to her. Why? Because I was too interested in winning and exercising power and authority as evidence of a relationship of love justified by teaching her to be responsible!

Once Jesus told a parable about a father and two sons. “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

What’s hard about that? It seems so simple on the surface. Actions speak louder than words. Another time he linked obedience with love. All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them.’ (John 14:23) and “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). It’s not those who talk a good game, and merely conform outwardly, or do whatever passions dictate, but those who defy their egoistic passions in the process of honoring the one they love, that show they belong to the family of God.

Obedience is something I expected and hoped for from Christi out of love. But failing that, I was now demanding it. Plus I was not doing a very good job of being obedient to God out of love, myself. One part of me was the equivalent of another nine-year-old stripped of any authority. Another part lacked any other options because it was fixated on winning the immediate struggle and regaining that authority.

So I did something I can count on three fingers in Christi’s lifetime. No more words. I spanked her, one firm smack on her behind, acknowledging to any keen observer, that I was bankrupt of presence and had lost my patience, run out of options and lost all genuine authority other than brute power over her. I was teaching her now by my actions, that those with the most power get what they want, regardless of the reasons, even if it means sacrificing relationship to get it.

Any good horse whisperer will tell you, if you use any kind of corporal punishment against the animal it’s because you, the trainer, have failed to understand the horse on its own terms, to take pains to learn its language, and have relinquished your wisdom, presence, empathy and intelligence in the process. By sacrificing relationship with the horse to make it do what you want out of fear of pain and punishment rather than teach it to want to do what you want out of love because you have understood its real needs, you reveal yourself as unfit to lead the horse in the first place.

Love uses power very differently. It listens. It doesn’t force. Love is patient. Love is kind. It “bears all things” and seeks to understand the other. Someone asked Professor George Washington Carver, the Tuskegee Institute arboreal genius who invented peanut butter, and did amazing things with plants, “Professor, how is it that nature reveals secrets to you that she doesn’t anyone else?” Dr. Carver was thoughtful for a moment and replied, “Because if you love something enough, it will reveal itself to you.” This is God’s way and nature is responsive.

Of course, its also true that Jesus loved the world beyond human comprehension and we still rejected him. You might argue, if Jesus didn’t manage to understand us well enough to avoid being crucified, what hope is there for us to get our children to obey by loving them? But that’s missing the point. Jesus doesn’t force our hand, even though it costs him. He has patience to endure the cross for our sake, allowing us trial and error, teaching us through painful experience and his own example, that those who surrender egotism for the sake of love become its conquerors.

But me? At the moment I was just plain tired of losing battles all day and didn’t have much patience left. In defiant tears, humiliated and defeated, Christi began picking up the Jenga blocks, with her resistance still evident by moving v-e-r-y slowly. What was making me so insistent and uncreative? I was still feeling the residue of some kind of humiliation and defiance from my own mood earlier in the day. My child was refusing my request. ‘I’m the parent. She needs to learn to be responsible. Isn’t it justified?’ reasoned my internal biased self-advocate. I had ruined the evening for us by building a tower of babble to justify and enforce her response to a request hidden in shaming taunt. Losers have to pay.

At the most basic primitive levels of our brain, when we are in a no win situation with a foe we cannot defeat, we have four autonomic nervous system responses that are potentially aroused: fight, flee, feint or freeze. Christi was fighting back by a combination of fleeing and freezing. She probably couldn’t overcome this even if she had wanted to at that moment. Even adults with fully mature brains have difficulty controlling these automatic neurobiological defensive maneuvers that come to our aid, often infected by passions that we struggle with our whole lives long.

As I am reflecting on all this and writing about it in my journal, Christi comes to the door, tentatively at first, sensing the atmosphere. Then she comes to me and apologizes and we hug each other. I ask her what happened. I am able to listen now. Neither of us are in the grip of the passions that had previously possessed us. She tells me her side of the story. Why couldn’t I have asked about this earlier, encouraging her to have a voice rather than just assuming her behavior and attitude meant she was being disobedient and ultimately destined for reform school in the future!?

Christi’s humility moved me and I found myself responding to that energy. A child’s love and vulnerability are healing for a father’s heart, a small manifestation of grace. It should be the other way around, and often is, but it is humbling to realize that our children’s hearts, purer than our own, and their ability to confess and be regenerated is capable of changing us, making it a reciprocal relationship. We are taught by each other through Christ who is in our midst.

She pointed out to me that Gregory had lost the game in the previous two times we had played (something I hadn’t noticed.) and she had willingly picked up the blocks for him because he had hurt his shin (something else I hadn’t noticed.). She thought that now that he was better, it was unfair for her to expect her to keep on doing it, just because she had lost the game.

Well, that’s a modest expectation, a no-brainer for sure. I had been hasty and unwise in spanking her before finding out the reasons for her justifiable sit-down strike. I confessed that I had come to the point where I simply wanted her to do what I asked—no discussion—and I was wrong not to give her a chance to explain. Then I shared with her a little about my day and apologized for spanking her, offering to let her give me a spanking but she smiled and declined.

How good it feels for Christi to be able to take the initiative to come to me and tell me this. (After her mother had talked with her. Thank God for a partner in the ministry of parenting!) It came from her heart and was a real apology. Affection and trust were restored between us without any residue. Now the relationship is even stronger than it was before and I am the wiser for the gift of her love and appreciative of her growing spiritual maturity evidenced by charity, humility, repentance, forgiveness and love.

The forgiven relationship is more mature and stronger than the idealized one that has never been tested by surviving misunderstanding and hurt stemming from human imperfections and immaturity in order to discover the titanic difference between robotic conformity and passion-bearing love. Sinlessness is not possible, but fortunately forgiveness, growth and redemption are.

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