Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fathers and Son

How a Father and Son Learned to Forgive |

One of the issues the frequently arises in my counseling work is tension between sons and fathers. I certainly had to work through a lot of my "stuff" with my own Dad. And the result of that work has made me sorta bulldoggish about it with my male clients. The most gratifying story involving this problem begins with a gay man announcing that, when his father died, he would not attend the funeral, to a recent toss-off comment from the same guy about how much he and his dad were alike and, despite their differences, how much he admires him.

Not every father-son relationship ends so warmly, to be sure. The story above is about working to repair a broken bond, one that was destroyed by the father's narcissism. Crucially, the father was willing to tell the truth. Sam Keen --whom I once read admiringly--is not alone in exemplifying the soul-wounding split between public persona and home life. How many famous philosophers or other gurus have lived family and private lives in radical contradiction to how an admiring world sees them? In my own twenty years of communal religious life, the gap between Father Wonderful out in the parish and Brother Asshole at home was not at all uncommmon. My favorite example, for ignoble reasons of Schadenfreude, is Alice Walker, an adored paradigm of Northern California cool: BlackFemaleSurvivorBuddhistFeministEtc. In home life, a cold-hearted bitch.

I suffer the same split, I confess. The bloodthirsty ExC, Destroyer of Progress, is actually, to those who know him, a mild-mannered fella who loves a good meal and a good laugh and who never goes out of his way to wound anyone.

I was struck by the article because of my family's current tensions in the wake of my mother's death. My siblings are painfully stuck in conflictual patterns from which some of them cannot imagine ever escaping. It's a particular feature of family battles that they take on a quality of eternity, as if what is happening now is all that will ever be happening.

Sometimes that's true. There were breaches in my parents' families that never healed. But sometimes it's not. In at least one case, after a long time, --50 years!--they were able to re-connect and find a lot of pleasure and comfort together before they both died.

There are guys, even gay guys, whose relationship with Dad is a good one, even a terrific one. Blessed are they! And there are guys for whom Dad is a source of frustration or worse. In my professional life, even when the work did not complete the course, I never found it a waste of time to explore the realities of men's lives, especially the fundamental and often fractious archetype of sons and fathers.

My own Dad --who was not my birth-father but the father who actually raised me-- was a very different guy from me. It took me a long time to finally see him whole, as it were, less clouded by my personality and my expectations. I have been lucky enough to recognize that I was raised by a thoroughly honorable man, a much better man, in truth, than I am. I could not always see that.

In fact, just the other day, it dawned on me that one of the verbal habits he had which used to annoy me was in fact a constant affirmation of his marking me, another man's child by blood, as his own. I am ashamed that even now I just figured it out.

Some men are indeed bad fathers, bad men. Some out of weakness, some out of cruelty. My bulldog attitude, that men need --eventually-- to work on that connection is not a requirement that everything turn out rosily. Men can, for instance, abandon their sons and wives out of base motives. And lacking eventual repentance, I find it hard to understand why a son would not bear a lifelong grudge. But in the work I do, my interest there would be in how the bearing of that justifiable grudge finally affected the life of the bearer.

I am a believer in tactical forgiveness, of letting painful anger go when it has served its purpose and now only eats away at the bearer's future, effectively making him a prisoner of the man he vilifies. That is not something that can be managed and manipulated by ego or ideal so easily. Sometimes we have to walk with it until its time.

And while I'm at it, let me say that the Church, mater et magistra, is a lousy teacher. Telling people to forgive --one of the most emotionally challenging things a human can ever do-- without helping them through the process, being wise and spending patient energy on it...well, it kinda lets you know that they're not really all that serious about it.

Reconciliation does not mean making believe that history never happened, or that failures were not failures, but creating a new connection that takes all that into account yet does not let the burden of a painful past dominate and stunt everything new.

If a man can do that --when it's time-- he will not regret it.


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1 comment:

-A said...

Forgiveness is not only very difficult, it is kind of a complex twilight of self love and forgiveness in the name of moving on, whether a real connection comes out of it or not. People like to think they have more power and control than they do, or that one day they might gain this when it is absent now, so they believe that grudges will be resolved in a one dimensional way. They do not want to concede when they do not have to, they do not want to waste an opportunity for vengeance in the future.


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