The original intent of this essay centered around the role of a father in a child’s life in light of Fathers Day taking place last Sunday. Teacher, mentor, explainer, protector, champion of every cause that involves his kids. That was my dad, and I am, indeed, all those good things, as well.
But if I’m such a great guy and know so much about what my kids need, how come my kids don’t behave exactly as I say? In fact, my two boys — one of whom is now grown, on his own and about to be married — have been known to do the exact opposite of what I say. And they are not alone in that. Every time I walked out the door when I was in high school, my mother or my father said: “Now, you be good!” And I said, “I will.” And then I met my friends and did things that would have caused both my parents to have heart attacks if they had known.
I’m not a very religious person, but that does not mean that the Bible does not intrigue me. The Bible tells us a lot about God the Father and that we are supposed to follow his commands. In the Old Testament, especially, disobeying God had some pretty serious consequences. After all, He wiped entire cities off the face of the earth because their inhabitants did not obey Him. When one woman turned around to catch a glimpse of the conflagration that had engulfed her hometown, God turned her into a pillar of salt.
I have gotten angry with my kids. I’ve bawled them out. I’ve punished them. I never considered setting them afire or turning them into lifeless salt. I have, however, always refrained from asking one question, in particular: why did you do that? I don’t ask because I know that most of the time, they don’t have an answer. They don’t know why they did it. Any parent who expects anything different is either profoundly ill-informed or has plunged into parenthood riding a wave of unrealistic expectations or just plain ignorance. Or they are outright tyrants whose expectations run the risk of stifling their children’s development or subdue them until they break out of the oppression and scream, “Enough!” Frankly, even the most understanding parent is likely to witness that one day.
I am a father, not the Father, but it is no coincidence that the only difference in the words is a capital “F”. On many levels, the Bible endows God with the traits of fatherhood. This inevitably raises the question of exactly what God expected when he created an entire species of creatures who can pretty much do whatever they please. That raises two questions: why did He create us and then punish us for not doing what He mandates, all the while knowing full well that we were not going to? And: why didn’t He create us as automatons who would unquestioningly follow everything He said?
If you’ve read this far and are expecting an answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t have one. I don’t know why what we call God does anything He does. We’re talking about an entity that has the capacity to create one universe that stretches on and on and on to unimaginable distances and may well have created others that we can only posit. Black holes. Stars that explode and morph into other existences right on schedule (though the schedules stretch across so much time that we can’t really grasp them). Matter. Anti-matter. Cells. Atoms. Molecules. Sentient beings.
Very simply, I don’t get it. Humility has never been one of my strong points, but I am humbled by these issues.
I am a little more comfortable grappling with my own role as father rather than God’s role as God. As part of my preparation for writing this, I searched for references to fathers and sons in the Bible. Almost everything I found referred not so much to fathers and sons but to Father and Son. I did come across a Youtube video of a 22-year-old evangelical preacher who said that he was running for public office. He argued that disobedient children should be put to death as the Bible says in Leviticus. A little additional research showed that the context of those passages arguing for the death of disobedient children has little, if anything, to do with the world we live in today. And, even at the time that they were written, they were not as draconian as they may sound. It wasn’t just God’s supposed word. There was an entire earthly legal system that dictated how and why certain steps were to be taken under very specific circumstances. Fortunately, I the young preacher above has much of a chance at winning public office any time soon.
Some children do, indeed, follow in their parents’ footsteps and pursue the same professions that they have observed since childhood. But a parent who is dead-set on that happening — a doctor expecting his child to become a doctor, a lawyer imagining his kid in law school — is likely to be disappointed. There is a verse in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet that begins:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
During my high school years, I often quoted this verse of The Prophet to my mother. If you had known my mother, it would come as no surprise to you that she was singularly unimpressed by Mr. Gibran’s take on parents and children. I don’t think I ever quoted The Prophet to my father. My father — like all fathers — had the uncanny ability to scare the crap out of his kids with just one look. I knew that tossing this quote his way would have put me squarely on the receiving end of one of those looks. (I probably should have remembered that when I was about 16 and stood atop the toilet seat smoking a cigarette one night, making sure that the exhaust fan whisked away the smoke, only to toss the butt in the toilet and then forget to flush it. That resulted in A LOT more than just one of his looks!) And, yet, for all the turmoil and arguments and confrontations that characterized my teens and early twenties, my father never treated me as his property. I was his. Of course, I was his. And, of course, he had his expectations. And I always knew that there was nothing that he would not do for me. Still, there came a time when even old expectations were tempered and I was truly flying on my own, though not without, at times, asking myself: WWDD?
Decades later, I do my best to emulate the goodness and the kindness of that man, that man whose life I made very, very difficult for a few years. And, yet, when I look back on those years, my anger, his anger, his frustration at a kid who just wouldn’t do what he was supposed to and my frustration at a father who just would not see things the way I thought he should, I see a man who was compassionate and understanding in a way that, at the time, was completely lost on me.
As Gibran continues in The Prophet:
Kahlil Gibran wrote that, but its truth I learned from my father. And it is the truth that I hope my own children will have learned from me when they realize that their children are not really their own. I created my children (not alone, obviously) and launched them into the world that they may go swift and far. And even as they fly through the air, the bow will remain stable, the peace of Father’s Day today, the peace of Father’s Day decades ago and the peace of Father’s Day decades from now.
Is that how God works? I don’t know. All I really know is that there is a tiny, tiny, tiny corner of the universe that is mine. And no matter whatever else I may accomplish in my life, it is only this tiny corner that is mine to protect and nurture and love and make better. That’s what Father’s Day is all about.