Among the private thoughts of men, the topic of fathers is likely to be raised with great frequency. It’s hard to think of one person who is more apt to fill the thinking horizon than a man’s father. Not always is it the case, but frequently enough to make this claim.
Some think privately about their fathers with sweeps of admiration and appreciation as did Matthew Arnold, who wrote of his father in one of my favorite poems, “Rugby Chapel”:
If, in the paths of this world,
Stones might have wounded thy feet,
Toil or dejected have tried
Thy spirit, of that we saw
Nothing-to us thou was still
Cheerful, and helpful, and firm!
Some will think their private thoughts in much bitterness. Such as Frank Kafka, who wrote in his Letter to My Father: “I was a mere nothing to you…in front of you I lost my self-confidence and exchanged it for an infinite sense of guilt.”
I have a friend who always seems to be telling Dad-stories. “My dad once said…,” he will recall, or “I remember the time my dad asked me to…,” or “You know, my dad always had a way of…” I love my friend’s Dad-stories. They always convey some nugget of wisdom. But even more, they remind me of the connection that is supposed to exist between the generations, a connection marked with affection, understanding, stability, and direction. I guess there is hardly a man who wouldn’t crave a bevy of positive Dad-stories as part of his heritage.
It’s my observation that the men with positive Dad-stories tend to be in the minority. Frankly, the majority of Dad-stories I hear are mostly stories of regret and anger: “I never really knew my dad,” or “My dad never seemed to be there at the right moment,” or “My dad wasn’t able to give me the slightest impression that he was glad to be my father, that he approved of anything I did.”
I sit at lunch with a man I like who is battling depression. His state of melancholy mystifies me because everything in his life seems to be marked with so much success. In fact, I cannot find one event in his present life that might offer a key to his feelings. To the contrary, he has just completed a major project for his company that is going to make them and him more profitable than ever. I know something about his marriage; it’s in great shape. I know his children: they’re fine. And health is not a problem. So what’s behind this despondency?
Somewhere in the conversation, I ask some questions about the past, and one of them is, “What was your father like?”
There is a grim smile, followed by a long pause in the conversation while he stirs his coffee.
And then: “There’s not much to talk about. He was unpleasable; that’s it. No matter what you did, he wanted it done better the next time. Grades could have always been better. The way you swept the basement floor could be done better. The way you played in a ball game could be done better.”
I can tell he isn’t finished with this recollection.
“Have you ever watched the high jumper at a track meet?” he asks.
Being an ex-track and field man, I nod yes.
“Ever notice what they put the poor guy through? He leaps over the bar, and what’s the first thing they do? The very first thing?”
“They raise it,” I say.
“Exactly. And they keep on raising it until he knocks it off. Until he fails! The poor sucker can’t go into the locker room and call it quits until he fails.” When my friend uses this phrase, he slaps his hand with anger on the table in time with each word: until (slap) he (slap) fails (slap). “That’s what I remember most about my father. He was always raising the bar.”
I see a connection. “Is that what’s going through your head today?” I ask. “You’ve made a successful ‘jump’ in your work, and you have this inner feeling that someone, your boss maybe, is going to raise the bar again? So your mind relives the sadness of other days when your father kept pushing you?”
My friend replies, “Let me think on that one for a while.”
These fathers of ours. Strange men sometimes. Strange and mystifying, too, are our relationships with them.
I walk through a crowd of men, and each of them seems faceless to me. I care little about who they are or what they think. Should they disapprove of me, it would have relatively little impact. But if one of the men were my father, his admiration or disapproval would have a profound effect on me. It would be the cause of joy or heartache in my private thoughts. If one of them were my father, I would give almost anything to hear that he was proud of me.
Winston Churchill’s father, Randolph, is a study in Dad-stories. Among Sir Winston’s biographers is William Manchester, who devotes many pages of The last Lion to the relationship between him and his father. “Randolph actually disliked his son,” Manchester comments at one point as he describes the many ways the father hurt the boy. Yet, strangely enough, the boy maintained a steady devotion toward his father, always wanting to believe there would come a day when the two would find a connection. Looking back at his boyhood and his troubled relationship to his father, Churchill said,
I would far rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate, or run errands as a messenger boy, or helped my father to dress the front windows of a grocer’s shop. It would have been real; it would have been natural; it would have taught me more; and I should have gotten to know my father, which would have been a joy for me.
Later, looking back, Sir Winston’s view of his father would change as he finally faced the fact that the two had never connected. Manchester notes a conversation with Frank Harris in which Churchill said “that whenever he tried to open serious conversations with his father, he was snubbed pitilessly.” He recalled
My father wouldn’t listen to me or consider anything I said. There was no companionship with him possible and I tried so hard so often. He was so self-centered no one else existed for him…He treated me as if I had been a fool; barked at me whenever I questioned him. I owe everything to my mother; to my father, nothing.
In a strange twist of interpretation, Churchill would later write (Manchester records) that,
Famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood. The stern compression of circumstances, the twinges of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years, are needed to evoke the ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished.
What then is this mysterious bond, for good or for ill, that we seek with our fathers and, through them, the men of our worlds?
From “When Men Think Private Thoughts” by Gordon MacDonald
“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.”
( 2 Thessalonians 2: 16-17 )
July 18, 2013
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