Susanna: I think you’re exaggerating. You were his only child, his son, his blood. In this photo he doesn’t look like a man who doesn’t love his son.
Charlie: Nothing I did was good enough for that guy. Don’t you understand that? —Rain Man, 1988
Bonnie: He’s not afraid of losing. He’s afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their father’s love every time they come up to the plate?
Fred: All of them! —Searching for Bobby Fischer, 1993
Mothers are the stuff of legend. They shuttle us from tuba lessons to soccer practice to Boy Scout meetings, they bandage our wounds and wipe away our tears, they have an infallible memory for our sizes and colors and favorite foods, they’re faithful and true, even when friends desert us. The bond between mother and child is one of the most resilient in human experience.
And then there are fathers. Where mothers are doting, fathers are disapproving. Where mothers are kindhearted, fathers are stern. Where mothers are close, fathers are distant and cold, even slightly dangerous. I’m generalizing, of course. But most of the time, when one parent packs his bags and leaves for greener pastures, it’s usually the father. When a parent is physically abusive, it’s usually the father. When a parent is missing at recitals and teacher conferences and baseball games—you guessed it.
Fathers have earned a poor enough reputation that some post-modern thinkers have suggested writing them out of the family script—that would be a terrible loss. When a father is engaged and involved—when he is attentive, available, caring, loving—children thrive, and family studies bear this out.
My father was a slow-motion train wreck. In my mother’s wedding photos, he is full of joy and hope—his eyes sparkle. Only a few years later, he had become brooding and distant—the sparkle was gone. My father had issues—like many people, he hoped that marriage would make everything right. It did not. In a few short years he was drinking, heavily, and his life began to unravel.
I have very few memories of that time, perhaps because it was painful and confusing. Dad was often absent—sometimes he would disappear without explanation. Our home was tense, and at times it was a battleground.
One evening stands out in my memory. We are sitting down for dinner. Dad had been drinking, my parents had been arguing and the air was thick with tension. He says something in an angry voice, grasps the table with his hands and shakes it violently, spilling milk from our glasses. Suddenly, he bolts from his chair and storms out the door in a rage. I see his back. I see the door slamming behind him. A few days later, we are at my grandmother’s home and the adults are whispering and weeping: my father had been found dead in his car—a suicide. The scribbled note he left said that we would be better off without him. I was nine; my dad was thirty-four.
David Meece, the musician, also grew up with an alcoholic father. One evening his dad burst into his bedroom, put a gun to his son’s head and shouted, “You’re worthless!” By comparison, my own experience seems hardly worth telling. Meece says that even in adulthood, no matter how much success he attained, those words—you’re worthless—crippled him. He believed them, because they had come from his own father.
Some fathers threaten to kill their children; some walk out the door and never look back. Some fathers set impossible standards and give their love parsimoniously, if at all. A bad father has the power to convince a child that he or she is utterly worthless. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet A, a bad father will tattoo a capital letter L on his child’s forehead: L for Loser.
Jesus died on the cross; we have received forgiveness through his death. This is one of Christianity’s foundational doctrines, and one that almost everyone is familiar with. But there’s another side to the coin: in order to benefit from God’s forgiveness, we must first find it in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us.
…and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us…. If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. —Matthew 6:12,14, NLT, (Jesus speaking)
At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”
Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.” —Matthew 18:21,22, The Message
It is no easy thing, forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply. It was not until I made an honest attempt to understand my father that I was finally able to forgive him. And it was not until I forgave him that God released me from the chains of worthlessness and self-loathing that my father had bound me with. My grandmother died of an infection shortly after giving birth to my father. In his grief, my grandfather abandoned his children and drowned himself in booze. His children were parceled out to foster homes, and my father, perhaps blaming himself for the death of his own mother, never overcame his own tragic sense of worthlessness.
When I could see my own father as a child—frightened, homeless, weeping—I had no choice but to forgive him. Forgiveness is much more than merely releasing someone from responsibility—forgiveness is an act of humility, of stepping into someone else’s shoes, of acknowledging the kinship of failure and sinfulness that unites us all.
They kept on asking Jesus about the woman [caught in adultery]. Finally, he stood up and said, “If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her!” —John 8:7, CEV
Perhaps we simply expect too much. Perhaps making peace with our fathers is God’s way of making us sensitive to our own failings, our own inadequacies, our own sin. When Jesus was hanging from the cross, bleeding and suffering, one of his last utterances was, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34, The Message)
Our Father in heaven, give us the grace to forgive our fathers, as you have so mercifully forgiven us.