Shouting at an Empty Chair, Father’s day 2015

Tyrone presented the family’s new puppy in for his first exam yesterday, and brought along his son, “To meet me.”  I was taken back by this comment, and quickly replied that I was so glad that he had, and then I said something about how I was sure he was glad school was out for the summer.  I asked if they had plans for the summer, and Andrew, reaching his hand out for me to shake it, said, “Yes sir, I’m working as a camp counselor at Wadeview Park.”

“Really?” I said, “That’s fantastic.  What a great summer job!  What kind of a counselor? Will you be teaching, like arts and crafts, or more like a coach, supervising athletics?”

Andrew, who looked to be about 15, respectfully looked me directly in the eye, and said he’d be willing to do whatever they needed, working with the underprivileged kids there. I looked over at his dad, and I said, “Good job, what a great person you’ve raised.”

Tyrone agreed, “He is a really good kid,” but shook his head, claiming none of the credit.  But I knew better.  If nothing else, he had been present for the boy, and done his best to be a really good man.

What makes some fathers step up and be “Dad,” and others walk away or stay around, but not really be “present,” is such an important question.  What, in fact, is a “good father?”

bodrahn

Do you have to be perfect, never letting your shield down to reveal your human-ness?  Should you lay down the law, and be the disciplinarian (because you used to be so wild and get into so much trouble).  Or should you strive to be their best friend, letting them drink beer and smoke weed, high five-ing over last night’s “conquest,” and providing the latest and greatest toys?

I’ve seen both extremes.  I’ve been both extremes.  OK, not really so much the last one, although at some level, I really wish I could have been “closer” as a friend to all five of my kids.  But we don’t get any do-overs.  A priest at Whitehouse retreat in St. Louis once told me:

We are (and more specifically, that I am) much too hard on ourselves.  “The world only has one Messiah, and you (thankfully and most assuredly) are not Him.  You are not perfect.  You are the way God made you – imperfect, but with the heartfelt longing to be as good as you can.  And that’s good. But you can’t go back and do things differently, with all your new-found wisdom.  Didn’t you always act out of love?  Didn’t you always do what you thought was the best at that time?”

“Yeah, but…”

Yeah but nothing.  By continuing to add that qualifier, Yeah, but…, you deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer, the one who makes all things new again.  We must strive to accept Him as our redeemer, and allow ourselves to be human.  You are how you are, and its so much better to accept that.  We are called to always strive to be better, even perfect, and we must try, day after day.  But we’ll never be perfect.  Not on this Earth.

You are made of blood and bones, breath and vapor.  You are the product of the genetics He orchestrated, and that imperfect nurturing from your parents, or lack of them.  Let Jesus carry the cross, you have plenty of other things to do.  As the song goes, “He is God, and you are not.”

A lifetime ago, I was doing everything I could possibly do to save my first marriage.  So in our first session with the marriage counselor, I proudly puffed out my chest and said I’d do anything to save the marriage, that divorce absolutely, positively was not an option.  Less than two months later, he was just as positive that it was the only option.  But we should continue on, to counsel with him, so we could be “better,” and so that we’d not keep “making the same mistakes” (presumably in our next attempts at a relationship).

And so, right out of his Gestalt theory textbook, the family therapist (sic) had me pacing around the psychologist’s office, shouting at my father, “seated” in the empty chair “What I really felt! What I needed so badly to tell him!”  When I couldn’t come up with enough garbage to dump on him, I was goaded and prodded, “Tell him about all those little league games, band concerts, award presentations, and wrestling matches! Tell him he should have been there!”  I continued to pace in silence.  “But shouldn’t I be shouting at his father?”

He looked at me like a deer in the headlights, “You’re enabling him, you’re giving him excuses, he wasn’t present!”

“Can’t I just forgive him?”

Fritz and Laura Perls' Gestalt Theory

Fritz and Laura Perls’ Gestalt Theory

“This will help you do that, you’ve got to put the blame on him!”

“But it’s not his fault.  I think he did the best he could do.”

I don’t think I went back to Dr. Tony after that session.

And so this father’s day I had much to reflect on.  And even more to let go of.  If I can let the old man off the hook, shouldn’t I do the same for myself?  It was a chair I’d sit in too soon myself.

Cullen's Empty Chair

Florida State University graduation, 2012

There are consequences to sins, and since we are social creatures, such consequences often impact others, including within the family and subsequent generations.  I think this is called Generational Sin.  The concept, I’d suppose originated with the “original Adam,” whose act of rebellion and disobedience resulted in our sinful nature, not coincidentally coined “original sin.”

Regardless of whether or not you buy into the whole Christian creation story, it’s a striking allegory.  Clearly, something happened along the lines of (I’d maintain, “designed”) human evolution and development where we as a species developed a sinful nature.  As a reasonably intelligent science based professional, I know of no other “creation” with the the willingness, or even the ability to choose to do evil.  And somewhere, somehow, we made the first act of defiance; Our greatest gift became our greatest curse.  Free will spawned original sin.

But God does not hold children, or present generations, morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. This is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture when the Israelites were blaming their troubles on the sins of their forefathers (see Jer 23:5-6, and Ez, 18:1-4).

Indeed, we need to look into our own hearts and repent so that we can find (and give) our own forgiveness and healing. God is surely not so unjust as to force children to “pay” in justice for the sins of others.

On the other hand, it is also true to say that the sins of our ancestors — right back to those “first parents,” do affect our lives today and leave us inheriting some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. With each passing day and event, I’m more convinced that we are connected by that “red thread,” or what ever you would call Providence, so that we can and do suffer both spiritually and bodily from the sins of others. We may think this unfair, but remember that the interdependence of the human race is also the source of most of our highest blessings, for example, the solidarity and intimacy of family life and the communion of love with all of us as brothers and sisters.

To make such supreme blessings possible to creatures with free will like us, our creator also had to permit us to misuse that freedom and interdependence, with all its tragic results.

This “interdependence” of the human race also means that the sins of ancestors and parents can affect us in other, more subtle ways. For example, some destructive conditions (such as alcoholism, depression, and hair-trigger tempers) can be passed down to us by genetic inheritance.

Moreover, the problems of our immediate parents and grandparents can be passed down to us in other ways, too.  If they set a bad moral examples for us as, sadly, people tend to do from generation to generation, or if they abused us or failed to give us the love we needed when we are growing up. In such instances, we can become “saddled” with emotional and developmental scars.

For instance, if we weren’t given the love we needed as children, we may spend our lives struggling to learn how to love others and ourselves. This does not make them fully “responsible” for our sins and all our problems today, of course, and we have the responsibility to take action to find healing for these generational wounds ourselves.

Furthermore, in a concept known as transference, we tend to see God the father much as we have had that model of fatherhood displayed by our own father.  If our’s was not forgiving, compassionate, and capable of unconditional love, it is extremely difficult to understand that our heavenly Father could behave in ways like this.  And how could we believe selflessness and unconditional love even exist, if we reject that Jesus came to show us that very thing?  St. Paul says Jesus brought this undeserved grace to the world as the “second Adam.” (Romans 5:12-21).

We did nothing prior to our conception to warrant or deserve original sin.  Likewise, Christians believe we do nothing to “deserve” this Grace that Jesus brings.  But we must accept it, we must open the door He’s been pounding on.  We must forgive, and accept His forgiveness, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus the Christ came and suffered to show us how to love, what unconditional, undeserved love is.  When people fail to fully receive that gift from Him, through repentance and faith — i.e., if their contrition for sin and love for God was “half-hearted” in this life — then they remain in partial debt to God (still owing for, in theological jargon, “the temporal aspect of sin”).

Jersus at door 3

In His parable of the prodigal son, Jesus used the image of a family to teach us God’s love.  The “younger son” could not wait – and in demanding his inheritance, he effectively wished for a dead father, or at a minimum, felt that he was “dead to him.”  The only way for the father to allow his son to really learn to love was to allow him that free choice.  We all know how it ends, with the father’s unconditional love allowing the prodigal to return, but we often miss two points.

Is the father angry only grudgingly allowing this man to return?  No! In fact, from what Jesus describes, this father daily peers into the horizon, hoping to get a glimpse of his returning son! After all, he still loves his son!  In tears, he runs to welcome him home!

Although we play both of these character roles during our respective lives, it’s a harder concept for us to accept that more often than not we’re the other son, the good child.  Too many times, I shout up at Him, “You’re not being fair! I do what you ask of me.  I go to church.  I believe in you. I play by the rules!  And yet you allow this to happen to me? Yet I look around at other “prodigals” (from outward appearances) who have so much success and happiness.  Ouch.  The mirror is seldom a pain-free zone.

I was blessed to have a wonderful father. He was not perfect. He had his many faults. He didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did, I was sad and sometimes afraid and, now looking back, very disappointed, because I wanted our home to be “perfect.” Of course, it couldn’t be. But I knew absolutely, without a doubt, that my father loved me, and that he loved my children, and we were all blessed that he could show my oldest three just how much he loved them.

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

What is your story? Many of you have the vocation of fatherhood. Do unresolved issues with your own father or mother hinder your acceptance of God’s unconditional love? Do they cause you to have a negative relationship with your children? Do not let these keep you from experiencing the Father’s ever-faithful love.

Perhaps some among us desire to reconcile with our earthly father. We will need God’s grace either to ask our father to forgive us or to tell him that he is forgiven. If our fathers are already deceased, we can still do this, with or without the empty chair.

The prodigal son believes that his father will take him back, even if just as a lowly hired hand. Jesus paints a brighter picture: The father loves so much that he puts a ring on the son’s finger and kills the fatted calf.

We must believe that Our Father in heaven will do the same for us if only we go back to Our Loving Father. Pope Francis keeps reminding us: “God never tires of forgiving; we are the ones who tire of seeking His mercy” (cf. “Joy of the Gospel,” No.3).

The elder brother stands in the shadows with resentment and judgment, perpetuating his own cycle. But Michelangelo paints it so very clearly: We see how the cycle is broken: The prodigal son is on his knees, asking for forgiveness. We break the cycle on our knees.

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michaelangelo

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michelangelo

After all, we cannot help our sons become the men they need to be until we allow ourselves to return to the Father. We cannot help our daughters become the women they need to be until we enter into the kind of relationship which Jesus invites us to experience. Husbands here today cannot be the husbands they need to be if they are not coming before the Father like the prodigal son.

kneeling_head_down

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Why do you want to marry my daughter? (My outline of notes) – What I tried to say when he asked for my blessing

Camille and Nick

Dear Future Son-in-Law,

I’ve considered this conversation for months now;  no, actually since the day I watched the woman you want to marry walk down the aisle in her first communion dress.  Any you’d think I’d have the words by now.  But they’re fleeting, and I only get to have this talk with you once.  Oh, I’m sure we’ll have lots of talks, some of them even important ones, as the months and years roll along, but this is the one I think you’ll remember.

Perhaps I should begin with the most basic of questions.  You want to marry my daughter, but Why?  

Let’s back up and start with this.  Why do you love my daughter?  Because she makes you happy?  Because she “completes” you?  Because she has so many things in common with you?  You have so much fun when you’re with her?  Because you get that really cool, funny feeling deep down in your inner being anytime you’re with her, or even think about her?  Because you think she’s so beautiful?  I would certainly hope all of these are true.  But they simply can not be the reason to marry my princess.

First of all, they’re all about you, not her.  And they describe a “feeling.”  Of course being “in love” implies that happy feeling that you certainly (hopefully) have together – that feeling that “nothing else matters.”  Because of course, everything else does matter.  And that feeling will pass, probably on the way home from your honeymoon, or that first morning when you wake up muttering, “Forever, really?” and wonder what the hell you were thinking.

By now, I’m pretty sure you two have disagreed over things, and know just where the other’s jugular vein is, their Achilles’s heel, that weak spot you know would be really hurtful.  That “feeling” is in serious jeopardy during your first big fight over something “really important.”  Or after the hundredth of them, when you’re still angry and maybe out with the boys, and see an old girlfriend, or someone in some foreign town, or someone who suddenly starts thinking you’re pretty incredible looks at you the way my daughter “used to.”  This is not something that might happen, or a prediction.  It’s something that will happen.  Maybe once, maybe 10 times.  Maybe a week after you get married, or even seven years.  Why am I so confident?  Every male I’ve shared my adult life with has only nodded their head in agreement when we look back over our years.  Some crossed the line, some didn’t.  But any of us could have.  I could have.  Your guard drops at a weak moment, especially after a few drinks, and nothing will ever be the same.

That’s why its not about a feeling.  Love is not a feeling.  Because there will be times, lots of times, weeks of them, when she will not make you happy.  She will not complete you, you’ll grow up and realize that in fact, you are incomplete, but my daughter can not and should not and must not fill that void.  You’ll be sure that you have many more things not in common than you ever agree on.  And that really cool feeling that nothing else matters will be long gone.  Because everything else does matter.  One of you will be immature.  And irresponsible.  Make stupid mistakes.  Make financial mistakes.  Has a selfish side.  One of you?  Both of you have all of these traits.  We all have all of these traits.  And you both have dirty closets – both physically and metaphorically.

Again, this is why love can not be a feeling.  Because all of these things will change.  One of you will get cancer and lose a breast, or the ability to make love.  Or be in an accident and become disabled, or disfigured.  Or just get fat.  And you will no longer be so attractive – to each other, or even more likely to yourself.  And you’ll stop loving yourself, and feel unloved, and feel unlovable.  And so you’ll make yourself unlovable.  And one of you will lose a job through no fault of your own, or through every fault of your own.  Or you’ll be unable to get another job, or keep another job.  You’ll also feel pretty worthless, and make yourself also unlovable.  And you’ll be very hard to love.  In fact, unlovable.  Rather, you’ll be unlovable if your relationship, your marriage, your “love” is a feeling.

But it’s not.  And this is not rocket-science.  But here’s the tricky part – if in fact you suspected I was going to say that instead of a feeling, love is “an agreement,” you’d be right.  But only partially right.

I worked for a guy one time who had separate bank accounts for himself and his wife.  It had nothing to do with his pre-nup, or family wealth, or anything at all about protecting their precious material things, or inheritance, or whatever.  No, it was simply “an agreement.”  They had separate jobs, and they each paid for half of all the bills out of their own accounts.  He argued eloquently that it kept the romance in their marriage, because they would “treat” each other to a dinner, or the theater, or a gift.  And it was truly a gift from them individually, because if it had been paid for out of a joint account, then no gift was involved, they just bought something together.  And he added a bow to the package, when he proudly explained, with a wink and a nod, besides, some things were just “none of her business!”  Then he clicked his mouse to open the computer screen displaying this “hilarious” video I’d surely enjoy, and he resumed the porn session he had been halfway through when I had walked into his office.  This went a long way to describe how much respect he had for her.  She surely reciprocated.

No, so love is not just an “agreement.”  I’ve heard ministers officiating the ceremony describe it as a “contract.”  Surely, this is just as dangerous, maybe more so, because a contract is a trade of one thing for another.  A “quid-pro-quo.”  It’s more dangerous because, again, there will be times, perhaps even years when one of you isn’t holding up “your end of the bargain.”  Trust me, this is inevitable.  We human beings are screw-ups, and we are wired to fall, and fail.  Such a breech of contract then allows the other party license to violate the contract because, in fact, no contract exists anymore.  If she’s not doing such and such any more, neither will you!

Yes, love is an agreement, but not a contract.  It’s a “covenant.”  The difference is in the magic words we use when referring to the ceremony that almost no-one really takes seriously – our “vows.”  We “vow” to do these things, with a swear to almighty God, until death do us part.  The fact that we’re vowing to do them in front of all the “witnesses” is, in fact, pretty meaningless.  Most of them are simply there for the really expensive party afterwards anyway.  Close your eyes and imagine looking out over those you’ve invited, and consider whether or not they’ll hold you accountable to your vows, this promise, this covenant. Or will they “high five” over cheating, because he’s such an asshole, or she’s turned into such a bitch?

You’re not “exchanging” rings as part of this contract.  It’s a sign of a covenant.  You know what observant Jews did (and do) as a sign of their covenant with God!  Would you do such a thing as a sign of this covenant?  They didn’t cut off skin so God would do “something.”  They did it as a sign of their fidelity, a physical statement, an affirmation that they were “all in.”  Are you?  Are you all in?  Will you be true to this covenant if she’s fat and ugly, frigid and hateful, clinically depressed?  Or what if she’s addicted to something to numb some pain?  What if she’s an alcoholic?

I realize I should be having this conversation with her as well, but that’s a conversation your parents should have with her.  And I’ve had 29 years to do my best with her; this conversation is with you.  About you.

And how do you see your role in her life?  Let’s assume you really do understand, and agree with marriage as a covenant, or at least that you’ll think about it long and deep.  What will you be to her?  And to your children?  A provider?  What exactly does that mean?  Will you have a job that requires such long hours that your wife is lonesome, and lonely?  You’ve told me that you want children – is that a pet child? or several children?  Have you seriously made plans together? Will you be there for birthday parties, recitals, and parent-teacher meetings?  What is important to you?  What makes life worth living?  Will you live every day as if it’s your last one, and be happy with the importance you gave people and things?

Do you love people and use things?  Or do you love things and use people?

Don’t answer “correctly,” answer honestly.  

And what does make life worth living?  Why are we here?  Why are you here?  Nobody really has any of this figured out, but do you try?  Do you think about these things?  Are they important to you?  What could be more important to you?

I know you both were “raised” Christian, but what does that mean?  How important is your faith to you?  Will it have a role in your marriage?  Does it now?  Surely you know “a three-ply cord is not easily broken.”  Honestly, if your Christian faith is not an active part of your life right now, what will ever change?  Why do people pray?  Do you?  What does that look like?  Is it so private that you can’t really talk about it?  If you believe in “life after this,” I mean really, then isn’t it the most important thing in life?  Then why is God, and faith, and prayer private, and hard to talk about?  Wouldn’t it be important to help the woman you love get to heaven also?

So, anyway, that’s the “love” thing.  You say you want my blessings?  Tell me again, “Why do you want to marry her?