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The Journey Inward Fathers: What Is Our True Calling?


Last updated 6/30/2021 at 4:22pm

Father’s Day has come and gone. Honoring fathers, however, led me to reflect on a father’s significance within the family, and to some extent, the status of men generally in our culture.

An adaptation from Exodus 18:13-23 is relevant. In this passage Moses is judging the affairs of people from morning until evening. His father-in-law, Jethro, saw all that he was doing for the people. He said: “Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you”? Moses answered: “Because the people come to me to inquire of God, when they have a dispute, they come to me, and I decide between one person and another.”

Then Jethro said: “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me, you should ask others to help you, so they will bear this burden with you. Then you will be able to endure.”

I can identify with Moses who assumed responsibility “alone.” Early in my adult life I subscribed to a traditional masculine role. As an executive director of a counseling center in northwest Indiana, for example, it was not uncommon for me to work well into the evening. Not only were there administrative tasks but early evening counseling sessions.

I probably worked 60 hours each week for long stretches, even going in on Saturday mornings to catch up. Despite loneliness, was I not fulfilling my role as a man?

Despite loneliness, I was proud of my work ethic; was not I fulfilling my role as a man?

My older son put a chink in that armor. He complained. “Where were you? You weren’t at my Little League games!” Although I attended many of his Little League games, he remembers differently.

At first, I justified my behavior; I was financially supporting the family. That did not fly. He was disappointed I was not more available. I sadly regret it.

My own father divorced my mother when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I only saw him once after that. Most of my life I have felt an absent father wound. When he left, I wondered why. My mother did not help me understand why they divorced and did not allow my grief. Later, I searched for role models in culture. Being a good worker was one of them. As a result, I was not able to be present and show affection as I wanted to do.

Both my sons are grown men now and over the years we have repaired some of our wounds. This past Father’s Day I waited with bated breath. Would they call me on Father’s Day? Around 6 p.m. I heard the telephone and ran to pick it up. Both my sons were on the line.

They called to express their affection for me. I could not have been happier. Most important, as noted some of the generational suffering is being healed and my sons will pass this along to my grandchild.

It is ironic that an Old Testament story in Exodus is so pertinent. Moses is the prototypical man, imbued with an obligatory sense of responsibility, but out of kilter because he meets these obligations alone. Jethro is wise. Call on others for help, restore yourself, and since Jethro is his father-in-law, he probably wishes Moses was home more with his wife.

The Biblical story parallels my move from a pressured need to “make a living” to an increased emotional awareness. This shifted my way of relating to my sons. Now our father and son bond is not only intact but authentic. To reach that place I had to acknowledge the feelings of hurt and pain behind my work ethic. As Jethro admonishes Moses, I have sought other men and women who know what it is like to feel a father wound, and are overburdened and alone.

Li-Young Lee, a poet, recalls a moment in his childhood when his father pulls out a painstaking “metal splinter” from his soft, child palms. I recently heard a recitation of his poem about that memory entitled “The Gift.” Several verses follow: “To pull the metal splinter from my palm my father recited a story in a low voice. I watched his lovely face and not the blade. Before the story ended, he’d removed the iron sliver I thought I’d die from ... And I did not lift my wound and cry, ‘Death visited here!’ I did what a child does when he’s given something to keep. I kissed my father.”

Li-Young Lee’s father was available. Clearly, engaged fathers make a difference in the lives of their children. In my view, however, availability alone misses a core consideration. The deeper question is how available are we to ourselves. Moving from overly determined cultural definitions of masculinity, we become more integrated as we resurrect our feeling of loneliness, grief, anger and need for affection. Then when our child reaches for us, we are not afraid. We know the previously ignored child feelings within us.

Perhaps Jethro was trying to rescue Moses from the perceived requirements of others to a resurrection of his own experience. Father, and men generally, may such an effort be our true calling.

(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor living in Brevard. Portions of this column appeared in a column he wrote for The Transylvania Time in 2015.)


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