Ode to the Father

God chooses ordinary men for fatherhood to accomplish his extraordinary plan.

G.K. Chesterton

My dad introduced me to an audience at a recent speaking engagement. Looking at him beam as he spoke, and then at my smiling mom who attended to “see me in action,” affirmed the truism that, no matter how old our children get, they are always our children. I felt the strange mix of my 10-year-old self in a “look at me” moment and my 55-year-old fatherhood/grand fatherhood as I tuned-in to the glowing pride he projected. I had wondered if it would be awkward for me having my parents in the audience and found that, no matter how old I get, I still feel the sonship that was my original vocation.

Driving back to my office after my presentation, I came out of my own thoughts for a moment when I noticed Bono’s voice on the radio:

I know that we don't talk
I'm sick of it all
Can you hear me when I sing?
You're the reason I sing
You're the reason why the opera is in me

This stanza from “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On You’re Own” grabbed me. The original is excellent, but this version was from U2’s newest album, Songs of Surrender, primarily a collection of old songs remade. In the newer version, you can really hear the mature Bono’s heart, and hurt, from the conflict he felt with his father as he tells him “you’re the reason why the opera is in me.” Beautifully complex and profoundly real.

All of us have varying degrees of complexity in our relationships with our fathers and the father-son form possesses its own uniquely masculine dynamics. The push and pull of that dynamic emerges in our necessary struggle for independence and identity, in a growing-up that may never really be complete, and amid the hopes, dreams, and expectations, a father naturally has for his son. Father’s can get a bad rap for this as none of us are perfect, but there is a gritty necessity to the tension that must necessarily appear as our younger selves wrestle out of our cocoon of dependence to become our independent selves.

What do we need and want from our fathers? Central to it all is a longing for approval that never really goes away. Our hearts are hungry for the unconditional love that says “no matter what you do, I’ll still love you.” Our fathers are a point of reference, an absolute measure in a subjective world and we revolve around that point, consciously and unconsciously gauging our progress. As sons, we are perpetually trying to measure up, as daughters, we hunger for the affirmation from our first love, the seed of our lifetime reference point for how we should be loved.

In “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna tells the story of a young girl in love and in trouble. I know I messed up. I know you’re going to be upset. Don’t focus on my mistake, please forgive me, please love me. As fathers, we have so much experience to offer. We build a life focused on developing and protecting our children, and then we let them go. It is at once ours and then, necessarily, not ours. As children we say, love me through my mistakes.

Are we the prodigal son, asking for our share of our inheritance, squandering it, then asking to return, forgiven? Or are we the dutiful son? Steady and present through thick and thin, and then indignant at the warm reception for our wayward sibling. But this is the father we want, the one waiting with open arms, no matter our failings, and the one offering patient compassion to the dutiful son who feels injustice has been served. More importantly, it’s the father we’re called to be.

“When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

Of course, Harry Chapin has something to say about the complexities of fatherhood. That sharp edge we walk between our own ambition, and duty, to climb and provide and produce, while also being present for those who need, and want, us most. Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” poetically captures the fleeting nature of time and the discoveries of fatherly maturity. What is most important? Eventually we realize that fatherhood, like motherhood, is a vocation of sacrifice. It’s forming is helping us learn that our life is not ours alone and, ultimately, is really not about us.

As a father, I think Paul Simon captures the spirit of fatherhood quite well in “Father and Daughter”:

I believe the light that shines on you
Will shine on you forever (forever)
And though I can’t guarantee
There’s nothing scary hiding under your bed
I’m gonna stand guard
Like a postcard of a Golden Retriever
And never leave ’til I leave you
With a sweet dream in your head

We can’t always leave our children with sweet dreams, and life has plenty of scary things to offer, but the father will always stand guard, no matter how old his babies get. I think of my father and his particular brand of love. Steady. Present. Protective. Fierce. The father really must be lion and lamb. He must be ready to fight for his children and simultaneously ready to sacrifice himself for them. Our duty never goes away.

As fathers, we have to acknowledge the responsibility of our vocation while maintaining a degree of self-compassion. We have to embrace the duty of our fatherhood even as we forgive our own fathers for being human when we expected them to be inhumanly perfect. We also need to continually aim for the higher bar, knowing that our shadow is falling across every corner of the life of our family.

In my life, I watch my sons grow into their own fatherhood, even as they help me mature into my grand-fatherhood. Are they on the right track? As usual, the children offer the best clues as they dote upon their dads. In a world that seems hyper-obsessed with itself, these young men show great self-giving and the necessary restraint for fatherhood. Devotion is a beautiful virtue. Courage may be in short supply in many places, but I see a beautifully masculine, and moral, courage in these young men.

Thinking of my own father, dressed in his suit and tie, holding that microphone, and beaming as he introduced his son, makes me smile. I see a lifetime of moments cascade through my memory and realize that I have been a lucky one. My father has taken his duty seriously, stood guard like a golden retriever, and never told me “not today.” Thanks Dad, I love you too. Happy Father’s Day.

Showing 5 comments
  • Jill Spohn

    Beautifully said, Phil… I say as tears flow.

  • Becky

    A wonderful tribute to dads. Thanks Phil

  • Trish+Berry

    All I can say is “your thoughts are so beautiful”.

  • Jerry Berry

    Phillip Berry, like many children, was gifted from an early age, baseball, basketball, track, and as a high achiever in most all endeavors. A loving brother and son, husband, father, grandfather and also as an employer of many people. He has honed and refined his gifts to touch many lives professionally, spiritually and by no small measure, his weekly blog, which his mother & I consider a blessing. Our pride is not a sin as we know Phillip’s gifts are from God.
    Nice piece Phillip.

  • Jarilyn Berry

    Steady, present, protective, and fierce. Couldn’t be more true and beautiful. (I also type as tears flow)!

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