Eighteen years ago today, I was putting a golf ball on the first green when a man driving an empty golf cart suddenly pulled alongside. “Your wife just called. She’s about to have a baby!” Dazed, I dropped my club and walked towards the parking lot. “John,” my friend Bruce called out. The smile on his face could have lit up Broadway. “Get in the cart. He’ll take you to your car. Good luck and God bless!” Ten hours later, our son was born, two minutes before midnight. I cried when I first held him. After ten years, my dream finally came true. His arrival radically changed my life. Within six months, my marriage and my corporate life ended, one with a crash and the other with a thud.
I was already mildly aware that we pass our baggage on to our children. God knows I was carrying a truckload. Six months had passed since I first became aware of what I now call the first rule of inner peace. Already, a massive log had been extracted from my wooden eye. I became conscious that I was an emotional robot, disconnected from my feelings and terrified of cracking them open. When Jared arrived two months later, my joyous eyes betrayed their first watery leak in twenty-five years. In the silence of the biggest present moment of my life, I breathed. “Today, I (and his mom) have total control of his life. With each passing day, we will have less until one day, at 18, we will have zero.” Little did I know how jagged that route would be.
I will be forever grateful for what happened over the next two years. God broke the cycle by severing my family of origin baggage. The Bible says,“…I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Exodus 20:5) Did I hate God? What other word describes what it means to utterly and completely reject him? No one could be more guilty than I of being certain I could do all things on my own strength, fool that I was.
Jesus said, “I came to serve and not be served.” Every father needs to learn this lesson. My wise therapist, Dr. Andre Stein, shared with his men’s group thirty years of psychotherapeutic wisdom: “The role of a son is to please the old man and there will be hell to pay if he fails.”
My lessons came fast and furious. In this country, a divorced father is a second-class citizen with no rights except to pay money and visit occasionally. All others are won with blood sweat and tears. The breaking point came on the day I wanted to see Jared for an hour during a five day no-visitation period while his mother was at work. She said no. Never had I felt so helpless. My rage was spent. All that remained was brokenness. I was completely helpless. God had me where I needed to be. I rented the movie Gandhi that day. As I watched his helpless beatings and jail times for the existential sin of not being white in apartheid South Africa, the dam within burst. Sobbing, racking and heaving, my frozen walls of emotional rigidity cracked wide open. “Oh God forgive my prideful arrogance.”
In Jared’s first two years, I let him go. How blessed he was for that. I learned to actually live out the wise words I breathed to myself at his birth. I sought the line between being his father and letting him be who he is, a child of God. I stood firm on core values while letting him stumble along the way. I avoided full-time employment so I could be with him as much as I could. I treasured each day and shared in his joy of discovering life and himself. Perhaps in so doing, I selfishly relived my own childhood, one in which my hard-working father was absent so often.
At three, he showed me how a child naturally lives in the present. At six, he helped me see the challenges of fitting into school socially and academically. At nine, he pressed me to find the line between awakening his ambition to perform at his best while letting him suffer the consequences. At twelve, he challenged me to let him be. At fifteen, he looked to me to teach him what it is to be a man. At eighteen, he knows I’m here for him but it is now his life, his choices and his nickel.
A child is a mirror of us. Their faults are our faults. Their strengths are our strengths. Only in the passing of time, do we become aware how much we are like our parents. Yet our children’s lives will be heavily shaped by the circumstances of their generation and their friends. Our role becomes support – prayer, advice when asked, and love at all times. Surely there is no greater life experience than parenting. Being a dad has taught me the greatest love lesson of all: If you truly love someone, set him or her free. This is what Jesus did for us. He set us free and by that sacrificial gift, we know we are deeply loved. Let us do as much for our children.