I am grieving my father’s absence today.
I miss him terribly. (This is true, even while it is also true that I was afraid of him all my life.) He was my father and I loved him. He was wise and could be gentle and kind.
Yesterday while reflecting on where I have come from, I realized that my perceptions of what I see as my “successful” years are a direct result of my Dad’s view of the world and his active presence in my life.
This has messed me up.
I went to work for my Dad soon after college. I wanted to be near him, to come to know the man who others seemed to revere so highly. As a child, I missed out on a lot of time with my father because of he was constantly working and frequently traveled. I thought that this was a way to be close to him.
Those years working for him at InterVarsity and on Urbana conventions were full, busy and challenging. I learned a lot of good things: the value of being a hard worker, of doing things excellently, of receiving correction, of trying things even when not an expert (basically taking risks!), and the value of pursing your passions.
I also learned some things about myself — one is good, that I loved hard work.
But I also came to believe that work could fill the empty spaces in my soul – places of loneliness, need for relevance and love, and the insidious fear of being a failure.
All of my life it was those people who served others, who worked hard, who accomplished many things, who were pioneers in their ideas and accomplishments, who challenged the status quo, who took risks, who “made a difference” – those were the people admired by my father!
And that is what I learned to do and believe mattered most.
Growing up the things that were okay to sacrifice were family, friendship, and knowing and accountable relationships. I even saw that it was okay to not live up to the great character qualities aspired to in Scripture, if you meant well or asked forgiveness afterward. Growing up in a missionary family it was made clear to us that you should be willing to work for less, less money as missionaries and nothing in terms of payment for my mother, who worked for the mission but received no monetary compensation. And we learned that God would always provide. We lacked for nothing materially growing up.
Dad was driven to do many “important things” and I admired him for this, even as I missed having a daddy in my life. It is only as an adult that I accepted the power and impact of being driven on one’s priorities, relationships and family for the worse.
When I left work to be at-home, I had become my father — driven, passionate, crazy busy and “weary from well-doing,” as well as lonely and constantly fearing failure. No matter what I accomplished, I was unsatisfied and rarely felt good about it or myself. It just made sense to leave, if I was that unhappy at work. We had three children in diapers and a budding teenager, my stepdaughter, at home. When I quit I was a mess and didn’t know it!
I am now grateful to have learned, after more than ten years at-home, that there is more to life than what you do but even now, even yesterday the devilish ideas return saying that I am nothing without what I am doing, and it better be something significant! Accomplishments are heady things and degrees boost the ego, but they do not offer one the solid, sweet confidence that comes from knowing who you are in the Lord – beloved, fully known and loved. I thought that my father would love me more if I was able to do more! He had spent his whole life driven by this need as well.
This was what I knew “You are loved, more lovable, when you are doing important things.”
It was in November, 02, that I got the call that my dad was sick – he’d been having what they thought were TIAs, losing the ability to speak in mid sentence. Through some connections, my parents always had connections, Dad got in quickly to see a brain specialist who made the diagnosis of cancer. It was tumors in his brain.
The first of December found us in Colorado, with brain surgery on. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the only time, in the months that he was sick, that Dad would allow a conversation about his possible death. He could sometimes be a pragmatic man. Going into surgery held risks and a conversation needed to occur with his children just in case something went wrong.
I wish I had known that this was the only time he would allow such a conversation. I still have so many questions, things that remain unspoken, proper goodbyes, …
But that was his way … He lived absolutes and when he came out of surgery alive, he believed that God would heal him and more importantly that he would return to work. “God still had plans for him, things Dad was to do. It was unacceptable, lacking faith to be quite honest, to talk of his possible death.”
And so he and I went to tea. It was a conversation that changed my life. For the first time, I knew I could say whatever needed saying. I was admittedly terrified! He could be volatile and capricious. And later, in a conversation with my sister he proved how much so. This was partly due to the tumors changing him but he was erratic and mean many times over the years, which made it hard to trust in the benevolent moments.
At great personal risk, I told my father how his actions throughout my life had hurt me — his anger, his raging, his criticism, his absence had injured me. And this was his reply. Yes, regret and he sought my immediate forgiveness. (It was a transaction for him, forgiveness. One asks. One receives. End of story.)
But he also said something that struck me as strange , a non sequitur, which I have reflected on many times since. It was new information. He said, “I didn’t know how to be a parent. I felt incompetent. But I was good at doing work … accomplished, affirmed and admired. And so that’s what I did, I worked. “
Yes, I felt that growing up. Both that being a parent was not his priority though I didn’t know why. And that what you do was a way to feel good about yourself. And I also did that for many years and when work became untenable, even the accomplishments weren’t enough, would not fill the hole in my heart and made me feel like there was continuously more I need to do. Have. Accomplish. Take on. Achieve. And so I quit.
I was unprepared for the full stop! Of all of a sudden, not being significant in the world’s eyes. And what I had done in the past was irrelevant.
And it wasn’t that being a parent was too hard but rather that I didn’t believe in its value. In many ways still don’t. I mean intellectually I do know the value of parenting, but I cannot seem to convince my heart and soul.
This is the root of my discomfort with being at home. My depression came on very soon after. I wasn’t happy but not because of being at-home, or being a mother, or even because I no longer had “a job” to make me feel important or worthwhile.
I had never been that happy. I was only now coming to a place of acknowledging that reality.
I had a very good friend and mentor years ago, Pete Hammond, that wrote this wisdom:
“Being a sinner means having the terrible ability to misuse every good thing! That ability to misuse includes relationships, possessions, passions and pleasures, citizenship privileges and rights, freedoms, work and jobs, family, etc. Thanks be to God that Christ offered to help us break this terrible pattern on the cross.” – Pete Hammond, Re:Learning Family.
The good news is that though I am broken and lost, I have hope. Paul progressed in his transformation, he said,
“I, too, had reason for confidence in the flesh (religion, ethnicity, family, profession, temperament, citizenship) … but I have come to regard these as loss… and regard them as rubbish… I want to know Christ.”
Transformation seems to take time. I have to trust in God who keeps time and has a long view that I cannot know, comprehend, but I can believe in. Looking at Paul, he was also growing in his understanding of himself from being a dangerous pre-Christian to becoming a mature and humble leader. Paul changed. In his life, I find hope! He was being changed, he was “under construction” and when he said “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”(In 1 Cor. 4:16, 11:11 and Phil 3:17, 4:9) I understand what he meant! Not that he was perfect, but that Christ was still transforming him.
I long for a day when I will have arrived to full maturity and not have days like yesterday when I sink into depression.
I pray for the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in life.
For serenity and healing, I pray. And I believe that Christ is still transforming me.