Fathers & Sons: The Hero’s Journey

I think about my father every day. I can’t help it. Every morning when I stare into the mirror, there he is staring back. As long as I can recall, people who knew my father have said that we look alike. The comparison was a point of pride when I was a child and an aggravation when I became an adolescent. That irritation grew into something stronger in my teens and  20’s. Not hatred, exactly, but certainly anger mixed with aversion.

I did not want to be like my father. There were many reasons. For a long time, I thought it was because of his drinking. I didn’t like the person he became when he drank. I didn’t like the old school jazz that he listened to on the weekend–the blues warbling voice of Billie Holiday, and the Dixieland rat-a-tat of Bix Beiderbecke’s horn. I didn’t like his jokes. I came to love them all later, after he was gone, because they reminded me of him. But at the time, I felt a strong desire, almost a compulsion, to be separate from him. The more I grew to look like him, the more I worried that I would become him.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
John’s latest Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good will be released in September, 2020. Preorder your copy today!

No doubt, some of the impetus for this angst came from the vibe of the culture at the time. In the 1960s and 70s, sons weren’t supposed to want to be like their fathers. We disdained their workaday ethic and the suburban values of their American dream. The Monkees sang sarcastically of Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, and Joni Mitchell grieved over The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Yet even though we lived on a suburban street, my father had no real interest in the suburban dream. He was an artist and a bohemian at heart. Our lawn was wild and unkempt, much like family life we lived inside the small brick home that it bordered. Even though he drove a Chevy and worked for the automobile company that produced it, my father was possessed of wilder dreams and aspirations. In his youth, he had wanted to be a commercial artist.  Quiet when sober, he had a quirky sense of humor that compelled him to fill our Christmas stockings with lumps of coal and with feet that he had fashioned out of clay. He was an avid reader, and I can still remember my sense of wonder when he introduced me to the grownup’s section of the local library. Some of the first books that I read there were books he recommended.

Of course, I saw none of this during the years of my flight from him. I only recognized it much later, after my anger had subsided. But by then, it was too late to thank him for what he had done. I now recognize that the divide I felt was, in part, a product of the natural divergence that occurs between fathers and sons. It is a kind of centrifugal force that seems to repel us from one another, even when we are on the same trajectory and anchored to the same center. Nearly every son feels it. It is part of the human condition. Myth and literature are replete with examples. It seems that every son must make his own hero’s journey and then return home wounded but hopefully wiser.

I don’t mean to sentimentalize the picture. There was real pain in our relationship. My father’s drinking was admittedly a significant contributor to the rift I felt. But it was not everything. Time and distance have the power to soften, and there’s no greater distance than death. Age is also a help. It enables us to be selective in our memory. I know this is true for me. I sometimes wonder if the man I now recall is better than the man I knew. If it’s true, I suppose it is a kind of mercy. But I suspect it’s the other way around. I see him more clearly, now that I have surpassed him in age. I am better able to recognize the man who stares back at me from the mirror. It is not just the shape of the face, but something in the eyes that I recall. I remember the look.

I no longer see my father as an adversary or a superior but recognize that I have become his peer. I’ve often wished that we could compare notes about our respective journeys. But such conversations are impossible. They are for most sons. The really interesting questions do not come until it is too late to ask them. When we were young, we weren’t interested. Or it didn’t occur to us to raise the subject. The best we can now do is to compile the story after the fact by relying on secondary sources and oral tradition. We reminisce with our siblings and marvel at how different their recollection is from ours. We ask the living to recall the dead, never quite sure whether they are relating facts or expressing opinions. We piece together our own memories, which arise from the depths in fits and flashes like dreams. We don’t always remember the fine details or the context. It is a little like working on a giant puzzle, but without the benefit of the picture on the box.

It has also helped me to be a father. Nothing has taught me more about the nature of unconditional love than fatherhood. Few things have made me feel as frightened or as helpless. Like me, my sons left home in their 20’s and moved across the country. The pain I felt upon their leaving mirrored the expression I recall in my father’s eyes on the day that I moved away. I have since marveled at their boldness, boasted in their successes, and worried over their trials. But I haven’t stopped missing them. Yet I sense that the distance between us is measured in more than miles and wonder when they will turn for home. It is a long journey.

The primary work is to forgive.

The primary work of the hero’s journey of sons where their father is concerned is to forgive. For me, this has been the work of learning how to forgive both my father and myself. I have had to forgive my father for being the man that he was instead of the man I thought I wanted him to be. Likewise, I had to forgive myself for being born in his image. And sometimes for being the man that I became. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains.  “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.” This is the hero’s journey. It is also the work that transforms us from child to adult.

The last conversation I had with my father was in 1987. I was sitting beside his hospital bed. Years of alcohol abuse had finally presented its bill, and renal failure had set in. The doctors told us that there was nothing they could do for him. I sat silent, holding my father’s hand, and trying to think of what I should say. With so much left unsaid for so long, I could only fall back on an old script that we had repeated many times before.

“I love you, Dad,” I said.

“I love you too, Johnny,” he whispered back.

Maybe it was all we needed to say.

Clay Feet

When I was a student in college, a Christian writer and speaker that I admired visited our campus on a lecture tour. A young believer at the time, I had been greatly influenced by one of her books. She was the kind of person I aspired to be. A writer, speaker, and a serious Christian. After she spoke to our student group, several of us took her to lunch, where I was thrilled to get a seat at her right hand. I didn’t elbow anybody out of the way for the privilege, at least not much. I didn’t want to miss a word.

I don’t remember much of what this famous author said during lunch. What I do recall is being puzzled by her tone. She didn’t seem to be nearly as excited to meet us as we were to meet her. Maybe she was tired from her long travel schedule. Perhaps she was coming down with something. For whatever reason, most of her comments to us were terse, almost impatient. If you had forced me to put a name to her mood, I would have said that she was grumpy. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Here was a person who had written several no-nonsense books about discipleship and the Christian life. She was famous for her faith. Her spiritual lineage qualified her as Christian royalty. I was sure it was only my imagination.

When the visit was over, some of us asked the staff worker who had picked her up from the airport what it was like to spend time with so distinguished and spiritual a person. The staff worker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, all I will say about it is that sometimes you need to allow your heroes to have clay feet.” I remember being troubled by her answer. I didn’t like what it seemed to imply about one of my heroes in the faith.

These days heroes are hard to come by.

These days heroes are hard to come by. We have galaxies of stars, swarms of celebrities, and an abundance of influencers. But bonafide, pedestal-standing heroes are in short supply. It is hard to find heroes in an iconoclastic age. We love to tear down the idols of earlier generations. Once, we built monuments for our heroes and wrote biographies in their praise. Now we would rather expose flaws than laud virtues. The histories we write today reconstruct those old narratives using a wrecking ball. The new standard leaves no room for moral ambiguity or the limitations of cultural context.

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints. But Protestantism divested itself of most of those champions of old during the Reformation. The Reformers did not deny the existence of people with remarkable faith and exemplary lives. But they did object to the way the church had exaggerated their accomplishments and elevated them, as Calvin put it, “into copartnership with God, to be honored, and also to be invoked and praised in His stead.”

But our greatest problem is that our heroes always turn out to have feet of clay, no matter how good they appear from a distance. Some years ago, I took a class with a professor who was famous for his books on spiritual formation. More than one person told me that he was the most Christlike person they had ever met. During one of our class sessions, this professor told us that ordinary Christians could live the same kind of life that Jesus did. I was troubled by his assertion and asked him if he thought that his life met that standard. “I’m not going to answer your question,” he replied. “Because if I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The rest of the class laughed, feeling that his answer had put me in my proper place.

I won’t deny that there was a challenge implied in my question. But I meant it sincerely. If the professor had answered in the affirmative, I would have gone on to ask what such a life looked like and how it was possible. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to those questions, because his assertion made me realize that, although I wanted to live like Jesus, I didn’t actually believe it was possible. Instead of helping me resolve the contradiction, it felt like he had shamed me in front of my peers. It made me question the validity of his assertion. Would Jesus have treated my question the same way?

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints.

He might have. Jesus wasn’t afraid to leave his listeners feeling awkward and confounded. Still, I felt stung by the embarrassment of the encounter. In my mind, it eroded his credibility. I found it hard to remain open to the rest of what he had to say. I admired his work but not his personality. At least, not that sliver of personality that I came into contact with that particular day in class. For his part, I doubt that my discomfort even registered on his consciousness. I’m certain he did not even remember my name.

Some years after this painful exchange, at the Bible college where I taught, one of my students asked to meet with me. I could tell he was uncomfortable. He told me that the appointment hadn’t been his idea but his wife’s. Something had happened in one of my classes that left him deeply discouraged. So much so that he was thinking of dropping out of school. His wife felt that he should at least tell me about it before taking such rash action. He had said something in class, a question or a comment, I couldn’t recall what it was. I had dismissed it with a joke. He had been earnest in what he had said. My flippant response embarrassed him and left him feeling stupid. I hadn’t even noticed.

He went on to say that he had initially come to the school because of something I had written. Perhaps he was exaggerating when he said this. It doesn’t make much difference if he was. The exchange had hurt and embarrassed him. What do you say to someone who has put you on a pedestal, only to discover that you have clay feet? There isn’t much that you can say, except to show them the whole ugly picture. You gently try to help them see that your arms, legs, head, and heart are made of clay as well.

Mark Twain once wrote that the traits that we admire in our heroes are usually the qualities that we lack. “If everybody was satisfied with himself,” Twain observed, “there would be no heroes.” When our heroes fail us, it’s not just the fact that they have fallen from their former height that leaves us so disillusioned. It is that they have come down to our level. Indeed, this may be the bitterest discovery of all. The dismay we feel comes from learning that those we used to hold in high esteem are no better than us. Certainly, their sin disappoints, but it is their ordinariness that causes us to view them with contempt.

If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain

For most people, coming to terms with this kind of disappointment is the first great challenge we face on the path to mature adulthood. We learn that we must forgive our parents for being human. And as every adult son or daughter knows, the hardest parent to forgive is the one we most resemble. The great torment of our adolescent struggle with our parents is the fear that we might one day grow up to become “just like them.” But the real tension actually moves in the opposite direction. It comes from our growing awareness that our parents are like us. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains. “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.”

Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

It’s not wrong to have heroes. We need them. Hebrews 13:7 urges us to: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” But if the Bible’s unvarnished portrayal of those leaders reveals anything, it shows us that we must also leave room for their humanity. Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must also leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

In the end, we will find that all our heroes have clay feet. All except for one. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). His feet are flesh, not clay (John 1:14). Those hands and feet were pierced, wounded by those who should have been His friends (Zechariah  13:6). We will not be sorry when we find that this hero was like us, because Jesus had to be made like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He was tempted too like us, “yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is the church’s only real hero because He is everything that we lack. Because He is everything we are not, He is the guarantee that one day we will be like Him.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Out of My Mind: Shame on You

I was thinking this morning about something I said more than a decade ago. It was a rash remark, uttered in the heat of the moment. The context, like that of so many of my other rash remarks, was a meeting.

I don’t know why this particular comment came to mind. It certainly wasn’t any worse than many other things I’ve said. I did not curse or take the Lord’s name in vain. My words, as I recall them, were merely surly and petulant. In fact, I can’t even recall the entire exchange in detail. Only a phrase and the shame I felt days later when I reflected on the moment.

 It was the shame that caught me up short this morning. I was struck by how fresh it felt, blushing and red as if the words had only just passed through my lips today. It reminded me of a friend who told me how he still lays awake in bed at night and shivers when he thinks of a particular incident that occurred while in high school. It does not matter that the incident has been forgotten by everyone else. In that moment my friend lives through it all over again.

This is the way with shame. It is no respecter of persons or events. It is just as willing to associate itself with the insignificant as with the great. Just as eager to be the consort of the trivial as the heinous.

This makes shame both a friend and an enemy. There is nothing quite so healthy as shame. In its proper place it serves as a God given and necessary restraint against the worst of society’s behaviors. At the same time, there is nothing quite so unhealthy as shame. Its ancient memory compels us to agonize over that which should have been forgotten long ago. And the remedy for both is the same:  “As the Scripture says, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame'” (Rom. 10:11).