Sunday, June 21, 2015

5 ways to make peace with fathers


When the Faith of Fathers Interferes with Relationships

How do you celebrate father’s day when your memories don’t allow you to say, “You’re the Best Dad ever?”

Perhaps your casual glance at social media suggests so many people had better father’s than you did.

Do you notice the silent posts—people who don’t comment on their fathers and how great they were? Perhaps you knew the fathers of friends and wish your father could be more like theirs? Perhaps your father wasn’t there for you and you wonder why he was not in your life?

There are fathers who only merit the name in a biological sense. I’m not writing about those. Apparently some father’s walk on water—at least that’s the impression I get from reading posts by many young women. I’m not writing about those fathers either.

There are ordinary fathers who have delightful and troublesome attributes—it’s those I write about.

And in particular I am writing for this blog about Psychology and Religion and the ways I made peace with my father and his fundamentalism that I found so annoying and even destructive at times. His strict beliefs were more restrictive than those of church peers and he had a severe problem with anger until he mellowed with age. I did not suffer physical abuse but his angry words cut deeply and a he destroyed property.


1. Redeem the good times

With my dad at Trafalgar Square
Unless your father was a total loser, there were good times—a time when you felt loved. You did fun things together. 

Perhaps you have pictures or stories from others that can help create a balance when tempted to dwell on those troubled moments. Most of us are hard to live with some of the time. Our unique qualities can be annoying to others. Living with parents is a 24/7 experience for children so we are going to see what other don’t see. Dwelling on the troubling experiences can put the good ones out of focus.

As I look back at old photos, I am reminded of the things dad and I enjoyed together. I enjoyed trips to the beaches in England and South Jersey, going to work with him, walking in the woods, tossing a ball, playing games, listening to stories, and watching some TV shows together. As a father and a grandfather I now savor those moments I have with my own son and enjoy with my granddaughters. The good memories help me set aside the troubled conflicts I had with my father over his strict religious lifestyle and ill temper. Thanks dad for the good times we had together.

2. Embrace the good memories of others

Most people are a mix of good and bad attributes. As children we are dimly aware of the people our fathers mix with on a daily basis. There are school friends, co-workers, folks in the neighborhoods, and relatives. People have different memories of our parents than we have. Our fathers like other people, often said or did something to make others’ lives better even if they were missing from or messing with our lives.

My parents did not divorce but I recall wishing they would when they would fight. Some psychologists have even suggested kids would be better off if parents divorced so their lives would be more peaceful. Looking back, I’m glad my parents did not divorce because in their later years they seemed to really enjoy their lives together. Others have different experiences—I have no doubt divorce was a good thing for some.

And since my dad died, I learned that many people appreciated what he had done for them or said to them. I know he annoyed others. But I also know that his faith, generosity, acts of kindness, and sense of humor blessed many relatives and friends. That’s a good feeling. And hearing the snippets of experience from others reminds me of those good things I’d forgotten. Thanks dad for being a blessing to others.

3. Add humility to troublesome memories

One thing I learned as a psychologist is that our memories are dynamic and contain unreliable records. By dynamic I mean memories change when new information comes along. As humans, we fill in missing information with new information. Others present at an event will remember things differently than we will. If we talk about an event, we can easily incorporate those shared memories into our own memories. In some cases, memories contain events that never happened.

our memories are dynamic and contain unreliable records

 By unreliable I mean that our memories of the past are imperfect. Adding humility to the memories of our fathers can cut them some slack when it comes to memories of their imperfections.

I am stuck with the memories of some scary events involving my father’s ill temper. I have no doubt he had a bad temper, which left me feeling scared when younger and angry when older. I’ve learned that angry people—including me—can misperceive what people say and do. By adding the problem of misperception to the problem of memory and I cut my father—and others—some slack.

I’m not saying we need to condone, excuse, or endure violence. I’m thinking more of living with or remaining in relationship with dads who pose a challenge because they have an anger problem, an extreme form of religious faith, or some annoying habits that just make them hard to live with.

4. Practice forgiveness

I’ve written a lot about forgiveness but not made it personal. Here I say that I had to forgive my father for some offenses—times when his outbursts were particularly scary. It helps me to know that my view of things may not be accurate. And to remember that as I got older I’d hurt him too. I was fortunate to have had some good times with him as a child and as an adult. I think we both worked at the relationship in our own ways. I'm sure he had to forgive me too.

My Christian faith commands forgiveness but forgiveness is not just about duty. Forgiveness is also an emotional experience. We have to let go of the hurt feelings if we are to fully embrace our fathers. And even if we cannot repair a damaged relationship it’s good to forgive for our own well-being. After all, carrying the burden of a grudge damages our own souls and keeps us from engaging with others. Forgiveness is rarely easy but it can be done.

5. Embrace diverse spiritual experiences

I have friends that have rejected the faith of their fathers to such an extent that they are atheists or minimally engaged with faith. I understand that. At times I’ve wondered what makes sense.

My father experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity in the 1930s when he attended a small Pentecostal Church (Elim) near our home in West Finchley (a borough of London, England). I heard that he ostracized some family members with his new found zeal for God.

Pentecostal Christianity was a combination of three things: Fundamentalist Christianity (think lots of rules about right beliefs derived from a literal view of the Bible) plus holiness (not enjoying sinful things like dancing, movies, alcohol) and beliefs in miracles (sometimes to the extreme). We were immigrants to the U.S. in the 1950s. The U.S. church we attended shared similar beliefs but my father strove harder on all three fronts so life wasn’t much fun!

A phrase from the title of Brian McLaren’s book title sums up my thinking, Generous Orthodoxy. I now embrace a big tent approach to faith. I see my father’s restrictive spirituality as redemptive for him. Over the years I have seen how people derive much comfort, energy, and sustenance from their faith. My father’s faith was part of his identity. By all accounts he was a changed man. A generous orthodoxy challenges us to find the value in Christian diversity. That works for me.

Dad lived long enough to enjoy some precious moments with his grandson.
His finger illustrates his habit of pointing out the right way to live.

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