O’ Father, Where Art Thou?
Guest Post by David Christel
Author and Health/Healing Advocate
That, unfortunately, is the question many a child and even grown men have asked of their own fathers. Since humans have existed, it seems fathers and sons have so often been at loggerheads with each other. For some, the struggle is an emotional roller coaster, sometimes getting violent. For others, they feel stranded and adrift.
In my case, my adoptive father was physically present but wrapped up in his own little world. He wasn’t interested in having children, didn’t want to interact with us, didn’t want the mess and noise kids bring, and he was adamant that we not touch him. What did he want? To be left alone. To borrow the acronym used by DADvocacy Consulting Group founder Allan Shedlin, he was AWOL: Absent Without Leaving.
Fundamentally, men are finding themselves incomplete, a gaping emotional hole residing in their hearts and psyche, from the lack of a true, loving, and supportive relationship with their fathers.
Absentee fathers have become an epidemic in this country. David Blankenhorn, in his book Fatherless America (1995), called the crisis of fatherless children “the most destructive trend of our generation.” This “trend” has far-reaching consequences.
What’s truly sad is that this trend is getting passed down from generation to generation. The emotional toll it’s taking on men is enormous. Fundamentally, men are finding themselves incomplete, a gaping emotional hole residing in their hearts and psyche, from the lack of a true, loving, and supportive relationship with their fathers. Most men have no idea how to fill that hole, so they keep the cycle of absenteeism alive.
What this has produced are emotionally stunted men who unconsciously are caught up in what is termed “father hunger.” They’re completely unaware of it, yet much of their behavior has an underlying desire to have a father with whom they can deeply connect, father to son, male to male, best bud to best bud, confidant to confidant, love to love. That deepest need to be seen, accepted, celebrated, and loved by one’s father is extraordinarily compelling. Without it, men don’t flourish as the multi-dimensional beings they inherently are.
Yet so many men only have cursory relationships with their fathers or abusive, hurtful, antagonistic, negatively competitive, non-existent, or completely estranged relationships. Why the hell is that?
Plenty of psychological assessments are available to explain this situation. Primarily, though, I’ve observed that it comes down to three possibilities:
1. That dysfunctional relationship dynamic is what we learned growing up.
2. We’ve become afraid of our emotions and being vulnerable with others.
3. We’ve become inured to our situation, so choose to keep it in place rather than heal.
There’s nothing more challenging than to be around a man who would rather face death than admit he might be wrong or complicit in something that’s not gone well or according to plan — like a father-son relationship. Men are great at closing down emotional dissonance within themselves even if it goes against their core desire for wholeness and healing.
This extends to healing their father hunger. Some men turn that hunger into being a victim. Many pack it away and become emotionally unavailable to their children. Others turn it into anger that manifests as machismo, bullying, hyper-defensiveness against the world, authoritarianism, and even hate for those who represent what the man has hidden away within himself.
So, what’s the antidote to father hunger, for our deep longing? For me, I realized I’ll most likely never be fully healed — just like we all still feel old physical injuries — but I will transcend by allowing more love in my life from others. Secondly, I work to be the opposite of AWOL and any of the other things that produce father hunger in those to whom I’m a father figure.
Third, to heal myself, I had to come to terms with the fact that my adoptive father would never be the hero I sought in him, never be a bastion of strength, the comforter and guardian, the instructor and coach, the wise sage in whose arms I could find solace and support — we were never going to connect.
Since my adoptive father passed away in 1984, I never got to have “the talk” with him. So, what I did was visit his grave in 1995. I sat in the grass next to his bronze plaque, took a few deep breaths to center myself, then thanked him for all that he’d done for me such as providing a roof over my head, clothes, toys, schooling, money for sports. I spoke without accusing, shaming, or blaming him in any way.
Instead, I let him know I was there to honor him for his contribution to my life and that no matter what had transpired between us, I’d grown because of him. Suddenly, while sitting there, the huge sprinklers came on. I got soaked — and the metaphor didn’t escape me.
May you find healing and wholeness also!
David Christel is a former professional dancer and computer-based training expert. For 18 years, he worked with Persons With AIDS on health and healing, as well as death and dying issues with their families. He is the author of Married Men Coming Out: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming the Man You Were Born to Be.