It was worse than a slap in the face.
After some intensive one-on-one vocational and personal counseling as part of the process toward ordination, I made the commitment to work on the problematic relationship I experienced with my father. I attributed issues with self-esteem as stemming from the passive-aggressive criticism he leveled my direction, as well as the lack of affirmation that characterized his apparent view of me. Over dinner a few nights after returning from the combined counseling session, I told my dad that I felt there were issues interfering with a healthy relationship between us, and I wanted to work to address them together. He paused briefly as his fork pushed some food around on his plate. Then he looked at me and said calmly, "I'm not interested in doing that."
I don't remember the rest of that evening, but I do recall that the "dead end" sign planted by my father's words catalyzed a journey of new awareness for me. Though disappointed, and not terribly surprised, that the hoped-for, tandem effort of father-daughter transformation was not in the offing, I knew that I could undertake my side of the work without his participation.
In short, what was required of me was to step back from what I needed and wanted from my father and to consider him as an individual. When I did that I was able to consider what I knew of his life and experiences, and his own hopes and heartbreaks. In doing so, what I saw was a wounded man who embraced blaming others as a way to come to terms with mistakes and poor choices. No one helped him in his formative years to develop healthy coping skills, and in spite of spending several years in therapy to deal with a divorce, he grabbed onto the idea of the tools and techniques toward healthy relationships to which he was exposed rather than actually integrate them into his being.
When I stepped back, I saw a man limited in terms of what he could, and would, bring into his relationship with me. Once I recognized this reality, it freed me from the expectations of who he could be to me as a father. It was a sad realization, but accepting it opened the door to enjoy my father for who he was, rather than be disappointed that he was not who I wanted him to be. It altered our relationship, at least for me, and probably for him. It also provided for me the tool of learning to step back and take a second look at other relationships in my life. My father's refusal to engage with me at that critical period of growth opened a pathway of compassion and empathy that has made it possible to love and embrace others when their words, actions, or choices made it otherwise difficult to do so. What began as a stinging setback became, instead, a gift that has served me well in ministry, and in my own life. The depth of my gratitude for that cannot be measured.
One of the wisdoms of the world is not to take things personally. Adopting this new paradigm of relating with my father hugged the learning curve of that wisdom. What he did or did not do, said or did not say, was a reflection of him and his world, and not about me. This applies to all of us and to the ways that we interact with and react to the world.
When my father died, others in his life spoke of him as a kind of hero. I accept, gladly, that he could be that person to them, and that his impact on the world was a positive force that helped shape lives in helpful ways. We never know the fullness of who a person is, even when we share some of the most intimate and battle-tested episodes of their lives. It is part of the joy, frustration, and mystery of life that we are given glimpses into the beauty that is another human being. The challenge to each of us is to work to believe that there is goodness and value in every person, even when the image we see reflects less than that reality.
My father gave me this gift. It is with a deeply loving heart that I share it every day with others, with gratitude.