Recently, in a moment of rage, my father told me I wasn’t his biological son for the first time in my life. There’s no truth to this statement other than the lashing out that comes from a life of pain. But hearing the man I knew as my father speak these words didn’t break my heart. No, it broke something else: the ceiling he had set for me as a father myself.
His father said the same thing to him as a young man, and I imagine my grandfather’s father said it to him long before too.
We repeat what we know.
There’s a grave lack of spiritual maturity among men, especially in older men. Just ask any man who trusts you if he’s ever felt genuinely known, accepted and loved by an older and wiser father figure. It’s a rare gift for those who have received it.
Most men aren’t so lucky.
At some point along the journey of life, it becomes easier for men to stop growing – to give up on developing any further as a person. But life keeps on moving with or without us. You either die young or grow old enough to choose one of three paths to finish out life:
- NUMB OUT: escape the pain of daily existence with consumerism, working ourselves to death, addiction, endless interest scrolling or Netflix.
- FIGHT AGAINST THE WORLD: try to go against the momentum threatening your youth with complaining, bitterness, resentment, anger and depression.
- SURRENDER TO ALL LIFE GIVES YOU: accept both the good and bad of your circumstances without holding on too tightly; experience each moment deeply and fully let it go as you become a partner in and co-creator of your own life that goes well beyond the limits of any given circumstance.
Do you know what your father chose?
The highest point of growth for a father becomes the ceiling for his son. Beyond this mark is the dark unknown where we don’t know if anything exists outside it. This leaves many of us with the subconscious belief we can grow no further than what our father has done before us. Perhaps we’ve tried to pass this point but were often weighed down by insecurity, self-doubt, and the temptation to slip into more comfortable and familiar territory.
What we experience is all we know and usually becomes the ceiling for what we can imagine as possible.
My father spent my childhood numbing himself, seeing himself as a victim of life’s grave injustices and blaming anyone who dared to get too close to him.
When his grandchildren were born, there was a period he tried to choose acceptance and surrender. For a brief moment, his ceiling expanded a bit and we had some nice connections. But he ultimately couldn’t face the pain that comes with being open and vulnerable. Instead, he became defensive – fighting everything and everyone – becoming increasingly bitter, mean and lonely.
As I became a father myself, l knew I had to carve out a completely different path, and I have for the most part. I’ve been fortunate enough to be loved by a few great men whose lives have shown a light beyond the limits of my own ceiling. Without a doubt I’ve learned and I’ve grown; no one would dare confuse me for my father. But the daily grind of life can still wear me down.
For every few steps forward, there’s one or two backward. Despite all my inner work, the default would too often reset back to the ceiling he set. If I saw any of him in me, I would feel shame. It was hard not to think of myself as a father in relation to him as a father – until the day he disowned me. His words were intended for harm. But it turned out to be his very best gift to me. Suddenly, a whole new world of possibility opened up. I just stopped calling him “Dad.”
The truth is my father did the best he could. But he couldn’t take responsibility for much of anything in his own life. It’s a little silly to think I wanted this man’s approval for something he never really had. He didn’t have any insights into my identity as a man. He couldn’t tell me who I was as a son or guide me into what is really important in life. He was emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. But I still called him my dad because I had always called him Dad.
Inadvertently, that name gave me way too much hope he could become more than he was capable of becoming. I held onto a hidden belief he would someday change.
But that choice is his alone.
I first stopped expecting anything from my father as a boy; I hid my needs and numbed myself. Then I stopped longing for it as a young man, and I fought against the world of male authority. Then I stopped the wishful thinking that hoped for a miracle as a father myself and thought I had completed the task of separation. But I didn’t really let any of it go until I could work through and fully experience my feelings of anger, pain and grief. Only then could I see I don’t owe anything more to this man.
I call him the name everyone else calls him now.
His name no longer implies we have a unique relationship of mutual obligation that became toxic when used to justify the pain he would caused. Now he’s just a guy I used to know. I’ve finally walked away from the guilt, self-doubt, and vindictive blame from him I associated with fatherhood.
These days, I am choosing more acceptance and surrender to everything life throws at me. Strength, humor, grace and wisdom are realistic possibilities. The ceiling has broken. I am bigger, stronger, wiser and more kind.
I am becoming the father I’ve always needed, right now.
I hope you do too. I hope you find acceptance and freedom wherever your relationship with your father is right now; and, if you haven’t already, may you find a way to break through your own ceiling.