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.
There’s a grave lack of spiritual maturity among men, especially in older men. Just ask any man who trusts you enough to be vulnerable with you: has he 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 a man 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 come to a fork in the road and choose one of three paths to finish out your life:
Do you know what your father chose?
The highest point of growth for a father becomes the ceiling he sets 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.
The man I grew up with spent his time numbing himself from the pains of life. He saw himself as a victim of divorce, rejection, and grave injustices which he blamed anyone who dared to get too close to him.
Occasionally, he would climb out of this hole.
There was a period he tried to choose acceptance and surrender shortly after his grandchildren were born. For a brief moment, his ceiling expanded a bit and we had some sweet 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.
He called my mother a whore one last time, just as he hand done hundreds of times before. But for the first time, I showed him my anger—with raw affect, completely self-controlled, but fierce and blistering. It was the anger I hid from him as a boy because I was afraid he couldn’t handle it. I told him the whole truth.
Afterward he looked at me with a sober expression and said, “I’m not your biological father.”
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 could just stop calling him “Dad.”
The truth is this man did the best he could. But he couldn’t take responsibility for much of anything in his own life. Only now is it a little silly to think I wanted his 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 some profound importance of 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.
And along with that hope, the thought I could do something to help. Because he had no one else. Soon I’d get entangled in something I hoped would lead to reconciliation. But that choice is his alone. I can’t be the father to the father. I can only be the son and accept the limits of the father.
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.
This man gave me one last gift that turned out to be a spiritual blessing. The subconscious ceiling I carried with me has been shattered. He set me free, and for that, I am deeply humbled and grateful for his contributions to my life. Because of him, I can choose more acceptance and more surrender to everything life throws at me. Strength, humor, grace and wisdom are realistic possibilities these days, regardless of circumstance. When I was little, he was big and scary. Today I am bigger, stronger, wiser and more kind than he was when I was a boy. Now I can be the father that boy never had. And I hope the same for you.
May 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 that keeps you stuck in his shadow.