Back in college—during long weekends and breaks—I visited a lot of homes and met a lot of parents. It’s a strange thing to be invited into someone else’s home for the first time; it feels like you’re finally seeing where this person came from, why they act the way they do, where they got their sense of humor, why they don’t touch alcohol.
I remember thinking to myself so many times, Man… your family isn’t as normal as mine… you guys are so weird! Then came the humbling moment when my friends said the same thing after meeting my family. What, playing “in the manner of the word” (a game for actors) isn’t your cup of tea?
Somewhere along the line I started seeing a trend in the fathers I met. They seemed to fall into one of two categories: either they were distant from the family for some reason or another (work, alcohol, resignation; some just looked so worn out by life), while others came across as “cool” dads.
A number of friends referred to their dad as a “buddy.” These men were fun to be around. They joked with their sons and daughters. They knew the names of their kids’ friends and went surfing with everyone on the weekends. One friend of mine had a dad who preferred his son to call him by his first name. And something seemed to be missing.
Here’s what I mean: a friend of mine loves his dad. They get along well and aren’t too unlike each other. They really are buddies. And that’s wonderful. But my friend is also aimless and often makes choices that should get the attention of his father… only he never speaks up. He seems as lost as someone without a father in the picture at all.
That reminded me of Robert Bly’s book, The Sibling Society. Bly writes that in American culture people have stopped wanting to grow up, to face difficult choices, and other such coming-of-age posturing. The effect is a culture of peers who all stop maturing beyond their twenties, because to be free and spontaneous and easygoing is much better than facing moral dilemmas and making tough choices.
Thus we have become a society without elders, fathers, and sages. A society made up of siblings who are all equal and cannot guide one another or chide one another for poor choices, so we all wander around perpetually lost, seeking gratification in easy things.
I love that so many of my friends consider their dads as friends (as do I), but it can’t end with that. If your father is your buddy, then who is your father? We need figures in our lives that point to wisdom, offer guidance, and can help us on our way into manhood.
In Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces, he shows how all great stories follow the same basic structure—the “Hero’s Cycle.” Every hero beginning their journey needs a sage to come along and steer them in the right direction. Frodo has Gandalf; Luke has Obiwan; Maximus has Marcus; Wallace has his uncle Argyle. We all need this. For some, that can be our fathers, but all of us need more, myself included.
I’ve found fathering through the older men in my life, my pseudo-uncles who have played a role in my becoming a young man. Finding sages who can help to answer questions and guide us on our journey also comes through their voices recorded in ink; those that have gone before us have left their pieces of wisdom in books. Sometimes God will use nature to father me… in the sound of the wind or the sensation of accomplishment after a climb.
The ache for fathering runs deep in all of us, whatever our age. Our part is to be open to it, to seek it out, and to let older men speak into our lives.
For more on Sages and letting older men into our lives, check out the Killing Lions short film: Episode 4.