How to Make Your Father’s Insults Mean Nothing

Yo, friends. Hey, from the bottom of my heart I want to thank you guys for the love and prayers you’ve been sending my way. You have heartened and encouraged me. It’s meant a great deal to me. Thank you.

My dad is significantly healthier than we expected. Accompanied by his visiting physical therapist, he yesterday shuffled to the end of the short block outside his house and back. Not exactly ESPN material. But also not exactly teetering on the edge of a grave.

From his kitchen window I watched him in the glow of the afternoon sun making his way down the sidewalk. He’s so thin now, and stooped. He moves so hesitantly. As I stood watching him, my wife Catherine put her arms around me.

With my eyes still on him, I said, “In a play he once did, he leaped backwards, from a dead stand, up and over a couch. It was an amazing thing to see. He’s standing in front of a couch, when something surprising happens—a gunshot, or whatever—and his instant fear response is to leap up, fly backwards, and land perfectly standing behind the couch. It was crazy. What made it so surprising is that he didn’t seem to bend his knees before he leaped. He didn’t squat and jump. He was just … suddenly, shockingly airborne. It completely stopped the show, every night.”

What a physical specimen my dad was. Six-four, fast as lightening, and crazy loose.

Anyway, some of you have expressed the slightest concern that I might not be sort of emotionally all right just now. I appreciate that love! But please, set to ease whatever concerns of that sort you might have.

I have always made a Giant Point, internally, to cleave to the truth. This isn’t hard to do, of course: the truth isn’t some shrouded mystery we have to lure forth from of its deep, dark cave. It’s always right there before us, so clear and obvious a child can see it. (Well, children can’t not see it.)

So I always knew the truth of my dad. He was unhappy. He was angry. He couldn’t show love. He hid from any sort of emotional engagement. His gift with language was almost a curse, insofar as it allowed him to be so funny, and so charming, that he could always get tons of love, without having to give any love at all.

The man is funny. That’s pretty much his whole thing in life.

Anyway, I’ve always known that my choice in life was to hang with the truth—to insist on its validity; to refuse to pretend it’s anything than exactly what it is; to let it tell me what it is, instead of visa-versa. I could do that, or … not do that.

I’ve seen what happens to the lives of people who don’t do that, who insist they can create for their own an enduring truth more real than the real truth. I was seeing it from the second I was born.

Yeah, no thanks.

You go out and grind yourself to death in a job you hate.

You get married to women you don’t even like.

You spend your life hating the world because you can’t control it.

You have children you wouldn’t know from strangers.

You be that guy.

I’ll be the guy who … well, first of all, gets the fuck out of the house you created as soon as he possibly can.

Um. Not to be angry or anything.

Anyway, here I am, now, back in my dad’s house!

Ahhh. The cycle of life.

Except as much as it’s a cycle it’s a straight line, running directly from birth to death.

And throughout all the time you walk that line, you either hold hands with the truth, or you go it go alone, blind and staggering, hoping you don’t get hit by a car, or trip, or fall down a manhole.

Um … We interrupt this blog to report that at this moment my dad’s in the kitchen, trying to make oatmeal. He’s loudly moaning and groaning, greatly huffing and puffing. Thus does he let me know that he wants me to come and help him.

So I will. I’ll do it wrong, of course, and piss him off. And he’ll call me stupid.

And, for the zillioneth time in my life, I’ll then feel the truth right beside me, its warm arm on my shoulder.

And my father’s words, as ever, will (alas) mean nothing.

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com/ Ric Booth

    Well, children can’t not see it.

    Truth.

  • Mary G

    John, darling, I love, love, LOVE your relationship with Truth. I want that same relationship to stay by my side when family says things that aren’t true. I want that warm arm of Truth on my shoulder.

    Thank you for this visual. I will work very hard to adopt that.

    {{{{HUGS!!!!}}}}

    Mary

  • Mary

    Love you.

  • Melissa Chamberlin

    Don’t you just love it when you get ready to visit your dad, you somehow convince yourself that it isn’t going to be that bad…this time. That he changed, somehow, because everyone else grows and learns, so obviously he has. There is almost a renewed hope. Then you get there….

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      I personally have never had the experience of even for a moment thinking that my dad might change. Mount Everest will sooner become a speed bump. But I know what you mean, of course. Awful!

      • Tim

        From my earliest recollections until the day my dad came to Christ (I was almost 30), I never thought he would either…but he did. And I’m grateful I had 24 years of a good relationship with a man who thought my last name was Goddammit. Not saying your dad will have a conversion of heart, but it’s always my hope and prayer.

        I think I understand what you mean about the relationship. I used to have a beautiful relationship with my wife before she divorced me. But what we had chosen together, she let go for something else. Relationship is a choice. Love is a choice when you get down to it.

      • Melissa Chamberlin

        Never? Really? The adult in me always rationalizes the childhood horrors away, perhaps for survival. No worries, I always get slapped back into reality. I don’t think I will ever see him again, and really , I am ok with that. I am perfectly ok with that for sure.

  • http://awonderouslife.wordpress.com mzklever

    John, I’ve often wondered what would happen if just once, the truth reached over and slapped my mom upside the head. I’m with you, in thoughts and prayers, and experience. You’re a survivor. That’s what happens when we face the truth for what it is. We make it. The ones who try to live in that fantasy world of “someday my parents will realize how awful they were to me, and they’ll apologize, and all will be forgiven”…well, they’re usually not quite as lucky.

    Hold fast to that truth, and always know that no matter what your dad thinks/feels/says, you have a whole world of other people that recognize you as a fantastic person, a man who gets things done, a man who is working to make the world a better place. You are loved.

  • Crystal

    I’m glad you’re doing okay with the situation. It’s good that you have such clarity and internal strength. I wish I had more of that . . . it seems I’m always getting truth and hope mixed up. When I’m away from the situation, I can see truth, but when I’m in it, I always get mixed up with some dumb hope.

  • Melissa

    It’s time to replenish your bucket John! A wise friend once told me that I was always dipping into my bucket to give all of my good stuff to other people, and one day I’d go to dip into my bucket and it would be empty. Luckily I recognized this before my bucket ran dry, and now I’m working on building back up my reserves. It’s okay for me to save the best parts of me for me. I don’t feel like I have to give the best of me away to people who don’t recognize or appreciate it. I still try to be a good friend and listener, however I have learned to not be so INVESTED in the outcomes of events in other peoples lives. People make choices that determine the outcomes, usually differently than I would have chosen for them. When I’m dealing with a difficult person, I just keep telling myself that we both have life lessons coming to us, and that even though it may be painful to watch, I may have to watch that person CRASH so that they “get” the life lesson. Much like letting your children fall or fail, they have to experience some things for themselves.

    I think it’s very wise of you to acknowledge your true feelings here on your blog, as you have to “feel” feelings to deal with them. Best of luck to you and your family John, stay focused on your journey and let others have their journey also. Because we are giving and compassionate people, often when we think we are helping, we are denying people the opportunity to grow and receive the life lessons that are coming to them.

  • http://leap-of-fate.com/ Christy

    Anne Lamott says it this way: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different childhood.”

    Hearing about you go through this with your Dad, I’m beginning to see how knowing the truth, yet being angry with it, is still a form of not fully accepting it and still wanting it to be different.

    What a long journey it is….

  • Suz

    You. Are. Amazing. Understanding his misery is hard enough, but experiencing it up close and personal has to be wearing. Peace to you.

  • berkshire

    When you talk about how abusive he is, I can picture myself in the situation, and as soon as he bitches about the oatmeal, I either dump it out and tell him to make his own, or eat it myself.

    Here’s the thing–and know that, even as I write this, I get that you are forgiving and trying to do the ‘right’ and loving thing, as Christ would. I get that–what you describe reminds me of things I’ve seen on your own blog about abusive relationships. Why do women stay in abusive relationships?

    Why do adult-children stay in abusive relationships?

    I’m trying to figure out what makes this situation different, what makes it a situation where it makes sense to stay and take abuse from someone. If it was a woman being abused by her husband, and he was enfeebled and declining, would you tell her she should stay out of a sense of duty or for some other reason, even though she’s being screamed at, insulted, emotionally abused, manipulated, etc? I can’t imagine you doing that.

    So it’s hard to reconcile that with what you’re describing now. Don’t you feel at all worthy of respect and consideration, let alone gratitude? Why should other people leave abusive relationships that have shown they will *never* change, but you should remain and tolerate it, knowing that he will *never* change? What’s behind that?

    [that's more a rhetorical question, of course. You don't owe me an answer at all. This is just what I'm pondering as I read]

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      I’m not in a relationship with him–or, at least, the one I’m in with him couldn’t be more minimal. I’ve seen him … I don’t know, maybe five times in the last thirty-five years. I did this because I knew it would the last time I’d ever see him before he died. And I’m at least that interested in him, and what he has meant to me. (Also, we do have a choice about whom we marry. I am in a relationship with my father, whether I want to be, or ever see him, or not. We’re born into a relationship with our parents. In some very critical ways, that’s hardly the same thing as choosing and marrying a spouse.)

      • berkshire

        True enough about choosing the relationship versus being born into it.

        But abuse is still abuse, as far as I can tell. I hate to see decent people tolerate it, regardless of the nature of the relationship (i.e. chosen, not chosen). No one deserves that.

        Nevertheless, even though you are his child, you’re no longer *a* child, so it’s certainly up to you. Perhaps having an end date for the trip (and thus, to the close-proximity abuse) helps one to cope with it. It’s just a shame that it comes down to choosing that (abuse) if you want to be at all connected to him. I hope the remaining days of the trip go swiftly for you.

        • DR

          I completely see your point. Though as one who ha a very abusive set of parents, you actually can get to the place where being with them does not mean you experience the abuse. Theay act abusively, their brokenness may be permanent but i never feel abused by my parents anymore, even when they still act that way. Their power is gone.

      • Diana A.

        It sounds to me as though you’ve drawn fairly strong boundaries in your relationship with your father. This is good. I imagine that you’re self-aware enough so that if those boundaries began to slip, you’d be able to exit the situation before getting trapped in it. And, of course, you have your wife’s support as well–which is good. What DR said is probably what you feel as well–or at least close to it.

    • Cheryl Hannah

      One of the things that I have found that makes it easier to cleave to the truth is to recognize that the way a person reacts has nothing to do with me, but rather it comes from their “stuff”. They may try to run a racket on you and tell you that it is your stuff, but really, As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. And out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and all that kind of stuff. I recently eloped and my friends staged an “intervention” for me because they hadn’t met my husband before I married him and they were concerned that I had done something crazy. Their concerns were varied and in the end had nothing to do with what i actually did and a whole lot to do with their own stories and the meanings they gave my actions based on their own stories.

      Anyhow, kudos to you, John. Looks like you know the difference between people’s rackets and what really is. That is likely what is giving you the ability to do what you think you ought to do and the objectivity that keeps you from being caught up in your father’s stuff.

  • Debra

    You are lovely in spirit. Sending you love and light and indomitable truthyness.

  • http://asad123.wordpress.com Asad

    “Except it’s not a cycle, is it? It’s a straight line, running directly from birth to death.” I believe life is cyclical, that we come from God and ultimately return to God. Also, even biologically, aging and death do resemble a second infancy in certain ways, such as the loss of strength and the increased dependence on others for basic needs.

    • Don Rappe

      Let’s compromise. It’s a parabola.

  • http://www.barnmaven.com Barnmaven

    I know it has to be hard as hell right now to maintain balance and sanity – you’re doing beautifully. I wish I had a tenth of the grace you exhibit toward your dad.

  • http://blueberrypancakesfordinner.wordpress.com/ Erika

    john. you just rock.

  • Rebecca

    John, thank you for sharing this. I have been having a very difficult time dealing with my father’s words and rejection. If only I can find the elusive truth over my shoulder….

    • Melissa Chamberlin

      The elusive truth over your shoulder says the exact opposite of what your father’s words do. They are loving, kind, affirming and gentle. They come from Christ, and they are yours. Believe. <3

  • http://dressmytruth.blogspot.com Jeanine Byers Hoag

    You are surely made of stronger stuff than I am. Because I would surely be telling him to fuck off. Probably every day!

  • Don Rappe

    Thanks for sharing your life. I lost my Dad almost 50 years ago when I was a young man. He blessed me by never rejecting or belittling me. He was proud of me. When I graduated college and became a high school teacher, he, already feeble minded, would brag to people that I had become a “professor” as his German oriented teachers had been called. My oldest memory is of a shiny black shoe, about the size of a sofa, containing a great foot wearing a black silk sock visible from about the ankle down, and the wordless thought “my father”. He was 6′ 2” small farm town boy and did not play athletic games much. He loved to dance and play musical instruments and sing in a barber shop quartet. I loved him with a kind of love which is not like others I have. Love never ends. It does not feel to me like a “choice” I made. I can share your memory of that actor man who leapt backward over the sofa. May the love of God continue with you.

    • Mindy

      beautiful, Don. simply beautiful.

  • Kim

    Still saying prayers for you all. Hugs.

  • Mindy

    Strength like that of a body-building bear – your spirit is beyond powerful, John Shore. Your sharing all of this may be healing for you, but I see it as so generous, you probably have no idea how much you are helping so many of us. Perspective. Truth. Wow. Thank you. And yes, children can’t NOT see it. Truer words have not been said . . .

    Always, you are in my thoughts and prayers.

  • http://briansp.com Brian

    My therapist gave me a mantra this week: I am not eight years old now. Seems obvious, but its a good and gentle reminder. Peace to you as you go through this complicated and difficult time with your father.

  • Danielle Verot

    You are an amazing man, John. You ‘father” so many in a lot of ways – to help us remember time and time again that ‘to thine own self be true’ is both an invitation of the spirit and a challenge within the soul.

    I share this, not as a comparison of wounds, but as a moment shared of “looking out that window,” to a man that we have every reason to despise for so much pain as much as we have to grieve over so much loss.

    My father was the most respected and giving man – outside the doors of his home, where he was selfish, unavailable and quite often explosively verbally and physically abusive. He was also clueless on how to be a husband, father or a protector of his wife and children. Long story short, I was being sexually abused by a family member – one that my father had no control over and even feared. One night I fought back and cried out for my father to help me. He opened the door and the abuser threatened him. My father closed the door. From that night forward, nothing I said in the family was to be believed. Both my abuser and my father’s alliance was to discredit me, if that makes sense. From that night, who I was or whatever I needed wasn’t worth much, in my environment and in my own self-perception.

    I will spare you of all of the years in between and get to the part about when he became terminally ill and turned to me. It was hard not to feel superior – as suddenly the one who his helpless, defeated self was in my hands. It took me some time to realize during those last months of his journey that I was feeling victorious – for being “selected” and placed in the perfect position to prove what a good and valuable daughter I had really been all along – in hopes that he would suffer that realization greater than the ravishes of his illness – for which I had the utmost compassion.

    One night he called out for me in the middle of the night and I got up and went to his bedside. He said “I’m afraid.” I asked, “of what”? and he wouldn’t answer. I finally got the courage to ask, “of not waking up daddy, are you afraid of dying?” He said, “No. I’m afraid because I know that if there is a God, he could never forgive me for becoming the kind of man that my father was.”

    At that moment, I realized how easy it is to skip the part about asking God to show me what’s in my own heart that’s keeping me from hearing what’s in the heart of another. I sat up with my father through the night almost every night until the day he died – just a few weeks later. We talked a lot about the ideal father he would have liked to have been, if he could do it all over again. And, it was as a result of those conversations that I not only got to see into the deeper heart of a wounded man, but that he came to know and accept the unfailing love of Christ, before he died.

    I think that there is a path to a greater healing and progress than I could design in almost any given situation. And, I wish I would remember to always ask first what’s in my heart that could get in the way.

    Forgive me for blathering on. The truth is, I realize why I was compelled to recount that experience. The Spirit has been sending me a lot of “invitations” but my soul man has been playing “I don’t even know where to begin.”

    Which, by the way, Dear John Smart: realizations happen to me a lot when I come here and read your heartfelt, honest, wise and refreshingly amusing writings. You and your commenters inspire me so much to stop and consider what I am really thinking and feeling about what is being said, rather than just stay in a comfort zone.

    With deep respect for the revealing and self-honoring man that you are, John.

  • http://HP Mari Long

    My Dad is 89. He has NPD. I only learned this 2yrs ago. He became angry with my sister because she was trying to get him to be more self-sufficient and not expect her to cater to his needs. He told her she owed him that because he was not her biological Father. DNA says he is! He made up ? this elaborate lie about the kind of Mother we had. My sister is the one who gets the brunt of this not me. All of my life he has always looked at me with contempt. There is always something wrong with me. I only learned these things after an accident when he broke his neck. My sister and I had to care for him while he recovered. He was in a halo and had to be bathed and shaved and dressed. He acted as if we should do this for him to show our love for him. It was nauseatingly difficult for me to do. Now I no longer do any personal grooming for him or any other thing that he can do for himself. I wonder how common this is? He also found God in this time period. (I think that goes along with NPD) I might also add that my sister and I were both molested as children by a neighbor. We do not talk about it and Dad has never acknowledged it. I think I know exactly what you’re going through.!

  • Linda B

    John I went through something similar with my mom. A word of advise, Get Gardianship, put dad in the assisited living in San Dieago and go on with your life. he will survive and as you know he is not going to change so get on with what ever you have going and you can still do right by him.


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