A MEDITATION ON FATHERS & FATHERING IN HARD TIMES
Featuring a little Carl Jung, some James Hillman, and a dash of Zen
James Ishmael Ford
“When one has not had a good father, one must create one.”
Last year in a meditation on Father’s Day, I noted those jokes about children so often giving neckties on this day and how that implies something about the low level of attention Father’s Day often generates. I believe men are responsible for some of this lack of emphasis on its importance. A fair number of men perhaps thinking the holiday too sentimental for manly men. Sure. But there are other complications, I believe. When you stack up mothers and fathers, well, mothers for the most part are deeply involved in the lives of their children, while fathers are less so. With that less emphasis on the holiday. Generality, yes. And.
Others feel Father’s Day was created as an adjunct to a conspiracy hatched by the Greeting Card cartel. A view with which I admit I feel some sympathy. One article I found notes that here in America Father’s Day generates about a billion dollars in business. Probably not this year. But, normatively. That’s a lot of cards and neckties, especially for a holiday that often doesn’t get a whole lot of thought.
Our American holiday does seem to have been conceived as a complement to Mother’s Day. The earliest official celebration dates from 1910, when after years of lobbying Sonora Scott Dodd got Washington State to designate June 10th as a celebration for all things father. There was an attempt to create a Federal holiday as early as 1916. But it was met with resistance in congress. They appear to have feared it would become too commercial. I have to admit I don’t think of congress as being generally aware that such a thing could ever be problematic. But the world is full of wonders. Then in 1966 Lyndon Johnson issued a presidential proclamation stating Father’s Day should be observed on the 3rd Sunday in June. And, finally, in 1972 congress passed legislation making this official, and it was signed into law by Richard Nixon.
Like for Mother’s Day this is a fraught holiday. Drunken fathers, abusive fathers, absent fathers crowd up in the heart along with loving and attentive and caring fathers. And. Fathers, like mothers, well, we all have one. Maybe more than one. The biology of the matter is important, it kicks it off. But, after that things get complicated. Some fathers are good, some fathers are bad, many fathers are indifferent.
But and this is really important: fathers loom large in our consciousness and the stories we tell about them are always also about us. How we got to be who and what we are, and what we wish we might be, our parents weave into that narrative. Mothers and fathers.
With all that in the background, today let’s explore the image, the dream, and the reality of the father, the father writ large. Now, I have an ambivalent relationship with Carl Jung’s use of “archetype” as a sort of neo-platonic cosmic pattern for the things of this world. While I think Carl Jung, like Sigmund Freud, brought much of value to our exploration of the dark regions of our human hearts, they were flawed interpreters. Both fancied themselves as scientists. While in fact, they were poets. The confusion of the two things has left as much negative in their wakes as positive.
In his quest for the science of it, Dr Jung went so far as to fake up research when it didn’t match his assumptions. Specifically searching for the universality of archetypes he saw making up our human minds, we know of at least one critical example where his notes do not match the paper he wrote. Me, I get reactive to such things. But, as I let go of the claims to science behind the term, I think there is something to these images of our hearts.
While I don’t think there’s any cosmic place where archetypes live, we humans live and breathe and often die by metaphor. We understand things by how they’re similar and dissimilar to other things. Standing and walking, you can think of them as primary metaphors, images all human cultures use. And we find these metaphors in our parents, as well. Mother. There’s a reason George Floyd’s last word was not “I can’t breathe,” as sad and horrific and haunting as it is. But“Mama.” I’ve been told that in the stench of battlefields, what more dying men say than anything else, is “Mother.”
And then there is “Father.” It too has some place in our hearts. A powerful place. First our own father, and then by extension, the father. Father and fathers writ large. Psychologist Andrew Samuels tells us “The idea is that, behind the personal father whom we know and to whom we relate, lies an innate psychological structure which influences the way we experience him.” And as part of our inner lives, how we experience ourselves.
As I said I am wary of innate, other than in some most basic biological sense, but within the family structures of mammals and herding creatures, we see a number of relationships. The most basic is with our mothers, I suspect. But, then right after that, more distant, perhaps more dangerous, there are our fathers.
Jungian analyst Lisa Marchiano explains how “Our culture is awash in constellations of the negative father. The negative father is often punitive, rageful, withholding, ineffective, or selfish. ‘Petty tyrant’ is a phrase that many who grow up with a brutal, angry father use to describe him.
“Men in public life in positions of power or influence who use this for their own gain or prey on those who are weaker can be seen as examples of the negative father. The corporations which are to a large extent responsible for the heedless destruction of the environment are examples of the negative father energy in action. Politicians who capitalize on fear for their own gain are another example.”
The whole image of Patriarchy in all its hard-earned negativity speaks to that kind of father.
But, me, when I think of fathers, mostly I think of absence. I see a lot of young fathers today carrying their children and, perhaps still not a full fifty-fifty with mothers, definitely, worlds more involved with their children than was my experience, I feel pangs of longing and of guilt. For how I was raised. And, how I’ve lived.
And I think fathers and I think of absence. Apparently in neo-Jungian circles they’ve also turned toward that sense of absence. There’s a whole literature about something called “father hunger.” I get that lack and with it that longing. Very much.
My father’s generation are now called the Greatest Generation. And while the term Silent Generation is now used to mark a thin sliver of people between his generation and the Boomers, my generation, silence was in fact a leading characteristic among men of that generation embroiled in the Second world war. They mostly did not talk of the war that had engulfed them either from battle or because they did not go to battle. Shame and guilt crowd up with many other emotions. And in the years following so many rarely showed their emotions.
Speaking generally, there was a gap between the worlds of this deeply silent generation of men and mine, the so-called boomers. Now, my own father was rarely at the loss for a word. But the glibness, it seems to me from the advantage of some distance, it hid something. Another way of keeping silence, I suspect.
As a person who has embraced a spiritual discipline that turns on the power of silence, I have thought a lot about the silence of my father’s generation. It was mostly, it seems to me, a burying of things. The silences of my spiritual discipline is a fronting to what is. This other silence seems to be a turning away from. A burying as deeply as possible. A longing for forgetting.
And it created wounds. Of course. With its own longings. John Steinbeck, another man of that generation, in his first novel, Cup of Gold wrote “’Why do men like me want sons?’ he wondered. ‘It must be because they hope in their poor beaten souls that these new men, who are their blood, will do the things they were not strong enough nor wise enough nor brave enough to do. It is rather like another chance at life; like a new bag of coins at a table of luck after your fortune is gone.’”
Each generation hopes to fix itself in the raising of the next. Bubbling just beneath the surface of a generation’s experience is another view of the father. Successful or not, wounded always, there are larger visions of masculinity. The petty tyrant or absent parent are not the only options.
Analysist Lisa Marchiano describes a mature masculinity. She says “Mature masculinity as seen in the positive father is characterized by the following traits: wisdom, ordering, authority in the service of protection, generativity, justice, discipline, and courage. The positive father is he who is not afraid to wield power when required but will sacrifice himself to protect others if need be.”
Of course, one of the joys of our time and place is noticing how these traits, negative and positive are not owned by a gender. Rather just as we’re learning how the binaries of sexuality are not as fixed as the majority of us may have thought, also the inner landscape of our lives contains a great multitude. Our mothers are there. Always. As are our fathers. Always.
The question for us becomes how do we engage all this? Not whether. But how. If we ignore, well that is just one way of engaging, but a way with a far greater likelihood it won’t turn out well. That way the wounds are simply passed on. The sins of the fathers really are passed on generation to generation.
So, what is a healthy way of doing this? Here, today, in meeting our fathers? How do we keep the second commandment and honor our fathers and our mothers? The ones of the flesh, and the dream ones who occupy the backs of our minds and who whisper into our hearts? Whispers that may point true, but are also possibly lies? How do we sort these things out?
James Hillman is particularly important to me. Hillman, who, as long as we’re talking about complex relationships with one’s father, is an interesting example of someone who took his spiritual father, Carl Jung, and starting as his heir at the Jung Institute in Zurich, proceeded to dismantle much of his mentor’s work. That is until the board invited him to leave.
Hillman spent some time thinking about fathers, and absence. He reflected on this idea of the missing father, physically for some, metaphorically for others, that captures so many of our imaginations. Hillman observed how this missing father, “is not (simply) your or my personal father. He is the absent father of our culture, (to use a Jungian term) the viable senex (the lively elder) who provides not only daily bread but spirit through meaning and order.”
The “senex” in archetypal language is the “wise old man,” our image, usually although not exclusively, our positive image of what a man can grow into. The sad thing is that this figure is increasingly experienced as something missing.
I suspect this is a hall mark of our culture today.
That observation makes me think a lot of things. One is that longing itself. I know everyone doesn’t feel this way, but I believe I am not alone in that sense of longing for the father. Maybe, probably, not the actual father of the flesh. My father in the flesh, besides being dead, is a complicated, and not entirely lovable figure. Not much of the wise old man about him when he was breathing. But, rather, with Hillman, I am interested in the father writ large. And our collective desires, our communal lives, and what we need. That larger and the most intimate personal are not in fact that far apart. So, thinking about the father is thinking about what we seek, either consciously or unconsciously.
That bigger father, that, if you will, archetype is important because it suggests what we believe might make us whole, might make us what we can best be. And here we’re talking of wisdom. I think there is legitimately a longing for that senex figure, that wise man, and the traits that are traditionally associated with him. Specifically, this father not only supports us physically, providing food and clothing and shelter, he embodies kindness. He offers sound judgments on events that are confronting us. He brings a unique wisdom to the matter at hand, whatever it might be.
So, cutting through the things that are not helpful, and going for the heart, going for that other style of parenting, another angle on nurturing. On being. And with that a question: how do we own fathering as a part of our spiritual journey? And not for the lingering Greatest Generation, not even for us Boomers, but for Gen X, and the Millennials, and those who are now following them. In this moment. In this pregnant moment. Now, as we genuinely ask when we hold up women, when we hold up LGBTQ people, when we hold up people of color, when we hold up immigrants, when we hold up anyone who might be considered other: how do we become whole people? How do we father our fathers? And ourselves?
The answers are important. Because what we find is what we become.
And it is important. So important. As we all intimately know this world is torn asunder. It labors in pain.
And who we are is who deals with the hurt.
And so, what to do? With this I hear one of my spiritual fathers, the wonderful Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who sings to us of a Zen way for engaging. “We say, ‘A good father is not a good father.’ Do you understand? One who thinks he is a good father is not a good father; one who thinks he is a good husband is not a good husband. One who thinks he is one of the worst husbands may be a good one if he is always trying to be a good husband with a single-hearted effort”
Taking up the way wholeheartedly. Humbly. Grateful for the opportunity. Taking on this path of investigation and integration, embracing our lacks and finding who we are, often best symbolized by mothers and fathers, and today, focused on fathers, allows us to be better people. Happier. More focused.
And God knows, we need useful.