The Zen Minister Considers His Father and Dreams of our Fathers

The Zen Minister Considers His Father and Dreams of our Fathers September 21, 2022



My father James William Ford was born in New Jersey today, the 21st of September, in 1919.

I don’t know all that much about his life before he married my mother.

Some years ago my spouse Jan and I took genetic tests as Christmas presents for each other. One of the interesting things about how mine turned out is that I couldn’t find any other Fords. I briefly thought maybe James wasn’t my biological father. But the sad fact that I not only was his namesake, but in reality I was his favorite, leads me to think the most likely broken link in the genealogical chain is him.

My understanding as best it is, was that his parents died when he was quite young. He was passed around some and eventually ended up in an orphanage. Realizing he might have been an embarrassment as well as an inconvenience makes the orphanage thing make more sense. that and the fact we had no connections to the larger family that I have any memories of.

By sometime in his adolescence he found himself on the streets of New York. He flirted with crime, but wasn’t particularly good at it. After a stint in prison, possibly as part of an early release program James joined the Army and became a medic in the Second World War. He was badly wounded during combat in Italy and permanently lost the use of his right arm.

After he was mustered out, he took the advice of friends who said if you want to get married and you want a nice girl, you have to go to a church. Church doesn’t appear to be where he normally spent his Sundays. But, for reasons beyond my kin, the birthright Catholic, and by the time I knew him a mocking atheist, James chose to attend a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Oakland, California. (The CMA is an accidental denomination formed by independent Baptists who joined together for mission work. They are very conservative, believing Southern Baptists to be dangerously liberal and not at all sure American Baptists are actually Christian.)

With that he met Barbara June Bernard at that church. Barbara also came from hard times. She deserves her own story. But this is about my father and fathers. So, here only this little bit more. Barbara had been engaged to a young man, but he was killed during the war. And this was the situation when Barbara met James.

And James was very handsome and very charming. Charming as the devil. The courtship was a whirlwind, and they married.

I was born in Oakland, California, on the 17th of July 1948. My brother, Donald, was born in San Francisco the next year. For his whole life my father was never able to settle down. During my childhood, we never lived anywhere two years running. James just passed from job to job, always on the look out for the next best thing. Occasionally he ended up in jail, frequently holding the bag for someone else.

For the last several decades of his life, James worked as a bartender.

Aways with compromised health, exacerbated by serious alcoholism, he died on the 22nd of April, 1973.

He was fifty-four years old.

I think of my father. For all he was. Drunk. Often absent. Occasionally abusive. Of course, I guess of course, we were desperately poor. And. As a child he constantly said “I love you.” And as I mentioned, a wound of its own as I was also his favorite. The one who was taken on fishing trips. For my brother that would always be, “I’ll take you next.” Somewhere along the line I noticed. My brother never did not notice. He was the man I hated in my adolescence with an incandescent heat. He was the man I pitied and wished was not shackled to my mother as I rolled into adulthood. He was the mystery of the rest of my adult life.

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. And with that 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.

So, 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. A term I do not successfully wrap my head around. While the term Silent Generation is now used to mark a thin sliver of people between his generation and the Boomers, my generation, that’s how I think of my father’s 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.

Although when he was drunk he would remember a couple of events, particularly one terrible battle. A battle I heard enough that it is in fact one of my most looming memories of my childhood.

That noted, speaking generally, there was a gap between the worlds of this deeply silent generation of men and mine, the so-called boomers. And, in addition to that drunken story, 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.

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.

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.

More useful.

And God knows, we need useful.

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