Most of us have heard our parents say, at some point, that they’ve tried their best to do better for us than their parents did for them. Most of us that are parents have figured out that they really meant it when they said that. It’s far too easy, though, to focus on where our parents have fallen short, and miss their sometimes herculean efforts to be better parents than their own.
My parents separated when I was 15. The ugly reality of divorce is that no matter how well all parties involved handle the aftermath, it’s still an aftermath! Take the classic teen-know-it-all-hormone-induced-confusion-and-angst of most 15-year-olds, couple it with a divorce and constant conflict with your father and what you get is a recipe for long term negative focus, to put it lightly. Complicating things, I misread my father for several years. You see, we have a lot in common – shared interests, personality traits, values, habits, vocal inflections, etc. It’s easy to assume you know the other person’s motives and intent when you have so much common ground. About ten years ago, one of my sisters had us take the Myers-Briggs assessment and I was amazed that my father and I both weren’t “ENTJ”. That was a critical moment for me, after which I really began to pay more attention to who my father was – and respect our differences. Gone were the arrogant presumptions – now replaced with at least some humility. Over the last two decades – and as a result of moments like those – my relationship with my father has improved beyond my expectations and hopes.
This year, my father’s birthday coincided with Father’s Day, and I took my oldest son with me to visit him for the weekend. I found myself thinking back over the stories he’s told me of his childhood. The youngest of 7 children – over 20 years separating him and his oldest sister (a sister who was more a mother to him than sister, and more grandmother to me than aunt). His mother died when he was 14. His father was, by all accounts, a good man, but strong on discipline and sparse with praise and emotional connection. I learned this weekend that his father never took him camping or canoeing – something he did with me for many years when I was young. And it occurred to me that those weekend trips (and many were week-long trips) that my dad took with me cost him real vacation time & rest. Canoeing 50 miles, while tons of fun, isn’t terribly relaxing or easy on the muscles and back! Many dads simply want to sleep on the couch during a football game, rather than in a tent in a south Georgia swamp, cooking cheap hot dogs over fires made with wet firewood. What 42-year-old wants to don a backpack and hike sections of the Appalachian Trail with a bunch of 12-year-old boy scouts? My dad did. He made the choice to do something with me that I loved, something his father never modeled or did for him.
Our parents are children, too, just like us. They carry their own set of hopes, fears and disappointments which they shared with their own parents. I am tremendously fortunate that, regardless of all the ‘aftermath’ of coming from a broken home, both of my parents have fought hard to give me a better life than what they had. I’m not dismissing or trivializing the challenges – don’t get me wrong, divorce sucks. There are years we can’t get back, and words all of us wish we could forget having ever said. But then the picture of redemption arrives. Maybe at first it’s just fragile ‘green shoots’. But it grows up in the presence of – in spite of – the pain, difficulty and scars, almost as if to prove to the hurt that it can’t be stopped or overcome. Redemption, by its very nature, not only rescues us, but laughs in the face of our former captor. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (Psalm 23: 5)