In my last post I shared how I’ve discovered that for all men, the affirmation of their manhood by their fathers is the key to unlocking their full potential. I also talked about how a lot of mature adult guys I’ve worked with have showed incredible growth after receiving from their fathers a stamp of approval.
I realize that the prospect of engaging with your father on a feelings-level topic, particularly if you aren’t closely connected to him, is a real risk. And I also realize that for some of you, the results of that conversation might not turn out the way you hope. So let me attempt to address men at all different points along this path.
“I didn’t get this kind of approval and my dad is already gone”
This is a tough one I admit. How can you heal a relational wound if your dad has passed? I was working with a 65 year old gentleman several years ago. Frank readily admitted he had scrapped and clawed in the business world, hoping year after year his dad would notice what he was accomplishing. That conversation never occurred and Frank’s dad had now been gone for a decade. As with many emotional scars there is a way to deal with this and it begins with realizing that healing can come from taking the focus off yourself and looking for opportunities to help other people. I asked Frank how he had handled affirming his own grown sons. He admitted that both of them probably felt similarly to how he felt – left alone to guess what their dad thought about them. I suggested he make a move to have a brief but meaningful conversation with each of them and tell them what he thought of them.
Several weeks had passed when I ran into Frank again and he was beaming with excitement about what had taken place in those conversations. His sons were both shocked that he had made the effort to engage them on an emotional level and were deeply moved by his words of affirmation. Frank told me “just knowing that I broke the cycle of silence in our family has really helped me and now I want do the work to reconnect with my boys”. If you didn’t get your dad’s approval and it isn’t possible anymore the key is look outward. If you don’t have a son or daughter then look for a young man in your place of work. Point out whatever it is you see him doing that is laudable – he’s working hard, he does a great job balancing work and family, he serves others, he leads with humility or he genuinely cares for others. In life, often times removing the focus off of ourselves and looking for opportunities to serve others is the only elixir to heal our hearts.
“You don’t know my dad, he won’t even speak to me”
As I pointed out in part 1, some of you will have to muster incredible courage to reach out to a father with whom relational ties are severed. But I can tell you my friend Brad, whose story I shared in part 1, would encourage anyone in that situation to pull together every last ounce of courage and make it happen. Even if you don’t get what you want out of the conversation there is a healing that can take place and for the few brave guys I have had the chance to see pull this off, they have all been better on the other side.
“Ok, I’m willing but how do I even bring this up with my dad, it seems so awkward”
This is where I give you the secret to having this conversation with your dad. Scoot up on the edge of your seat and bend an ear. I have developed a foolproof method for you to overcome the anxiety of the awkwardness and get right to the point. You ready? Here it is. Schedule a lunch or breakfast with your dad, let him know you have a question you’d like to ask him and then over a meal look him in the eye and say, “Dad, I read an article the other day that said it’s difficult for men to live their best lives unless their dads have given them affirming feedback about their manhood – and it just made me wonder what you thought of me and how I’m doing?”
I remember the first time my father bragged on me in front of another man. Growing up my family owned a Christmas tree farm. It was not my parents’ sole source of income, they both worked full-time jobs, my father in retail flooring and my mother as a school teacher. They worked this additional job on summer weeknights and summer weekends as a source of additional income for my brother and me to attend college. Christmas trees don’t grow perfectly conical as most people imagine, they have to be trained to grow in that iconic shape. And that training requires hand-trimming of each tree yearly. Most summers my parents would let my brother and I recruit 2 friends each and with this small army we’d tackle the task. But the summer of my 12th year was different. My brother, due to various school functions, sports practices and having wisdom teeth removed was unavailable for most of the summer trimming season. My mother also had surgery that summer putting her out of commission. My father, who amazingly would work 8-5 on summer weekdays, would then come home, grab a sandwich and load the truck with our gear and we would trim trees on those slowly fading summer evenings until dark. For nearly that entire trimming season it was just dad and I, and with 35,000 trees to trim, it was a tedious and mostly unsatisfying task. Until one evening, after intensely hot hours of work, dad and I stopped to drop a chainsaw off for some repairs. The guy who was doing the repairs was one of those guys any young boy would look up to. First off James had a beard, which was awesome. Secondly he normally had grease-stained hands that were readily covered up with work gloves when the task required it. He was also incredibly winsome, humble and generous with his time and talents. James was always willing to help and you just knew he was the definition of hard work. After the hard day of trimming I must have looked pretty tired a smiling James quipped “Sam you look like you’re ready for a break”. Before I could answer my dad interjected “well he should look tired he’s trimmed 17,000 Christmas trees”. My dad was bragging on me. And not only so, but he was bragging on me to a guy that I knew appreciated a hard days toiling. In that moment, I would have headed right back to the fields and started trimming until my hands bled. My father’s affirmation of my efforts gave me a dose of energy and determination and grit that you can’t get anywhere else.
Some years later I found myself with a good albeit emotionally distant relationship with my dad. I spent a summer with 40 other college students working and living together in community just before my sophomore year of college. During that summer we would spend evenings in workshops on spiritual development and leadership training. One of the courses had to do with our relationships with key figures in our lives and how they impact us. When we got to the section on fathers and their integral role I realized that while I had a good relationship with my dad I wasn’t real clear on what he thought of me. They ended the session encouraging us to find avenues to build bridges into our fathers lives and connect or reconnect on an emotional level. I remember the first time I called home after this session ended. My dad answered the phone and as normal he said “let me get your mother”, I swallowed hard and said “no dad I called to talk to you”. Over the next couple of years I continued to look for ways to connect with my dad. We both realized we had a common interest in philosophical thought and how it pertains to spiritual truth. We went to a conference together and began reading similar books and discussing ideas. It was great to find that common ground.
Two years later, when I was making a decision to spend a year of my life in a foreign land, doing something I wasn’t sure I knew how to do, with a team of people I didn’t know, I was understandably anxious. I knew in my heart I was doing what God wanted me to do but I was young and unsure of myself and very restless with my decision. When I got on the plane I was nearly in tears with anxiety and was fishing in my pocket for my boarding pass so I could find my seat and my hand found an envelope that I hadn’t put there. Inside was a note from my dad that read “Sam – you know, I must be the luckiest guy in the world. I have always been proud of you, but I have never been more proud than now”. Even during the most difficult times of that year, I would dig that note out and read it and find everything I needed to push through the lonely moments. Although I hadn’t yet worked up the courage to directly ask my dad what he thought of me, I was incredibly blessed that he made the move to do so without my prompting and it gave me a great foundation as I prepared to move into the next phase of life.
That experience gave me a new understanding of the passage in the bible from the book of Matthew in chapter three when John the Baptist baptized Jesus. If you know the story at all, you’ll remember John first protests and says “hey wait a second Jesus I shouldn’t be baptizing you, you should baptize me!” (my paraphrase). And while I realize that Jesus basically says that he has to be baptized to fulfill what was prophesied in the old testament it always seemed like something more was going on in that story. After Jesus comes up out of the water the bible says there was a voice from heaven that said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. Dads, this is textbook for what your sons need from you. Firstly that you identify with them. This is my son. Secondly that you love them and thirdly that you are proud of him. I used to think that the other story that was happening here was that God was using this moment as a great PR push for the ministry of Jesus. There was a crowd gathered after all. But I think now I lean in another direction. I think the statement from heaven wasn’t so much for the crowd as it was for Jesus who was getting ready to move into the mission of his life. A mission that would ultimately require him to allow himself to be hung on a cross to die. His father’s stamp of approval was an important launching point for him to be able to accomplish his most difficult task.
Two takeaways – if you haven’t gotten your father’s approval you can either be bitter about it or go get it. And secondly, if you can’t get it, then a great source of healing is being willing to give it to someone else.