You can do this exercise even if you don’t know your father. If you do or did, that is know him and felt loved and can say you had a great relationship, I thank him on everyone’s behalf (as do you). We need good men. Though, even if he wasn’t part of your life you can still take from this essay a kernel or two of wisdom. I’ll give you my example, you can take it from there.
Not all but many men have problem relationships with their fathers. The post-second world war period as the west re-industrialized under new technologies meant many men worked away from contact with their children for most of the day and week. Lots of men continue to make not much more than an evening appearance at home and spend scant time with family and children on weekends. Feminism probably didn’t help men’s contact with their children, especially as divorce laws were liberalized to favour mothers.
These six steps I used to deal with my father issues were important for me to gain perspective, to put things in black and white. I knew in the end where my anger came from, my nice guy compensation, and several other compromises I unknowingly accepted in developing my personality. I also learned to understand and accept several of my father-derived traits for which I had no prior appreciation, including a multi-generational understanding of influences. This helped me take better charge of my life.
First step: Acknowledge your father’s weaknesses and strengths while identifying which you have adopted as your own.
Undoubtedly, he left his mark in some way so take an inventory. First, put aside resentment if you have any and try to see things as objectively as you can. Even if you don’t know your father, your ma can give you hints: If you have a trait that is clearly from her, but others that are not, assume those other part of you came from dad. Simple elimination.
Write a list of characteristics and assign them accordingly.
Step two: Assert your reasons for change and gain leverage
Why do you want to do things differently than your father? Recognize, we exist in each other. Epigenetic influences on ancestral DNA are handed down for several generations through the methyl groups and are part of your soul. But you can still make decisions for yourself so it’s best to decide out of anger or out of love how you will proceed with your life. The better you understand the forces operating on how you got to where you are, the easier it is to steer yourself to a better existence. I was damned if I was going to parent as my dad did.
You are bound to have some of your father’s tendencies so it’s worth spending a bit of time deciding which to keep and which to update.
We exist in each other. I tell my kids when they are getting strapped into their car seats, “Watch your fingers, watch your toes, canteen open, canteen close,” the same ditty my father learned in the navy and he used to say to us when piling nine kids into a ’67 Pontiac Parisienne. When I repeat those words, my father in me is speaking.
There are stories of twins separated at birth who find each other decades later and they are dressing the same and have similar interests. While not as drastic as that perhaps between father and son, ancestry might be a third of soul. We can’t get away from that stuff so make peace with it.
Step three: Surmise where dad’s influences may have come from. He had parents and grandparents and lived in a different era.
This is where your natural curiousity comes into play. Even if you don’t know your father you can conclude quite a bit from the area of the country and the generation in which he grew up. These things are easily researched. What would a man who has these traits (name the ones you have that are not from mom) growing up in this area at this time be like? That’s what you’re dealing with.
How little or how much you know about your father’s background shouldn’t prevent you from doing this exercise. What’s important is you develop a narrative about his life that allows you to reconcile his existence in so far as it concerns yours.
In my case, I learned my dad was never accepted by his father. My father’s first memory was of his dad smacking his mom around in the kitchen when my dad was just four. He could hear them and remained frozen at the top of the stairs wanting to intervene but afraid, he told me a few years ago clenching his fist. He was just four years old at the time he witnessed it all, mid-eighties when he told me.
Regrettably, the argument was over my father’s paternity, dad found out later. Dad’s three big sisters were fine and accepted but somehow my grandfather got it into his head grandma had borne him an illegitimate son. It ended up defining my father’s life and he was still mad about it when he told me about it eight decades later so you can imagine.
My grandfather was institutionalized for many years and didn’t appear in our lives until the 1960s when he showed up with grandma, introduced to us nine kids as “Uncle Gimpy.” It was only later we found out he was our lost grandfather and were given permission to call him Grandpa Gimpy. During some visits, I witnessed my father and grandfather arguing in the living room, shouting at each other, presumably over the paternity issue.
My dad spent some time in an institution himself in the 1970s, suffering from what they called manic-depressive back then, bi-polar now. It forced his early retirement from the navy as he tolerance to stress became less and less. He swung back and forth emotionally in what I call a crazy 8 pattern, from anger and rage to loneliness and brooding self-pity and back to anger again. Once the “horses are galloping” as he put it to me once, it could take him days and days to settle down.
Dad was holding his father’s hand when he died at age 98 in the Rideau Veteran’s Home here in town around 1990. Right to the end, my father hoped for a sign, something which would acknowledge him, or perhaps even a death-bed reconciliation. He got nothing.
I saw his pain retrospectively, with him discussing what his influences were while looking at his life. Though, he eventually got dementia and spent his last two years in a locked ward for his own safety, for two years before he went in, I purposely moved nearby from another city and visited him at the family home each week during the day. We spoke less as father and son and more as men.
He told me many stories of his early years and lifetime. He lived in his living room with floor to ceiling bookcases and read thousands of books. As a kid, we were afraid to ask him something because you might get a half hour lecture about a culture or place in the world. When you are a learner, you must teach.
When he died in November, a month shy of five years since he lost ma, his partner of sixty-two years, a few of his nine children were present, including me. It was at the Perley Rideau Veterans’s home built on the grounds of the old Rideau Vets home where his father died. We held his hands in turn, no reconciliation necessary.
Given the uneven attachments and unpredictable violence of my early years, I gained a good understanding of why my father was weakened so in his lifetime despite it all: his pain was large and lifelong.
Ma was not much better off. Born into a family of nine in Newfoundland, she was given to her grandmother as a child because her mother “couldn’t bear another.” Though cared for, she never got over this separation from her family. At some point in her early teens, she was allowed to stay overnight at her mothers and announced defiantly in the morning she wasn’t leaving. You can imagine the deal she had to make with herself just to stay and be near where she believed she would be loved.
And my grandfather Gimpy, my father’s father. As a boy he heard his two older sisters, the ones tasked mostly with looking after him, crying to each other in the night sick with scarlet fever. In the morning he found them both dead. It was the late 1890s, the milkman had infected the whole neighbourhood.
Then, his mother bleeds to death over three days while delivering twins at age forty, despite the neighbourhood women taking shifts to staunch the blood from her ruptured uterus. Then a wicked stepmother enters the picture.
In 1914, he goes off to war and is shot by a sniper and thought dead. He miraculously recovers leaving an ugly pink scar more than a foot long on his leg and giving him his nickname, Gimpy. He takes up flying, done with the infantry, comes back from a bombing run at war’s end and crash lands in the fog, staying hospitalized with brain damage in Britain until 1921.
While there, he loses his father back in Halifax. My great grandfather is killed racing his horse and buggy through a short cut by a train at a hidden crossing racing home after seeing another of his sons, long before they had those lights and barriers common today.
Looking up my ancestral records, sleuthing through the genealogical tree, I find my great-great grandfather, John Wallace dies of “exhaustion due to excessive drink” on a Saturday night in Oshawa Village. He worked at the carriage maker which later become part of General Motors and leaves a conscientious woman, Mary Hart, in charge of his five kids of whom Thomas Patrick was one.
John Wallace was the only son of Thomas Wallace, my founding immigrant, who fought in the Gibraltar campaign of the Napoleonic War before sailing to Canada to fight for Her Majesty in the War of 1812. Arriving in 1814 at war’s end, he settles in Oshawa Village.
I can trace five generations of Wallaces before me through these men and see the pain they have transferred to each generation.
Step four: accept, forgive, surrender
Call it compassion, sympathy, cognitive empathy while realizing we are people makers. It is only by understanding that each person lives the best they can under the circumstances and makes the best decisions for themselves at the time. Of course, they do, self-interest is always paramount. If they knew better or could act differently, they would.
Seeing a previous generation through the lens of today’s values and morality is called presentism. It drives historians nuts. Let this knowledge signal greater tolerance and compassion for those who came before you.
Not only were the cultural values different way back in your father’s time and his father’s time, so was the environment. Times of war or of social justice upheaval or economic hardship far removed from our experience precludes our ever being able to completely reconcile their journey. “You had to be there” you have heard people say. Well, we could not, so judge less on that basis.
We didn’t live through the advent of electricity, women’s emancipation or even the vote being extended to all citizens for that matter. We know nothing of two world wars. Most can’t remember the sixties. Two hundred years ago life expectancy was less than fifty and most were living hand to mouth on the family farm or in tiny communities. Religion was stronger and laws often looser.
Step five: seize control and take the stand all men must make.
Ask: am I going to allow my history to determine my future? Or, shall I create a life of my own?
What will be my legacy to others? How will I improve upon my ancestral line so that my legacy flows into the distance intact and strengthened?
Make the declaration. THE PAIN STOPS HERE!
Use this powerful stance to decide your future, ensuring you are an improvement on the previous generation. I remember visiting my mom and dad from out of town once when I had then missus and my first son in tow. Dad noticed how I interacted with my boy and remarked to all around, “Christopher is determined to not act like me.”
He was right. I’d be damned. I haven’t been perfect, but I haven’t been him either, not by a long shot. Though I recognize him in me when shit hits the fan. That’s been an important part of my personal legacy.
No one becomes a parent with anything but the best intentions. No one has kids and intends to fuck them up on purpose. Good intentions are tossed aside when stress hits and we revert to our family of origin programming. Be aware of this and make plans for how you will counter this if necessary when it happens, because it will.
Step six: Reclaim your power and gain your freedom.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote at one point: “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never shrinks back to its original dimensions.” Think of that for a moment.
Whatever circumstances came before you, you can live differently but only under certain conditions. This is because we live emotionally and interpret things later. Most of what we do happens subconsciously. It’s only by bringing something into awareness that we can bring about the possibility of change or control. It is only with insight where free will begins, not before.
If the soul is comprised of the epigenetic influences on ancestral DNA, contrasted with the collective unconscious of all mankind’s history and then added to by your databank of emotional experiences since birth, the spirit is its voice. You are a unique combination of these influences and to deny any is to deny them all. It is to deny your spirit.
The more aware you are of your history, and the more you accept and surrender expectations and the futility of should have, could have, would have and what if, the more you can take charge your present and future. Life is lived forwardly, not regressively, though the past has lessons to teach.
Now that I know all this, I get to decide. Some of my father lives on in me as a shadow aspect of my personality. Knowing my shadow allows me to live in the light. It is a light of my choosing. Power equals agency.
I consciously blame him for this violence in me I had to learn to tame on my own. I blame him for my disregard for money and for my nice guy tendencies earlier in my life. I also blame him for my love of books, for my memory, for my athleticism, for my sense of justice and for the simple love of teaching. He taught me to write when I was fifty. I blame him for that too.
Using our power in service of ourselves and others is how we find meaning and freedom.
Ask yourself: How will I live? Powerfully or in weakness? How will I be an improvement on the generations which preceded me. As Horace Mann once suggested, “Be afraid to die until you have won a victory for mankind.”
Stay powerful, never give up: You will sleep better at night
©January, 2020, all rights reserved
Christopher K Wallace
Advisor to men, mentor at large