“As you float now, where I held you / and let go,” says the father of Philip Booth’s poem entitled “First Lesson, “remember when fear / cramps your heart what I told you: / lie gently and wide to the light-year / stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.”
What a beautiful image that captures the “I can’t do it alone” sensibility. The daughter can’t do trust—she can’t trust the act of lying gently and wide to the light year stars and letting the sea hold her—unless there had been a moment in the past where she’d done exactly that: her head tipped back in the cup of her father’s hand, being gently held, letting the need to control go. Unless for this, trust was going to be a hard thing to do…
How profoundly and deeply we need each other, to do the most important things. Writer Anais Nin says, “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
New worlds of faith and courage and love and so many other good things born out of our essential incompleteness, our need for relationship and community, our vulnerability.
But now listen to this poem about a different kind of father-child relationship. It’s by Scott Owens, entitled “On the Days I Am Not My Father.”
On the days I am not my father
I don’t yell. I don’t hold inside
the day’s supply of frustrations.
My hands stay open all day.
I don’t wake tired and sore,
dazed from senseless, panicking
On the days I am not my father …
I listen well.
I let things go unfinished,
in an order I didn’t plan.
My mouth is relaxed. My teeth
don’t hurt. My face stays
a healthy shade of pink all day.
On the days I am not my father
I don’t fill the silence with my own
irrational rants. I don’t resent
the voices of others. I don’t make fun
of you to make myself feel better.
That’s the poem, and in it no one is being held, no one is learning how to let go of control. There is only the tension of gritted teeth and anger filling the silence.
Which is what a person naturally feels when they believe they MUST do it all by themselves. When they believe “I can’t” is a cop-out.
And therefore the father’s legacy to the child is a message of “get used to aloneness.” “It’s all on you.” “That’s reality and you better get with it.”
I know this voice personally, and maybe you do as well. Not from a mere poem, but from life. The power of it over me was crystallized in a dream I had maybe 30 years ago. I’m in a strange and dark classroom, stuffed into a desk that’s way too small and hurts. My Dad is teaching me how to be effective in the world. He assigns homework. But I don’t think I need any of this, because I love my Dad. I love him. I tell him how I feel, but he feels that love is irrelevant. He says, “When I say jump, you say how high.” I try my best to prove my love to him, but nothing works. He just continues lecturing, relentlessly, about how hard I need to work and all the things I need to do.”
Side-by-side with this is the frank acknowledgement that “I can’t do it all alone”—that idea—is obvious and self-evident. Of course no one of us can do it alone—the “it” referring to both simple and complex accomplishments. Now I tie my shoelaces all alone, but someone originally taught me how. Now I feed myself, but someone coached my very patiently to learn how to aim the airplane of my spoon reliably into my mouth.
We do these things and innumerable others all alone every day, but originally someone taught us how. And then there are the things we do that others must always be involved in, in an ongoing basis: friendship, family, community, driving after an ice storm but we’re safe because the crews from the Georgia Department of Transportation have been hard at work de-icing roads (using pickle juice I hear!).
Side-by-side, the contrary voices war with eachother: “I can’t do it alone!” “I must do it alone; thinking I can’t do it alone is a cop out!”
Where does that contrary voice come from? We must learn to recognize it as unhelpful noise, acknowledge the noise, still the noise—so that we can be more fully open to the music of love.
Where does that contrary voice come from for you?
For me, undeniably, one source is my training as a man. Training that resonates with the father in Scott Owen’s poem and is crystallized in my dream of the dark classroom years ago. “Be a man,” the entire world says to a boy. The message comes not just from fathers, but mothers too, the media, teachers, and peers. Also from the only kinds of initiation rites that are generally available to men today, centering primarily around team sports, military life, gang life, and prison.
All of them are sources of a surprisingly consistent message, which the following scenario tries to convey, developed by leaders of The Oakland Men’s Project.
Here it is: a ten-year-old-boy sits in a chair at home watching television. His Dad walks through the door holding a piece of paper:
DAD: Turn off that set.
SON: Aw Dad….
DAD: Turn it off. Now! This place is a mess; why isn’t it cleaned up?
SON: I was going to do it after this show.
DAD: Excuses. You always have excuses. Do you have an excuse for this? What is this?
SON: My report card.
DAD: Look at this right here: math, D.
SON: I did the best I could.
DAD: Sure you did. You’re just stupid. You know what D stands for? It stands for Dummy.
SON: (Starting to get up) That’s not fair.
DAD: Sit down. I didn’t say you could go anyplace.
SON: (looks down, near tears)
DAD: What’s the matter, you gonna cry about it? Poor little mamma’s boy. You’re just a wimp. (Pushes him off the chair onto floor) When are you gonna grow up and act like a man around here? (Storms off)
SON: (Picks himself off the floor. He’s angry, confused, hurt, says to himself:) “He’s always coming in here yelling, pushing me around, shouting at me to be a man. I hate it! It’s not fair!”
And that’s the scenario. A dark classroom, where you learn to numb yourself to your feelings. Where you stay sitting down when you want to stand up. Where you feel suspicion towards your tears. Where you ridicule yourself whenever an emotion emerges that registers vulnerability. Where others might do this and you ridicule and bully them.
“Be a man.” Kill the instinct you have to take your confusion to other people, so you can get clarity about what you are feeling. Kill your need for real friendship and intimacy. You don’t need to be a part of a congregation—you don’t need that. What’s that good for anyhow?
“Be a man.” Learn to be lonely. Of course you can have male friends, but these will only be people you will measure yourself against in competition. Never ever anything else. You can’t turn to them for support—that’s for sure. That’s what a partner is for. You can dump all your intimacy needs on him or her, and they’ll be your lifeline. You really only need one source of emotional sustenance in life, and that’s your partner.
“Be a man.” Control and conquer. There can be no excuses, ever.
That’s the overt training on how to be a man. That’s what it looks like, if not at home, then on the streets, in the playground, on the Internet and TV, at work, at war. “Be a man.” Success is the goal, but the problem is that what we have here is a perfect recipe for failure. “Be a man” is all about power and control, but this makes men (gay and straight) only feel worse about their lives and not better, makes them do desperate things to prove their manhood. Men all their lives wondering, Am I a man yet? Have I finally made the grade?
One cannot possibly be strong unless one has had the experience of being weak, being held by another when the sea around you felt enormous and overwhelming but you were held, you felt safe, your head was tipped back in the cup of someone else’s hands and here was an experience you could build your life upon…. You can’t be strong without that vulnerability. You can’t.
Without that vulnerability, what happens very often is that a man becomes a bully. When you yourself have been bullied, you bully others, you pass the hurt around to counter the feelings of powerlessness. We see this everywhere around us; we saw this in the most recent Presidential election, and now we’re going to see it in the White House every day for at least four years. Bullying.
The idea of “I can’t do it alone” is not mere sentimentality. To tip your head back in the cup of someone else’s hands—to know what this is like, to come to rely upon it—is one of the most empowering things we can ever, ever do.
And I can’t do it alone. You can’t do this alone.
“I need you to survive” because the world needs all of us—men and women and every other gender variation there is—to be vital and whole. Unless we meet like this—in our vitality and wholeness—entire worlds will not be born, our lives will be barren of joy.
Tip your head back in the cup of someone else’s hands.
…remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.