When my dad was about to turn 60 in the fall of 2007, my mom asked me to give a speech at an elaborate birthday celebration she was planning at their church. This request legitimately terrified me, and for a long time I couldn’t think of the first thing to say. When I was growing up, my dad had always been a fairly private man who expressed his love for his family through his provision. I never lacked for anything I needed (or even most things I wanted), but we were never particularly close or expressive in our affection, and after I graduated high school and moved away, our communication grew more distant and less frequent.
Sometimes I would watch a movie with a poignant scene between a father and a son or listen to a friend’s story about a tender moment with his father, and something in my heart would convulse. I felt like a blind man having a rainbow described to him – it triggered a visceral longing completely out of the grid of my life experience, where on one hand I would be crying from raw emotion and on the other hand I felt detached and unable to relate in any personal way.
If I stayed in that place too long, I would start feeling guilty. I knew my dad’s way of showing love was by taking care of us physically and materially, and I knew he was a first-generation Taiwanese immigrant whose father had been a strict and private man himself. In my mind, my best response was to just be thankful for how my dad loved us in his way and to accept that moments of shared intimacy between fathers and sons were meant for other families, not ours.
After a few days of internal struggle, I decided to open my speech with this line: My father has always been somewhat of a mystery to me…
One afternoon in the summer of 2015, my wife and I huddled together in our backyard over an envelope from her ob-gyn which contained the gender of our third child. As we opened it and realized we were about to have our first boy, we both began to cry, and throughout the rest of the day I would find myself wiping away tears without having even realized I was crying.
There’s something about both being a son and being a father that resonates in the core of a man’s heart. Knowing I was about to experience the father-son relationship from the other side, I realized I couldn’t continue to ignore the effects the lack of relationship with my own father had on my heart. That’s what categorized our relationship really, it wasn’t negative, it wasn’t abusive, it just…wasn’t. And so for the first time, I admitted to myself that I had a need for a tangible father’s presence in my life, that the convulsions in my heart actually came from a desperate longing to be fathered.
Over the past few years I’ve reached out to my dad by writing him heartfelt emails, by sharing my entire journey towards sexual purity with him, and by telling him I love him more times than I have in my first 30+ years of life combined. Early on in this process, a counselor told me that I needed to have realistic expectations about what my dad would be able to give to me, that he most likely wouldn’t just suddenly develop the capacity to fill the gaping wound of fatherlessness that I carried. And it was true, his responses have ranged from awkward to hurtful, most recently last New Year’s Eve when I gave him a hug and told him I loved him, and was met with an offhand comment about my weight.
One of the main axioms of ManAlive is that it’s relationships that hurt us, and so it’s relationships that will heal us. One offshoot of this is that as our capacity for relationship grows, so does our potential to be hurt, and so does our compassion for the hurt that others carry.
Last week as we sat down for our evening family prayer time one night, my two young daughters were fighting over who gets to sit in mommy’s lap as they often do, and in that moment, I felt wounded and rejected by them. My brain knew that they love and adore me and that in their innocence they didn’t intend for me to feel one ounce of rejection, but my heart felt differently. I thought back to my New Year’s Eve interaction with my dad, and for the first time, I thought about how I, as his only son, may have unknowingly hurt him in a thousand different ways as I was growing up. With his cultural background and life experience and a complete lack of access to all the tools I’ve gained over the years for healthy emotional processing, his only response would have been to shut his own heart down to numb the pain, suffocating any connection we may have had before it even had a chance.
Ten years ago, I ended my speech for his 60th birthday with this: Thanks Dad, for your mystery, for your heart, for everything.
Sometimes I wish that my father-son story had a singular momentous turning point and that I could point to one day when everything changed and we began living life as Father and Son. That day hasn’t yet happened, and in truth it may never happen. What I have gained instead is an understanding that my capacity for wounding and being wounded is much deeper than I ever realized, and that the journey to healing and wholeness is comprised of a seemingly infinite number of small steps. All I can do, what I must do, is continue on this journey one step at a time, in unending pursuit of the connection between hearts that gives everything its meaning. My hope is that one day, my dad will be walking alongside me.