Friday, November 12, 2010

End Game with my Father

I recently got this note from a reader:

As someone who has been reading your blog for many years, I've noticed many references to your father, difficulties you had with him and how living in community helped you work through some of these difficulties. As a man in my mid-thirties, I'm currently in a kind of impasse in my relationship with my own father, who lives in another country and has extremely different values and beliefs from my own. I can't help thinking that many people from many backgrounds have difficulties with parents who behave in static, old-fashioned ways. It is also very impressive to read your posts that are concerned with what you do when you go and visit your son—I wish more parents were conscious of these very good ways to be around their adult children. I'm writing because I would be very interested to read about how you worked things out with your father, or how you worked out issues in yourself around your relationship with your father.

What a good question!

The story of me and my father goes back to my childhood. I grew up in the '50s and '60s in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, where you were considered a misguided oddball if you favored Kennedy over Nixon in the landmark election of 1960. Wrapped in my Leave It to Beaver cocoon, I never questioned the conservative values I was steeped in until I went to college in 1967, where the scales fell from eyes. I attended Carleton in southern Minnesota, where all 1350 students lived in dorms and didn't have access to cars without express permission. This was way before the Internet, and we only had each other for entertainment during those long winter months. That environment lent itself nicely to endless conversations about who were and who we wanted to become.

I came to understand that there were a number of unexamined assumptions that undergirded my belief system. This was the height of the Vietnam War and a period of unprecedented social unrest on campus. My life, like that of many of my classmates, went through a major upheaval. Looking back on my college experience, I value it most for the social stimulation and the work I did reordering my core values. As intended, I learned a lot about how to think—I just didn't apply it in the ways my parents anticipated, and my father in particular was appalled at what I did with my education.

My parents grew up in the Depression, in families too poor to afford college. My older brother went into the Air Force out of high school and I was the first one in my family to go to college. It was a proud achievement for my father, who saved diligently to make it possible. Imagine how betrayed he felt by what came back, as I challenged the beliefs that were the bedrock of his sacrifice!

I went through a liberalization in college that led to a philosophical gulf that my father and I never successfully bridged. While I wasn't so naive as to expect my Dad to agree with my views, I fought to be recognized as an independent thinker who could come to different conclusions. My father interpreted my dissension as signs of arrested development, and an inability to cope with the world as it "really was" (as if that were something there was general agreement about). My Dad saw my choice to live in community as a form of dropping out, believing I couldn't stand the competitive heat of the free market kitchen. Sigh.

From the schism that grew out of my college experience we tended to fight and snarl whenever we were together. This mainly took the form of sarcasm and innuendo, and I couldn't be home for longer than 24 hours without falling into this vicious pattern of baiting and debating. It was insufferable to be around us, and for many years I clung to the story that it was all my Dad's fault—if only he could accept my different views as legitimate, we could coexist.

Three years after college I helped start Sandhill Farm. A dozen years after that—fully 18 years into my feud with my father—it finally dawned on me that maybe it wasn't all my father's fault we had such a bad dynamic. With the help of my community mates I started the painful process of looking at my part of the dynamic. This was humbling and awkward work, that ultimately resulted in my sending him a painstakingly written letter that went something like this:

"Our relationship is a mess. While I love you, and I know that you love me, all we do is fight. The only passion we show for each other is when we raise our energy to be nasty to each other, and I hate how we are together.

I've recently been looking at what I've been doing to contribute to what's not working and here's what I can own: [insert list of specific behaviors here].

I want to work on turning my part of this around, what do you think?"

Three weeks later (this was before email) I got a response from my father, which began, "That was a good start. Here are some other ways that you've been contributing to what's not working... "
Ouch! That was not the letter I was looking for. I had hoped that if I unilaterally admitted to some culpability on my part that he'd find a way to admit some of his own, and we could build a demilitarized zone where our caring for each other could manifest in healthier, nonviolent ways. But I didn't get that. Instead, I just got more criticism.

The pivotal part of this story is what I did next. As much courage as it took me to admit my part of the dynamic, it took even more to set down my virtual syringe and not shoot myself up with anger again when my father spurned my olive branch. Instead, I gave up my addiction to anger and finally accepted that he was doing the best he could. I felt sad—I still wasn't getting the relationship I wanted—but it also felt good to be owning my part and to no longer be blaming my father for my misery. After spending half my life actively battling my father, I gave it up.

My Dad died two years after this attempt and we never did reconcile. But I did learn to take responsibility for my feelings, and to understand the power of working on one's own feelings in a conflict, even when you are not met halfway by the other person. In the end, your own feelings are the only ones you ever have any control over anyway.

Family dynamics are often the ones that are most deeply embedded and therefore hardest to shift. I know because it took me about 20 years to get the job done. While I wasn't a particularly quick learner, at least I got there. There have been many more times since then when I've been embroiled in stuck dynamics with others and been buoyed by remembering what I went through with my father. Having successfully taken ownership of my feelings once, each time after that has been a little easier.

While this was not a lesson my father intended to teach me, I nonetheless thank him for it every time I set down the syringe.


Anonymous said...


Lee Jankowski said...

I too have struggled with relationship when it comes to my father. I am now his primary care as we confront Cancer. The lessons are many and I am sure they will continue for me long after he dies and depending on what comes next for him, they may continue for both of us. When I read your thoughts I could see the powerful effect it has had on you. I thank you for writing about such a personal subject. Making it public can offer positive and negative realities for the person who shares. I personally feel the positive greatly out weighs the negative. Peace to you.

Lee Jankowski