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Letter To My Dad

By kucingnoire ~

H i Dad.

First off, I'd like to say that I really appreciated our talks when I was home. For maybe the first time in my life, I felt like you really heard me. It's a credit to your maturity and wisdom that you were able to respond so graciously to me, wine-drunk and petulant as I was in certain moments. I truly appreciate that, and it was encouraging to me. When we talked about those conversations establishing a good foundation that we could build on, I meant it.

So, let's build.

Right now: I'm depressed. I have a hard time sleeping a lot of nights. I have a hard time getting up in the morning. I have a hard time getting excited about anything. I am anxious. I drink too much. I smoke too much. To borrow the phrase you used to describe the France years: I am treading water.

This is not entirely your fault.

I take responsibility for my decisions. I own my bad habits.

I reference my current situation not to hold you responsible for it, but to give you context. There will be some hard things in this letter, but I'm not speaking to you from a place of certainty. I am broken and needy. I second guess myself all the time. I wonder if I am right about any number of things, including what I am communicating here. I have no swagger. I vacillate.

Another reason I bring it up is because I've found that being vulnerable, letting others see the ugly stuff, can be a profound thing, can shake things loose in other people, give them permission to speak their truth. For instance, it was exciting and maddening to find out during our late night talk you also struggle with a lack of emotion in certain situations. It's exciting because it makes me feel less alone, less insane. Maddening because it took us 34 years to have that conversation.

Why is that?

As a parent, you did fail me in some ways. In this, you are not exceptional. Every parent fails their child somehow, because to be human is to be fallible and to have access to only partial information. Parenting is awesome, impossible work for creatures such as us.

So please take the following not as a judgment or a pointed finger demanding reckoning, but as the naked cry of a child who, yes, after all these years, still needs you.

I've come to believe that a lot of our issues relating to each other over the years are due, in large part, to things getting lost in translation. We were, in a very real way, speaking different languages. Your generational and cultural context (and probably also your default nature) prioritized the rational, the practical, and the baldly verbal. You communicated your love for me by modeling proper behavior, by attempting to teach me important life skills and impart wisdom; and, to your eternal credit, by saying it: "I love you, son."

I missed these genuine communications at times because my default nature prioritized the intuitive and the emotional. I witnessed your actions, I heard your words, but I was listening most carefully to a whole other set of messages: the way your jaw worked when you were angry with me, the judgment and disappointment in your eyes when I had failed you. Sometimes these two languages spoke in concert, most often when the message was negative, and the hardness in your voice matched the harshness of your language. More infrequently, but not wholly absent, were the times your lips fought a proud smile and your words bragged about my left-handed hook or my SAT scores. Often, however, these two layers of communication were in conflict. I think this is perhaps where we run into trouble trying to understand the other's version of past events. You remember the words, the explicit communication: "Sex is a wonderful gift that god created for our pleasure. We just need to be responsible with it, handle it with care and intention." I remember the emotional undercurrent, the implicit messages: the disgust in your eyes, the flash of anger and the quickly-changed channel at the slightest hint of sexual appetite. For me, the latter spoke more loudly.

As I have matured into adulthood, I have learned to better understand and appreciate your native tongue. It is just as valid as mine. I hope we can both continue to get better at the translation. But I think it might be helpful for you, while reading the rest of this, to keep in mind the sensitive kid who paid attention less to WHAT you said than HOW you said it.

In one of the psych books I read about parent-child relationships, I came across a simple sentence that affected me deeply. The gist of it was: "You are OK. You are a wonderful, special creature." It's a therapist couch cliche, and yet something inside me broke open when I read it, and I started weeping uncontrollably.

It's a message I feel like I never received from you in a way that was meaningful to me.

Your intentions were good, but your execution was deeply flawed. Obedience and responsibility were king, empowerment and affirmation were harder to come by. Parents are supposed to establish boundaries and police behavior, but you went further, and impugned my character. It wasn't just that I had made a sub-optimal decision that I needed to learn from. No, I was "lazy," I was "selfish, rebellious" I had a "perverse sexuality," I was, once, maybe "demon-possessed." I wasn't much of a man.

And the negatives were not balanced out by positives. Compliments were rare. I don't remember you praising me for anything except for sports and academics. It's true I wasn't your average boy. I was, I'm sure, maddening at times. I probably half-assed chores, listened poorly, and retreated into my own fantasies. You were right to bring me back down to earth now and then. But the flip side of those weaknesses were strengths, if you cared to notice them: I was a creative kid, with an active imagination. I loved ideas. I was a good writer. I was thoughtful and sensitive to the moods of others. I was a good friend. These are all positive traits. It would have been pretty easy for you to make me feel good about them. Instead, I felt like you saw my creative pursuits as mostly a waste of time. You did snoop in my journal one time, but you didn't come away impressed by my active mind or idiosyncratic prose. Instead, you accused me of intellectual arrogance. I wish you could have delighted in my weird, interesting little brain.

You raised me to be honest, to be a truth-seeker, but when these very traits led me beyond the borders of your worldview, you condemned them as flaws. You took some of the best things about me and made me feel ashamed of them. Instead of lifting me up and sending me out into the world bolstered by your confidence in me, you took me out at the knees. That's what it felt like, and this still hurts me.

And the thing that really galls is that when I look back across time, what I see is my hand consistently extended, what I see is a kid willing to be vulnerable, desiring connection, taking initiative. Don't get me wrong, I realize I was a real son of a bitch at times. I realize my resentment probably seemed volcanic during certain periods. But the way I remember it is that, as soon as I started doubting my faith, right before college, I told you about it. I was terrified about what I was feeling, I was having doubts that threatened the entire framework of my world. I came to you not because I wanted to challenge you, but because I needed HELP. Years later, after I became an agnostic, I wrote you a letter about it, not because I wanted to rub it in your face, but because I wanted you to know who I was, because I wanted to involve you in my life instead of just striking some pose to keep the peace. My instinct is always to put my cards on the table, to be open, to play no games. I love this about myself. I have many weaknesses, trust me, but I honestly believe this is one my greatest strengths. And I feel like, many times, instead of responding in kind, instead of accepting my invitation and letting me see your vulnerability, you retreated into the comfortable groove of all-knowing, imperturbable authority figure. You drew your armor around you. You thought that I would interpret your weakness too broadly, that if you admitted even a moment of doubt, the whole thing would come crashing down. While I understand the impulse, I do resent you for this. You could have been such a comfort to me if you had let down your defenses.

You have previously defended this impulse by drawing a bold line between the moment I was a professing believer, and the moment I was a confirmed agnostic. You say your role changes in that moment. Why? This is ludicrous to me, because it sounds like what you're saying is that being honest and vulnerable is a strategic decision. I know you to be a wise person. Because of this I know you understand things like this never happen in an instant. My journey out of faith was a four year process, at the very least. People are fluid, I am radically different at 34 than I was at 25, 18, 7. I think I was about 7 when I accepted Christ. Do you honestly believe that means anything? Do you really think a 7-year-old understands what he's signing up for? How much did you understand at 7? The idea that I became an honest-to-god, eyes wide open Christian at 7, and then ceased to be that thing at a precise moment in my 23rd year is just silly. It completely ignores how human beings work. I guess my question is: why wasn't honesty and openness always the first option?

That's the most immediate, personal stuff. The rest is related more generally to the evangelical subculture. I understand you weren't responsible for creating this culture, but you were certainly an active participant within it. I don't feel like you went out of your way to question its premises. You are complicit.

I can't help but feel like we looked a lot more like the pharisees than we looked like Jesus. Yes, Jesus asked his followers to deny themselves and follow him. But he also turned water into wine, forgave the harlot, and praised the spontaneity and wonder of little children. I like to believe he cracked jokes with the disciples. By contrast, we prioritized duty, adherence to rules, and proper behavior over grace and joy. Discipline was not proportionate to offense (see the bleach blonde hair incident). We were over-serious. We learned to go through life with a clenched jaw, trying desperately to reach all the benchmarks, not step on any land mines. We learned that our bodies and minds were suspect, that our emotions were not things to embrace as valid or try to understand, but to master and squash by dint of pure will. We tried to transcend our humanity, we became schizophrenic.

Jesus welcomed everyone, he went to places he wasn't supposed to, he condemned the stone-throwers. We bisected our world into "us"s and "them"s, mapped onto reality the topography of a battlefield. On one side: Christians, homeschoolers, people who thought like us; on the other: people of other faiths, secular-humanists, academia, liberals, feminists, gays, even progressive Christians. Our relationships to "others" were defined either in terms of avoidance (they could be a bad influence) or conquest (witnessing, conversion, apologetics).

Jesus celebrated truth, no matter the source. Indeed, given the cultural context at the time, he himself was the unlikeliest of sources. We were cloistered in a bubble of Focus on the Family approved films and A Beka Book. According to A Beka, rock music destroys brain cells, evolution is an insane, liberal fantasy, FDR was the devil, and Ronald Reagan was God himself. To have a little bias one way or the other is understandable. To present flimsy, culture war propaganda as the only truth is lazy and dishonest.

We were taught WHAT to think, not HOW to think.

Jesus was a revolutionary, he questioned the established order, he threatened the status quo. When I had questions, people mostly just tried to brush me off or shut me up. Fall back in line, buddy. Don't ruffle feathers.

Curiosity and honesty were not virtues, but were actively discouraged.

If all truth is God's truth, and God is, ultimately, in control, what is everyone so afraid of?

Because it occurs to me that the thread running through all of this is fear. You were afraid that if you showed weakness to your son, it would make your truth look weak. My peers were afraid that if they engaged with my doubt, it might infect their certainty. But if Christianity is a worldview premised on a loving God and a free gift, distinguished from other all religions by its emphasis on grace, why the terror? If Christianity is the ultimate and obvious truth, if God is so big, why did everyone treat him as if he were so fragile? Why the fanatic, white-knuckle control? I'm not even arguing AGAINST your worldview. I'm actually trying to hold you to your own high standard. If Jesus was our ultimate role model, how come we so rarely looked like him?

Listen, I get it. Life is tricky and hard. We should be gracious towards one another. I have long believed this to be true, and tried to act accordingly. I just feel like you didn't extend that same grace and mercy to me when it mattered most, during my formative years. I'm not sure what exactly you were so focused on, but it wasn't the little boy in front of you.

There you go. That's my dump. These are things that I still, all these years later, have a lot of resentment about. I get that it's unfair to dredge up all the negative shit without any mention of the positive, but it's the stuff I needed to say. I am not building a courtroom case. I am simply opening my mouth and giving voice. My superego has been firmly in control for most of my life, and right now I needed to give a little leash to my id. Consider this my primal scream.

Also: I love you.

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