I loved my dad. He was mostly kind to me, encouraging and accessible. When I was young, he was my basketball coach. We talked politics and current events all the time. And when I got older, he was always interested in my career. If I happened to be in the newspaper for something work-related, he would always clip it out with a kind note and mail it to me. When my kids were born, he was a loving grandfather to them.
I always told my dad I loved him. I would say it to him in person, on the phone and send letters telling him how much I appreciated him. Towards the end of his life, I always had the sense his days were numbered because of his poor health and it forced a greater sense of urgency in my relationship with him — so I tried to ensure no thoughts were left unsaid.
He passed away at 82 a few years ago and not a day goes by when I don’t think of him.
But when I think back on my father’s life, I realize that I really didn’t know him. I later learned of his bouts with depression, anger and loneliness by seeing some of his letters and journals after he died. I think that was his plan to leave his children these messages. My dad had a difficult life as an adult. A broken marriage, the loss of a young child, failures in his professional life and strained relationships with people. But of course, I knew very little of that. I would at times see his flashes of anger, but mostly his sad, puffy eyes, far off gaze and quiet solitude.
What I came to realize as I got older and became a father myself was that I really never knew my dad. The man. The person. The human. He never told me how it felt to lose a child, to get a divorce, to be fired at work and to never realize his dream of becoming a successful painter. I knew my dad, I never knew the man.
I wish I did. It would have comforted me in my own struggles as a man. It would have given me more of the “truth” of life. I would have seen that it’s ok, and quite normal, for me to struggle with anxiety, fear and a sense of being overwhelmed with the responsibilies of being a dad and providing for a family.
When you are young, you see your parents mostly as these giant, intimidating people who rule your world. You don’t ever really see their humanity. And as we get older, we often repeat those same patterns. Stoic. Always giving out instructions and advice. Busy trying to survive the adult jungle. And so the cycle repeats.
I don’t always understand why as parents, I think mostly dads though, feel they need to wall off their emotions. Why they feel the need to wear a mask. And become less human and more like a machine devoid showing their emotions, their struggles.
One of the real blessings for me as I embraced my own spirituality through Buddhism, yoga, meditation and mindfulness was discovering the power and liberation of living an authentic life. Of being my “true” self. Opening up about my struggles with self-doubt, anxiety and stress to all those I encounter. My battle to create a sense of self-worth and overcome the negative thought patterns that most of us develop as we try to find a happy place for ourselves in this world.
I learned to let go of all the negative emotional attachments and simply live in the moment. And to let my true self shine without fear of judgment or acceptance. I learned that the secret to happiness lies in each of us, not outside of ourselves.
And in doing so, I learned one of the most valuable lessons as a dad…to communicate my struggles, my journey, my “real” life to my kids! I share with them daily my bouts with anxiety and fear and how I work everyday to overcome them. I share with them all the things I am scared of. I tell them of all the lessons I learn each day. All the mistakes I make and the things I am working on for my own spiritual and emotional growth. I share with them this blog and why I do it.
I do this because I want to teach them that as parents, we are human and we actually have more questions than answers about life. That as they become adults, it’s ok to struggle and have self doubt, so that they see the world as it actually is, not as some walled off existence where grown-ups live. I do it because I want them to learn that no one has the answers for them — instead, they live inside each of us.
And as a result of living this truthful existence, my relationship with my kids is as honest and real as I could have ever dreamed of. I am not trying to be their friend or buddy, but trying to show them that everyone has struggles and the key is to acknowledge them and be victorious over them. That hardship and self doubt are wonderful gifts to help us grow.
And so my wish for all the fathers out there on this Father’s Day is to live your authentic self with your kids. It will draw you closer to them and in the end, you will teach them more by exposing your true self than the idea of a perfect self. This truth will also liberate you.
Happy Father’s Day.