Monday, July 11, 2005

My father's respect

I have just returned from a quick trip to the town where my parents live. I went there to speak at the church my father attends. This has become an annual task for me, during the month when the regular minister takes her vacation.

Only a few years ago, I was still trying to earn my father's respect. I'm glad to say I've finally gotten there.

Act One

The struggle began when I was a teenager. (No surprises there.) Hard work is one of Dad's fundamental values. But, as a teenager, I didn't see any reason to hurry to join the ranks of the gainfully employed.

One of the best summers of my life was spent staying up every night, until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, listening to music outdoors. We had a pit for a campfire in the yard. I would run an extension cord out there, set up my turntable and speakers, kindle a fire, and watch it burn while Pete Townshend delivered some power chords.

I wasn't drinking or smoking pot, and I didn't keep anyone awake. (We had no neighbours and my parents' bedroom was on the other side of the house.) But I did sleep in until noon every day. And Dad found the whole scenario galling.

To illustrate the contrast in our lifestyles, I'll describe my father today. He is in his mid-seventies, and he's still only semi-retired. He owns an upholstery business, and he puts in some hours in "the shop" every day. Yes, he supervises the staff. But he isn't above sweeping the floors or brewing the coffee or cleaning the toilets. It doesn't matter who's the boss; it only matters that a job needs to be done. Why shouldn't he be the one to do it?

As you might imagine, the clash in our lifestyles when I was a teenager drove him nuts. Some nights, my turntable would suddenly lose momentum; Bachman Turner Overdrive would spin slower and slower, then the amplifier would cut out. My dad had awakened in the night and pulled the plug.

Bedtime! (I always complied with the unspoken demand.)

Act Two

Then a strange thing happened; it should have earned me Dad's grudging respect, but it didn't. In my last year or so of high school, I got interested in theatre. I even got a summer job as a technician with a local professional company. Suddenly I was working as many as sixteen hours a day, six or seven days per week. And being paid … not much. I was working for the love of the theatre, not for material gain.

Strangely, Dad still didn't approve. He told a family friend, "He finally got a job, and he's earning 16¢ an hour." I don't think the problem was the wages, really; he just didn't respect the work I was doing. Theatre? — hah! What useful thing does it contribute to society?

Act Three

After high school, I struggled for a couple of years, followed by a dramatic conversion to evangelical Christianity. As I had done with theatre, I threw myself into religion with abandon. I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree and became a clergyman only four years after my conversion.

Dad is a deeply religious man. (One of his sayings is, "Life consists of a series of small miracles.") My religious awakening might have elevated me in Dad's esteem, but I still had it wrong, as far as he was concerned. I was ordained in an obscure fundamentalist denomination. And I was making about two thirds the wage I had made in the theatre.

Dad didn't approve of any of it:  not my education, not my choice of a church, not my theology, not my inadequate income. He belongs to a mainstream, liberal denomination. In that denomination, ministers are required to complete an undergraduate degree before they begin their theological training. He said to me, "We believe you should know something before you begin to study the Bible."

Act Four

Fifteen years later, I went through both a spiritual crisis and a marital crisis. (It came to a head in 1997.) This time, I couldn't argue the point:  my life was a mess.

Around that time, there was a family gathering and Dad (as is his wont) decided to make a little motivational speech. He went round the room, finding something praiseworthy in each individual, with one exception. When he came to me, he could only manage something to the effect of, "Maybe some day he'll get his shit together." Not an exact quote, but it captures the substance of the remark.

Act Five

A great deal has changed since then. I went back to school and completed an Honours B.A. in Law. I changed careers; I have a steady job that pays considerably better than anything I have done previously. I'm in a second marriage (without the formality of a wedding) and I'm a homeowner for the first time in my life.

Sorting out the spiritual crisis has been a slow and painful process. I'm somewhat amazed to find, now that the dust has settled, that I continue to have faith. I think of it as a Hebrews 12:27 phenomenon:  what could be shaken has been removed from me; what remains is unshakeable.

Once a year, I speak at my father's church. This is a big deal for him. He is part of the team that is responsible for organizing the service, and he worries over it for six weeks before the big day.

We've now carried out this task together six or seven times. Dad is confident that I will do my part, reliably and effectively. Yesterday he was quick to praise the content of my message.

Somewhere around age 40, I finally earned my father's respect. These are the things we appreciate most in life:  the things we struggle hardest to achieve.


At 5:59 PM, July 11, 2005, Blogger Journeywoman said...

And you gained it not by capitulating to his expectations at the expense of your values, but by being true to yourself, discovering, through a long and sometimes painful process, the man you were meant to be. Not such a meagre achievement!

At 11:14 PM, July 11, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

Thanks for sharing this bit of personal history, Q. I see a lot of parallels between the two of us ... We both struggled to earn the approval of our fathers I suppose most young men do), we both struggled with matters of faith, truth, and integrity (although, upon cursory examination, with widely different outcomes). We both have checkered pasts, and we both went to college after we learned to appreciate the opportunity to learn.

"Maybe some day he'll get his shit together." OUCH! Burn! Never got that from my dad. It's good you and your father have so much to share now.

At 11:43 AM, July 12, 2005, Blogger Carolyn said...

Thanks for the story. It's funny that I could relate to the struggle to gain parental approval...even though our life experiences are so different.

I think many parents are critical on their kids because they want so badly for them to be better than they are. They may have conflicting values and place importance on different things...but ultimately they want their kids to be happy (hopefully...because if that's not the case, there's a whole other set of issues). When a child flounders while finding themselves I can only imagine how painful it is.

It's a great feeling when you DO get to a point that you can feel their respect and that they see value in what you do and what you're all about (my road to gaining respect may actually have been easier attained than parents expected far less...they cried and expressed their gratitude after I came back from drug addiction...anything beyond being clean was kind of an extra bonus).

It was a well written post that gave me a clear view of an elderly father listening with pride as his son makes him proud and he feels like he did a good job raising him.

At 1:52 PM, July 12, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

I don't know if it is fortunate or unfortunate that I never had to earn my parents' respect. I say unfortunate because I think I might have tried harder and done better with some motivation.

However, it must be hard on a child and teenager growing up and having your father or mother always saying something negative.

I have used a bit of both for Daughter. I tell her that was good, but I bet she could do better. I used proud and disappointed strategically to motivate. I think it has worked.

Congrats to you for all your accomplishments.

At 1:53 PM, July 12, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks for your feedback, everyone. I was curious to see how people would evaluate Dad's behaviour, and mine. When I reread the post, I think I come off at least as badly as my Dad.

Carolyn understood the post exactly the way I intended it. That is, the difficult years mostly arose from conflicting values.

Thanks, Journeywoman, for putting a positive spin on the history. I think I am a person of integrity, but some of my former friends likely disagree. (Particularly former evangelical friends.)

At the time of my crisis, I took great comfort from the assessment of one friend: "You ruthlessly conform your life to your convictions." I think that's true; the trouble is, my convictions have changed radically, twice! So I come off looking unstable and unreliable.

Snaars, I got a chuckle out of your reference to my checkered past. (Your remark about college is also very apt.) I made several false starts in life, and I'll never recoup the economic opportunities I forfeited in the process. On the other hand, I've had a "rich" life in terms of experience, I think. There's nothing very exotic in my past, but there has been a lot of variety.

I wouldn't want anyone to conclude that Dad didn't love me during the difficult years. It is possible to love someone even while you don't respect them. Dad was tough on me because he wanted me to succeed and he didn't think my choices would serve me well long term.

Even the line about "getting my shit together" shouldn't be held against him. First, I don't remember it objectively. I know that, because I can't remember his exact words. Second, the remark was somewhat justified (though tactless). I was still at the stage of dismantling my old life; I hadn't yet begun to build a new (and better) life in its stead.

Finally, Carolyn, I'm glad you regarded this as an appropriate occasion to mention your past drug addiction. Very few people get things right on the first try. Life usually gives us a second chance, but not everyone seizes it.

It sounds like you and I and Snaars have all done exactly that — seized the second chance life has given us. And I think Journeywoman would say that she has done the same.

At 1:54 PM, July 12, 2005, Blogger B2 said...

Wow -- that is a journey worth retelling; thanks for sharing it. Now you just have to.... keep going.

At 2:01 PM, July 12, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Your comment came through while I was composing my own. (This happens to me a lot, because I write at length, and I take a long time to choose my words!)

You raise an interesting point, looking at the issue from the perspective of a parent trying to figure out how best to raise his/her child. Deciding when to overlook a failing, like it's invisible, and when to call attention to it, and express disapproval — that's one of the toughest calls to make as a parent.

Congrats to you for all your accomplishments.

You're very kind. I'm not sure I've accomplished very much, the way the world measures success. But there are very few things in my past that I view with regret.

Thanks for the feedback. Each time we face a challenge and succeed, we're rewarded with another challenge. You're right, we have to keep going (and keep growing).

At 1:02 AM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Without the struggle it can be harder to assign real value to the things we earn. That is a nice story.


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