Finding Healing on Father's Day
By Jim Palmer
June 14, 2013
Jim Palmer is the author of Divine Nobodies, Wide Open Spaces and more. You can track him down on Facebook and Twitter.
I have an old, faded black-and-white photograph of a tall, imposing, full-blooded Italian young man dressed in combat gear leaning against a three-ton World War II Sherman tank. On the back of the picture a date is scribbled out: 4/6/45.
The young man is my father, who arrived at Omaha Beach fresh with bodies of American soldiers still floating off shore 13 days after D-Day. He fought in Patton’s 3rd Army on the 712 Tank Battalion in the 90th Infantry Division. He began in France and fought his way to Czechoslovakia, shutting down the last German resistance near the war’s end.
It’s difficult for me to think of my father as a soldier because I knew him to be such a passive man. Though he left home when I was young, the truth is he was never really there. To this day I cannot remember ever having a meaningful conversation with my father. We didn’t fish together, we didn’t go to baseball games together and we didn’t work on cars together.
It wounded me deeply that my father was patently uninterested in me. It made me feel ugly, stupid and worthless. I entered adulthood clueless about what it meant to be a man. I pretty much just made it up as I went along. In many respects I’m still doing that today. Eventually I became a father myself; it has not been easy figuring that out either. For many years I cringed when people referred to God as “Father.” Inside I was thinking, “Not interested!”
Healing may not mean your relationship with your father is fixed ... Healing may mean realizing that this is not preventing you from being at peace and free right now.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Happy Father’s Day!
Maybe it’s not so “happy” for you. Perhaps you’re one of those people who will play the charade of giving a gift, sending a card or making a phone call out of obligation or guilt. Maybe you carry deep wounds from your relationship (or lack thereof) with your father. Perhaps you’ve suffered from the disapproval, rejection, absence or abandonment of your father. Maybe you will try to drum up some positive demeanor toward your dad on Father’s Day even though you really feel nothing at all.
So, this is not one of those articles about how if you had more faith, or more biblical knowledge, or more forgiveness, or more commitment, or more Christian maturity, then your broken relationship with your father would be healed, the issues resolved and your pain gone. I’m not saying those things can’t happen, I’m just offering a different idea about what “healing” might mean for some.
Let me break it down into some specific possibilities. When it comes to a broken relationship with your father, maybe healing means …
Separating pain and suffering
If you experienced abuse, rejection or abandonment from your father, the normal human response is to feel deep hurt and pain. But how you interpreted that abuse, rejection or abandonment can lead to unnecessary suffering. For example, I interpreted my father’s lack of involvement and interest in my life as evidence that I was worthless. I concluded that his rejection was all about me. The truth is, it had very little to do with me—it was all about him.
As a child or young person, when we first experience hurt with our father, we don’t have the capacity to reason through it accurately. For all practical purposes, when a father doesn’t express love and affirmation to his son or daughter, they conclude they are therefore not worthy of love and affirmation. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to see that a person who views themselves this way will suffer deep emotional anguish, which is likely to sabotage their life and relationships.
“Healing” means identifying the false messages you took on board as a result of the hurt experienced from your father. These could include feelings of self-hatred, irrational or unfounded fears, and all kinds of self-defeating and destructive patterns of thinking about yourself, life, God and others.
The truth is sometimes hidden within a web of lies. The reality of your value, worth and identity may be buried deep within a maze of falsehoods you adopted about yourself in hurtful experiences with your father.
Depersonalizing the hurt
I’m not talking about denying the hurt you feel with respect to your father. What I am saying is that you may only be operating with half the picture. Here’s what I mean. No little boy says: “When I grow up, I want to be a dad who hurts and wounds my children. I want to reject them, abuse them, abandon them and damage them for life.”
But damaged, wounded and hurt people damage, wound and hurt others. That’s not an excuse, but it means any child could have been inserted into your place, and the damage, wounds and hurts would have still been afflicted upon them by your father.
My father had a troubled relationship with his father. My father experienced the horrors of war. My father worked two jobs, barely keeping his head above water. Who knows all the dreams he gave up along the way. My father carried all kinds of hurts and wounds I know nothing about. My understanding of my father is woefully incomplete. There is some healing that comes when this truly sinks in. It doesn’t eliminate the pain, but it helps you to absorb it.
One of the most common miracles Jesus performed was healing the blind, which I believe was partly Jesus’ way of emphasizing the significance of seeing things clearly. In Matthew 6:22 Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light ”(TNIV). In other words, seeing things as they truly are is the bedrock of freedom.
Breaking the silence
Hurts and wounds that are suffered in isolation and silence are rarely healed. One of the most significant things you could ever do is tell the painful story of your relationship with your father to a trusted friend or significant other. There’s something about articulating and expressing your heartache with another person that helps you disentangle yourself from it. AA has largely been successful because it provides a network of relationships where people are open and honest about their pain and struggle.
If you don’t feel like you know someone you’d be comfortable sharing with, there are groups of Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse that you may find very helpful. “Healing” means no longer suffering in silence or carrying your pain alone.
If I’m reading Jesus correctly, the message is that ultimately your peace, freedom, contentment and well-being is not dependent upon anything or anyone outside your control—including your father. The source of love, peace, freedom, contentment and well-being is the life of Christ within you. That source is never threatened by life’s circumstances, and nothing needs to change in order for you to access the “abundant life” Jesus offered.
“Healing” means we allow the love and compassion of Christ to flow through our own pains and sorrows to others.
“Healing” may not mean your relationship with your father is fixed, restored, resolved or gets any better. Instead, “healing” may mean realizing this is not preventing you from being at peace and free right now.
Compassion for others
Frederick Buechner wrote, “Even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.” Do you feel deep sadness and sorrow about your father―things you wish could be different or hurts that never seem to go away? Maybe this sadness can become a source of wisdom, strength and compassion for others who are hurting. Maybe “healing” means choosing to be an instrument of healing in the world.
Your own deep hurt is one of the most significant gifts you offer the walking wounded. For a lot of people, there is no fill-in-the-blank God-answer or biblical formula that “fixes” their heartache. What many of these people desire and need is to simply connect with another person who truly understands. “Healing” means being someone who will listen and care, someone who is willing to walk alongside someone else in their pain.
This is at the heart of Christian revelation. God is not some distant cosmic force that doesn’t understand. God in Christ is familiar with human heartache and sorrow. God in Christ understands and shares our hurts. As the “body of Christ” on Earth, we are now expressions of Christ to one another and the whole world―God in Christ in us. “Healing” means we allow the love and compassion of Christ to flow through our own pains and sorrows to others.
There is no bridge that crosses the sea of sadness separating me and my father. To this day the man in that faded black-and-white photograph seems like a stranger. I carry a deep sorrow about the absence of relationship with my dad. Sometimes I will drift back in my heart and mind to painful memories of his absence.
I experienced in Jesus someone who understood those painful places in me for which there are no words, knowing He hasn’t “fixed” my relationship with my father or taken away the pain, and yet I have found peace and freedom in ways I’ve described above.
Maybe this is what “healing” means.