Friday, April 18, 2014

Approval

This is a story about becoming.

Many little boys want to grow up to be their fathers. When my son, Sean, was four, he went through a period of saying, "I want to be you, Daddy!" This was charming, moving, and affirming, all things that were important to me because I was in the midst of reforming my own identity: recovering from a failed marriage; embarking on a second, also unsuccessful, marriage; and coming to realize that the career I had chosen for myself, the career that was my own last attempt at being just like Daddy, was the wrong place for me to be. There was almost nothing in my world that made me feel good about myself, except for this little boy's admiration.

The second marriage and the career ended within six months of each other, but the love of the child goes on.

A couple of years ago, I began listening to a podcast by Marc Maron, a comedian two years younger than me who posts semiweekly long-from interviews with other performers that almost always dig into the demons haunting them. Driving that depth is Maron's own haunted history, a life marked by explosive relationships, substance abuse, and two toxic parents. Maron is currently estranged from his father, who rejected his son for publicly airing (in both a memoir and a semi-autobiographical television show) the difficulties in their relationship. He brings it up often in the monologues that introduce his podcasts, and even as he speaks about how hard it is to relate to this man, I sense the longing for connection, and with it, approval.

I share that longing. Like my own son, I grew up idolizing my father, completely unaware of the challenges he faced. Like me, my father came to ministry after a fumbled attempt at avoiding his father's profession. Like me, he was cursed with a Nordic disposition, a personality that struck many of his parishioners as distant, not expressive of the warmth they sought in their pastor. Just before my birth, and again three years later, he was unceremoniously fired by the Baptist churches he led. This motivated him to leave California and take his young family across the United States to my mother's home state of New Hampshire. There he began work on a doctorate while student pastoring a rural Methodist congregation, then becoming full-time pastor of a larger church in the town of Salem, New Hampshire. His studies frequently took him away from his family, now grown to three small children, for weeks at a time. I remember wishing he would come home, missing him terribly, knowing, too, that he might bring a present when he came back from Boston; but mostly just wanting to be with him.

Those were mostly happy times for me. I remember seeing my father do things that made me swell with pride: leading services in the Salem church's sanctuary and, even more impressive, leading songs with his accordion at church dinners. I remember him opening up his shop for craft projects during vacation church school, projects that put to shame anything I was to see in the glossy packaged curricula I encountered during my own years of ministry. He was virile, assertive, wise, capable, and dedicated both to his work and his family. How could I not want to be just like him?

Unbeknownst to me, there was a darkness under all this: my father was failing his doctoral program. One component of the program was the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), an intensive chaplaincy internship at a major hospital. CPE students are required to participate in intense group work with other students, work that tears down all the facades adults erect to maintain their civilized veneer even as the world turns on them. This approach clashed with my father's Swedish/German upbringing, and in the end, he left the program. We also left New Hampshire, traveling from the deep civilization of New England to the coarse frontier of Idaho.

There was still a connection between my father and me, but as the years passed first in Idaho, then in Oregon, a gap began to grow. I'm sure much of it was my dawning adolescence. But also, the Swedish reserve that made it hard for my father to ever really connect with a congregation in the way they wanted him to connect made it hard for me to perceive his approval of my own efforts. I'm sure part of it was that my father did not believe in cheap grace; that he wanted me to aspire to greater accomplishments, better performances, than I could lazily attain with my communicative gifts. At his insistence, I practiced speeches for him in the church sanctuary, working at projecting my voice and taking my time with texts, even though I found it awkward and uncomfortable to speak to an audience of one. I think he was also disappointed that I was not becoming an outdoorsman, that my approach to Scouting was more cerebral, less muscular, than his had been. He was not one to heap empty praise on me, not a believer in self-esteem as an end in itself. If he was going to praise me, it was going to be because I deserved it.

I don't know for a fact that this is what transpired between us. It's really just what I perceived. It's an approach that I, deep down, believe in, too. With my students, I'm always careful to find something real to praise, even if I have to look hard for it. I know how important it is to express approval to them, how motivational it is to tell them what they are doing is good, but I'm powerfully conditioned against doing that if there's nothing that really works. Even so, I've had many groups I worked with praise me for how positive I am with them, probably because, even though I will drill a passage until I see improvement, I'm careful with how I express my dissatisfaction with how they're singing or playing it.

But back to my father: when I left music education in 1985 to go to seminary, I really hoped this would bring us together, that he would approve of my decision to follow in his footsteps. I think what really happened instead was that he saw me making the same mistakes he had made, saw me struggling in the same ways he had, and feared that I, like him, would feel trapped by an unfulfilling, unforgiving profession. I didn't know any of this, though, until the day I traveled to McMinnville to tell my parents I was being pushed out of ministry, and my mother recalled her reaction, fifteen years earlier, to my decision to attend seminary being, "Why would you ever want to do that?" (I don't remember that at all, by the way.) What I had not ever understood, even as the signs were all around me in Philomath, Harrisburg, Monroe, and finally Halsey, was how unhappy my father was with his work, how little affirmation he received from his congregations, and yet how little choice he felt he had. When he retired, he spoke before the Annual Conference about one highlight of his career: a river baptism. That was it. I know how hard he worked at ecumenical relations in every town where he served, how much care he put into planning every service, how he would work late into the night on Saturday putting a final polish on his sermon; but there was just this one experience he could look back on after a four decade career.

My father retired 24 years ago. Since then, he has seemed relieved from the burdens of staying in the wrong profession. He's hard to talk to: he's had many health challenges, hears poorly, and is often confused. Mostly, he seems happy not to be working, to be able to focus on his never-ending quest to know more about the world through books and documentaries. And strangely, now that I am 53 and working in a profession that does not lend itself to pride-inducing public performances, I have a growing sense, for the first time in my life, that I have accomplished exactly what my father always really wanted for me: the same thing he wanted for himself.

It was never about accomplishment. My father never appeared to aspire for that kind of recognition, never seemed to want to pastor a large church, be a superintendent. I know he enjoyed teaching, and even as a teenager, I much preferred Sunday School when he took over the class. He loved making music, too, whether it was with his accordion, at the piano, or with his voice. He was always diligent about visiting elderly parishioners (a task I never cottoned to), and I think he probably connected well with them one-on-one, but while that is probably the most important work of ministry, it's never going to get a pastor promoted to a city church. No, what my father wanted most was to be happy, to be able to do the things he loved and, if possible, to earn an income from it. Unfortunately, he had to wait for retirement for that to happen.

And that's where I think I sensed the disapproval coming from, though he never voiced it: he could tell I wasn't happy, either in my work or in my relationships, but he couldn't tell me to do what he'd never been able to do with his own unhappiness: walk away from it. He was too responsible for that, had to keep providing a home and an income for his family, couldn't take the time to go back to school, get a teaching degree, and start building a new profession. For me to be happy, he sensed, I needed to be doing something else.

Now I am doing that something else, and it does make me happy. I find more joy in a day working with difficult students than I did in three years with the most affirming church I served. I'm also in the best relationship I've ever had, one that, after more than five years, continues to grow from strength to strength. When I visit my parents these days, I believe I exude contentment, enabling me to be more present to their needs and concerns. I am, finally, happy, and that is all they ever wanted for me.

It's all I want for my own children, too. They're in their 20s now, and there's no sense from either of them that they want to be me. They're finding their way, and as challenging as that has been for me to watch from my 700-mile remove, I've kept my opinions to myself. I know I can't tell them how to be happy, that they have to figure this out for themselves. I tell them I love them, that I'm proud of them for taking the steps they have, and that I am always just a phone call or text away. I do hope that, someday, they can be me, but only in this sense: that they can earn a living doing something they enjoy, and be happy both at work and at home. Accomplish that, and they will forever have my approval. Come up short of it, and they'll still have my love, along with my hope that they can somehow make their lives happier, whatever that means for them.

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