I tell you in all truth, when you were young, you dressed yourself and walked wherever you wanted to; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. - John 21:18
Much of the book of Genesis tells of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the “patriarchs” of near legendary stature. In one major strand of current social thought, the adjective “patriarchal” has strongly negative connotations, suggesting the appropriation of power by males and the subjugation of women.
The story of Isaac, though, should make it quite clear that things were not necessarily that one-sided. If Isaac had controlled the course of events, we would talk of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau. If we want to trace the actual line of authority, we need to talk of Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob. Isaac has the formal right to pronounce the blessing, but he is totally outmaneuvered. He becomes little more than the agent of his wife’s intentions. So much for Isaac the patriarch.
The usual image of a father, though, is one of strength. Most husbands are physically larger and stronger than their wives. In what we think of as primitive cultures, males are expected to deal with the challenges of the outside world because of their athletic skills, while women are expected to deal with domestic needs because of their patience and attention to detail.
In our own times, though, as more and more machines are developed, fewer and fewer jobs require physical strength. One of the foundations of the traditional male role seems to be eroding. Add to this the radical increase in the number of working mothers, and the image of the father as the breadwinner gets fuzzier and fuzzier. It used to be that the husband could come home from work feeling that his main duty was done. He had done the day’s share in providing the roof overhead, the clothes in the closets, and the food on the table.
That might in fact be the primary motive behind his professional work. Countless men took jobs not because they found the work worthwhile in and of itself, but “to earn a living.” Day after day they went out to do things they did not want to do, things that might be tedious or strenuous or even dangerous, because there were bills to be paid. It is a joyless picture, a loveless picture.
Perhaps that lovelessness, accumulating over the years, is one reason there are so many more widows than there are widowers. In his description of the basic difference between the sexes, Swedenborg describes the male as having thought on the outside and feeling on the inside, and the female as having feeling on the outside and thinking on the inside. I hasten to add that he insists that there is immense variety. He would not for a moment disparage emotional men or intellectual women. He is simply saying that if you take a large enough sample, this pattern will begin to emerge.
It means that if the role of fatherhood is restricted to a loveless world of professional competence, the father as father is cut off from his own deeper nature and his own deeper needs. We could expect there to be an urgent need for companionship, an attraction to activities like clubs and team sports that provide things to do together without the threat of embarrassment.
There is one other liability to this restricted role model. To the extent that the public sphere is overwhelmingly managed by males, males shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for everything that is wrong with our world. At a workshop I attended about three years ago, one young man broke into tears toward the close and said that this was the first time he had felt that it might be all right to be a white male. What looks like power from the outside can feel like responsibility from the inside.
This is vividly true in the home. Think for a moment of the father picking up his daughter to put her in her high chair, or giving his son a piggyback ride upstairs to bed. Then think of what it would feel like here and now to have someone pick you up like that—casually, without apparently giving it a second thought. In the eyes of children, fathers are definitely larger than life size, far larger than the fathers themselves feel. We can be quite sure that Isaac looked like this to the little twins, Esau and Jacob. Given Isaac’s actual ineffectiveness, we can certainly suspect that he did not feel powerful at all.
To digress for just a moment, then, it may help to realize that “power” is not all that easy to quantify. For one thing, if we define it as the ability to make a difference or to realize our intentions, it is clearly relative to our various situations. To use a simple image, I have a certain amount of muscular mass and physical strength. This means that I have power over people with less strength and that people with more strength have power over me. Equally important is the fact that people may give me power that I do not possess. If my wife thinks that I am upset about something, that thought will influence her behavior whether I am actually upset or not. If we could see behind the scenes, I suspect we would be amazed at how many times we or our friends or family members have reacted to misreadings of others’ feelings—to things thatweren’t really there at all. What kind of power is this?
It borders on a kind that is implicit in our text. “I tell you in all truth, when you were young, you dressed yourself and walked wherever you wanted to; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Fathers age, and their children grow to full strength. The balance shifts, and the caretakers begin to need care. It will be especially hard for the father if he is heavily invested in being sufficient for the needs of the family, in “producing.” It will be especially hard for the children if they are not ready to be caretakers.
That is, there is a kind of power of circumstance, the power of the passage of time, that needs to be figured into the equation. Generation will succeed generation. We all start as the little ones, and at some point find that we are the senior generation. In a sense, we start powerless, gain strength, and then decline; but in the caring community or the caring family, that leaves out something vital. As our needs grow greater, those needs themselves place demands on our caretakers.
The elderly father is no longer the physical giant or the provider, but in the eyes of his children, he is still Dad. He is still Dad, and now for the first time he has the opportunity to model a wholly new kind of strength—the strength to accept care. The whole process of aging presses us inexorably away from valuing ourselves because of our accomplishments, because of our productivity. It presses us, that is, toward finding a new meaning, a deeper meaning for our existence.
From a Swedenborgian point of view, what is happening is that we are being given the materials we need to prepare ourselves for our transition to the spiritual world. What matters in that world is not what we have done but how we understand and appreciate each other. It is a time for the latent side of the male to come to the surface, for the affection to come out from behind its achievements and make itself known.
In a very real sense, this is the final giving up of fatherhood. In the spiritual world, we are told, we progress toward the springtime of life. The generations of the ages blend into one. Our great-great-grandparents are as young as our parents, and all of them are younger than we are likely to be when we die. As generation after generation passes into the spiritual world, generation after generation gives up its seniority, so to speak. We find ourselves in a world where the only ranking rests in the fact that the most loving are the wisest, and the wisest the most loving.
The Gospels advise us to start getting into practice now. Matthew says it most clearly: “And do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have only one Father, who is in heaven.” When we stand in a valley and look at the mountains, they seem immense. When we look at the same scene from space, those differences are scarcely noticeable. When we compare ourselves with each other, the differences may seem immense; but when we compare ourselves with the infinite Lord, those same differences seem quite trivial. To use another image, a ten-month-old child is ten times as old as a one-month-old child. When they are both ninety, the difference is insignificant.
Our human fatherhood is one of those mountains that looks immense until we see it in proportion. Our human fatherhood, then, lasts only as long as we are limited to an earthly perspective. It is intended to be a temporary state, an integral and necessary stage in our journey through this life, but no more than that. As our perspective widens with the years, the children grow and the fathers shrink. Gradually, we discover that we are all in this together, young and old, each bringing unique gifts to the whole.
We live at a time when traditional roles are being called into question. This is unsettling, often painful, and sometimes genuinely hurtful. But fatherhood, like motherhood, is too important to be taken for granted, to be handled the way it has always been handled just because that is the way things have been. Ultimately, it will do us good to think long and hard about what it means, what it demands, what it offers. The more clearly we see it, the more clearly we see that both its responsibilities and its rewards need to be shared, that the understanding and support community and the culture are urgently needed if by being fathers men are to learn to become children of their heavenly Father—which is, after all, what this life is all about.