Fathers and sons

Men’s most enduring struggles are with their fathers, that is why they turn to their mothers for the support they badly need.  All their lives, they seek a way of dealing with their fathers’ authority, initially impugning and rebelling against it, but in the end measuring themselves against its unyielding standards.

In their advanced years, some men looking into the mirror might still be struck by a fleeting sense of terror when they see a likeness of the familiar figure they once feared.  They do not realize how, physically and temperamentally, they have become exactly their fathers. Sensitive men learn to step back and  check themselves when dealing with their own sons, consciously resisting the script written by their culture and by the contingencies of their own upbringing.

In Western cultures, it is almost obligatory for sons at a certain point to assert themselves against their fathers’ values and wishes.  The rebellion of the teenager becomes the means by which he develops his own self-worth and capacity for self-reliance, both of which initiate him into adulthood.  The son grows up into a man and returns to his father no longer as a child but as an equal, an autonomous individual.

In contrast, traditional cultures like ours expect sons to defer to their fathers all their lives.  Even as adults, they are not supposed to argue with their fathers.  They may have become powerful and wealthy — authority figures in their own milieu — but in the homes of their fathers, they remain children forever.  For them, the greatest of all affirmations will always be father’s approval.

Fathers are often not fully conscious of the control they continue to wield over their sons even in later life.  Long after they have left home and married, sons unconsciously live by the scripts impressed upon them as children by their fathers.  They form an idealized notion of the principles and values by which their fathers lived, and use this as as a compass to find their own place in the world.  When faced with difficult decisions, they would typically ask how their fathers would have acted in the same circumstances.

Nietzsche once wrote: “Fathers have much to do to make amends for the fact that they have sons.”  This aphorism can be understood in many ways.  It may be read as saying that having sons is injury enough that fathers must make up for.  But I understand it to mean that fathers must make amends for the injury that they wittingly or unwittingly inflict upon their sons.  For even in their most rebellious moments, sons long to be what they imagine their fathers want them to be.  It is a burden that they carry even when their fathers do not tell them how they should live their lives.

To this day, for example, I am still gripped by the thought that perhaps my life is not yet fulfilled simply because I did not become the lawyer that I thought my late father wanted me to be.  Many years after I had become a full professor, I continued to think of making it to law school someday and eventually becoming a trial lawyer.  It is a strange wish that my own father would have considered foolish, for not once did he say anything to dissuade me from pursuing the less flamboyant career of a teacher.   But sons create a more demanding image of their fathers in their minds.  Consciously or unconsciously, they never stop measuring themselves against this image.

My own son, mercifully, never showed any inclination to be a lawyer. If I had detected a faint glimmer of oratory in the way he talked, I might have pushed him to study law and thus complete for me my own aborted ambition.  But he wanted to be a natural scientist, as far away as possible from the social scientific community of his parents.  A clever choice.  Unfortunately for him, he had to go to the same school where my wife and I studied and still teach.  There was no way he could escape becoming an academic so long as he chose to specialize in the basic sciences.  Still, I envied his sense of autonomy.

But just when I thought he was creating his life free from his own contingencies, he surprised me with the path he took as an undergraduate student.  I had never spoken to him about my fraternity, and knowing what the initiations and rumbles were like, I would have told him to stay away from fraternities.  But one day, with a triumphant smile on his face, he greeted me and called me “Brod”.  Unknown to everybody in the house, he had joined Alpha Sigma.  It was the day after the final initiation, and he wore a long sleeved shirt to conceal the bruises.  I never got around to asking him why he joined, but in my heart I proudly took it as a son’s tribute to his father.

A couple of years later, this child decided to join campus politics, running for the same position in the student council that I held 25 years earlier.  I did not think he had any interest in these things.  I still do not think he really wanted to be a fratman or a campus politician. His engagement in both worlds was short-lived.  He quickly moved on, as if to say: “My duty is done, now let me live my life.”

Fathers will never know what makes their sons act the way they do.

But a little introspection might tell them about the tyranny of the script – “the blind impress,” in the words of the poet Philip Larkin, “that all our behavings bear.”  This is the script that fathers pass on to their sons, whose meanings every generation must learn to negotiate in order to balance the contradictory demands of autonomy and loyalty.

“If someone does not have a good father, he should acquire one,” Nietzsche said.  I disagree.  I think he should create one.  Happy Father’s Day!


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