Fathers, Bullying and Borrowed Authority

ProfJohnRWhen I was growing up, John Robinson was my favorite fictional father. Like my Dad, he was a scientist. Unlike my Dad, he never shouted (except with enthusiasm, or, y’know, when he had to be heard over the wind from a cosmic storm.) He was religious, so he understood there was a difference between good and evil beyond what some book of rules said, but, unlike a fire-and-brimstone preacher, if you really screwed up, he patiently told you what you did wrong, and then moved pleasantly on to the next topic. This had to be the most compassionate man alive. After all, he let Zachary Smith live for at least three seasons!

When you’re young, you look at fathers in fiction and you think, “I wish he were my Dad,” or “I wish my Dad were more like him.” Even with the best father, a kid is prone to do that. Fathers are only human, after all. They have flaws. And who sees your flaws more than the person who depends upon you, wants to be like you, maybe even worships you? The wish is not something to feel guilty about. It’s natural. I suppose fathers sometimes also look at another kid and think, “I wish my son were more like him.” I’m sure my father did it with me. But I can’t speak from experience on this. I’ve never wished for different sons than the ones I have. Yes, sometimes I think I’d change little things about them if I could, but then they wouldn’t be the people they are, now would they?

When you get older, though, especially when you have kids of your own, you look at fathers in fiction differently, more critically. Often you congratulate yourself on what a better parent you are than that father on the page or the screen. Or you roll your eyes and think peevishly, “Does this guy think he’s perfect? No father behaves that way!” If you’re very lucky, though, at least if you’re very lucky and you’re a man, you see in a fictional character the father that you want to be to your kids. He’s a man you feel admiration and sympathy for, a man you feel a kinship to.

I still think John Robinson’s pretty amazing, but, at age 48, and as the father of a 21 and a 14-year-old, I think my favorite fictional father has to be Charles Hallowell in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. somethingwickedthiswaycomes

Like me, Hallowell is a librarian. (Okay, actually he’s the library janitor, but he spends most of his time with the books, not a mop.) Like me, he’s confronting middle age as his son is confronting adulthood. Like me, he looks wistfully at all the things his son is doing and remembers when he did those things, and wishes he could do them still; but he knows he either can’t or shouldn’t. He recognizes that a 50-year-old mind doesn’t fit in a 14-year-old body. Like me, he wonders sometimes if a younger, a stronger, a braver man could be a better father to his son.

But here’s the piece of the book that made me accept Charles Hallowell as a kind of fictional alter-ego, as a missing piece of my own soul. It’s when he says this to his son, Will:

“Nothing extraordinary about me except I’m fifty-four, which is always extraordinary to the man inside it. Born in Sweet Water, lived in Chicago, survived in New York, brooded in Detroit, floundered in lots of places, arrived here late, after living in libraries around the country all those years because I liked being alone, liked matching up in books what I’d seen on the roads. Then in the middle of all the running away, which I called travel, in my thirty-ninth year, your mother fixed me with one glance, been here ever since. Still most comfortable in the library nights, in out of the rain of people. Is this my last stop? Chances are. Why am I here at all? Right now, it seems, to help you.”

He paused and looked at the two boys and their fine young faces. “Yes,” he said. “Very late in the game. To help you.”

To help. Isn’t that what fathers are for? Isn’t that what parenting is?

Our children didn’t ask to be born. They don’t owe us anything. We gave them life? Wow, thanks for nothing, ‘rents! I could have been happy in Eternity’s waiting room, oblivious to the toils and cares of life, but no… You brought me here, to this place that has wars and mass shootings and hurricanes and poisonous snakes and blue laws and light beer.

You call that a favor?

We drag our kids, literally kicking and screaming, into the world. They don’t owe us. We owe them. As payment for forcing them to live a life they didn’t ask for, we owe them the simple favor of teaching them how to live that life.

Assuming we know how to live that life.

Oh, wait… we don’t.

Never in my almost-half-century of life have I met a man or woman I thought was navigating these rapids we call life better than I am. And never in all that time have I claimed I was a steady hand on the tiller. No, I suck at life.

It’s just that I think I suck less at it than you do. And I’m willing to admit I’m probably wrong about that.

I’ve heard very nice men say, “I’m not here to be my child’s friend. I’m here to be his father.” By that I believe they mean that it’s their place, not to be loved or liked, but to be a stern disciplinarian and a fine moral example. These are good men, trying hard to do the right thing.

But… um… Sorry…

Horse Shit.

Stern disciplinarian? I can’t even maintain my own discipline. Watch me try to only have two drinks at a party. Or to force myself to write 1000 words every day. Or to finish all the things on my “to do” list. Or to stop putting so much stuff on my “to do” list that I can’t get it all done in one day. Fine moral example? I started drinking at 15, totaled a car at 16… I’ve lied, I’ve cheated, I’ve manipulated, I’ve illegally downloaded… Nope. No fine moral example here. But, honestly, I don’t think any other man alive is doing much better.

So what can I do for my kids but help? Yes, I’ll be their friend. And sometimes that means telling them hard truths. And sometimes, because I’m not perfect, I’ll yell. But most of all I just want to help them. Because they need me. And because I owe them that.

I had kids to assuage my ego, not to create more soldiers in some heavenly cause. I wanted to be a Dad because it was an interesting challenge to see if I could do it right, and because, if I could do it right, I’d be able to consider myself better than the average guy. None of that gives me any right to claim they should thank me for their existence. Hell, I drafted the poor little guys onto my team in a game I don’t even understand.

So I’m not about to lord over them how emotionally and morally superior I am.

Where does anyone even get off doing that? Bullying and shouting and using phrases like, “My way or the highway?” Yes, people really say things like that!

I think they do it because someone — their teachers, their fathers, their older brothers — did it to them. And at some point — maybe right from the beginning — they knuckled under and accepted being treated that way. They assumed that that person was right to treat them that way, or maybe they didn’t assume it, they just convinced themselves. They strove to meet that person’s expectations and accepted suffering and mistreatment because it was good for them. It made them a better person. And, as adults, or older boys, they started to treat other, smaller people the way they had been treated, because it was good for them.

But what if they were wrong to treat you that way? Mightn’t they be? It’s not an easy proposition to accept, is it? Because it makes you a victim. And because it puts you at odds with someone bigger and stronger. And there’s peer pressure involved. A crowd of people is likely to accept and even encourage a bully. Crowds don’t root for underdogs. Crowds like to back winners. Hell, I can remember girls cheering when bullies tortured me and grown women laughing when my father would shout at me or slap me in public.

It’s not easy to stand up to something like that. It’s easier, I guess, to re-align your world view and accept that mistreatment is your due, that it makes you a better person.

Well, I guess it didn’t work for me. I’m not a better person. I’m just me. I never accepted that anyone had a right to mistreat me, nor do I believe I have a right to mistreat others. “For their own good?” Who the hell am I to presume to know what someone else’s good is? I barely know what’s good for me.

But, from where I sit, those people who knuckle under and learn their lesson… what have they gained? Are they better people? Do they have courage, strength, moral conviction? Or are they just really good at doing what they’re told? Do they have a strong, positive self-image? Or is their ego dependent upon whether or not they’re accepted by the bigger, the stronger, the older brother, the father or the bully in their life?

When they continue the time-honored traditions of hazing and “not being a friend,” are they manifesting their own strength of character? Or are they just borrowing someone else’s? And, if they’re only borrowing, who are they borrowing from? Another bullied kid who knuckled under? Where’s the strength in that? Passed down in a sealed envelope through generations, never opened, never examined, never viewed directly, never claimed by any one person? Can that be strength of character? Or is that merely a tradition of fear?

For me, the man who admits his weakness, keeps open his mind to learning about the world, looks at his son with wonder and acknowledges a debt to him that can never be repaid… that is a strong man, a courageous man, a man who can look into the abyss and walk away unchanged, who can stand against evil to protect those he loves, who can laugh in the face of death and danger.

That is a father. He’s here to help.

He may be meek and unassuming. He may seem afraid, even cowardly at times. But, if you think he’s spineless… just try messing with his kids. I don’t advise it. You might find he’s more frightening than all the bullies in all the schoolyards in all the ages of human history.

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