My Path to the Spiritual Practice of Fatherhood
Maybe the most pivotal moment in my life, the point in time that had the clearest before and after reality to it for me, came when I was in Seoul, South Korea. It was this time of year in 2005, in fact. I was a couple months into a 6 month long language fellowship studying Korean at Yonsei University. A professor of mine at Columbia University helped me obtain the paid fellowship. The plan was for me to bulk up on my Korean language skills in preparation for my upcoming applications to PhD study programs in Asian Religions with a focus on Korea. Doing research in primary languages is rather important for PhD work.
But things were not going well. Despite a semester of Korean at Columbia and informal studies for more than a year, I simply wasn’t getting a feel for the language. And reading Korean, what I needed to be best at, proved most difficult. I could never get the hang of the subject object verb sentence structure. Instead of I am studying Korean language and it is hard. It is in Korean, I Korean language am studying and it hard is. Complex sentences killed me.
More than this, it was a very isolating and lonely experience. I lived in a small room in a small apartment and did not really interact much with my Korean roommates. My fellow language students were younger and single and mostly from other countries. And being an American, often international folks, like it or not, understandably or not, have one strike against you from the get go. I am sure it is absolutely worse now.
Intense solitude marked many days. I spent many of my days coffee-shop hopping, notebook in hand to alone write as I sipped coffee. I still could not understand much of the Korean spoken, a reminder that I was not good at learning the language and that I was far from home.
Yes, it gave me a lot of time to meditate. And I got to visit Buddhist temples on the weekends. Yet, it did not assuage the loneliness and isolation. Even introverts need a social life.
Holly was back home in New York. She was gracious in supporting me and my studies. However, at the same time, at 35 years-old, her biological clock was ringing its bell pretty hard. Starting a family was the subject of most of our conversations during this time. In fact, we were registered in NY to adopt and discussing buying a home.
After one Saturday morning phone conversation ended, one where my desire to be a father was poignantly questioned and tested, reality began to dawn on me. In tears, frustrated and alone, I began asking myself the question, “what the heck am I doing here?” Why am I being so selfish? All of these ambitious goals and plans, who are they for? Are they worth it? What about Holly? What about family? What about my so-called call to religious ministry? Is this loneliness and isolation worth the emotional pain and distance or my ambition?
I sat with myself in the emptiness of my room. I stared at the cell phone once alive with words: Don, do you really want to be a father or are you just telling me what I want to hear? I asked that question to myself again and again. After a time of deeply pondering that question, I began to envision fatherhood, what it would mean, what parenting a child, my child, would mean. Then the fog dissipated.
Broken yet clear, I said to myself – it is time. It is time to begin to fully accept the calling to parenthood and ministry and to sincerely let go of self and of ambition, and commit fully to my family and to building a family.
I ended my language fellowship midway. I went home. I threw myself into preparing for religious ministry. Holly and I worked on making a family. And by the end of the next year, December 2006, Holly would be pregnant with Corey.
Hospice chaplaincy would change my feelings of ministry… religious ministry turned from Plan B to my life’s calling.
As for fatherhood, it has changed my life in absolutely every way. To me, parenthood, along with marriage, is the greatest of spiritual teachers. It really isn’t a match. No Zen master or Christian teacher or spiritual guide can match the truths parenthood teaches me. This was true from the very first movement of our child inside the womb to his very first breath outside it.
One of the central questions that religion and spiritual faith have asked since the very beginning is this one: what is the point of the spiritual life. Is the point individual growth – individual nourishment, self-care, enlightenment, spiritual ambition – or is it collective betterment – making our communities better, more compassionate, more neighborly? Is the ultimate purpose of religious faith the individual self or the collective group – family, community, society?
The responsibility of nurturing our children provides me an answer to the age-old question. We are each, all of us, called to care for and protect humanity’s children. That is ultimately why we are here.
Evolutionary science teaches us this. Each species, including the human species, has an instinctive drive to perpetuate the species, to see that the species as a whole, as a society, continues on. This doesn’t mean we will all be parents or that we all want to be parents. But parent or not, we do have an instinct that desired that our species survive and thrive. For example, that instinct kicks in when a child is in danger. We instinctively put children’s safety in front of our own. That is why we are so heartbroken when a young child dies.
This instinct to protect children is partly an example of our biological instinct to desires for our species continue and thrive.
In other words, we are not merely wired to be social creatures. We are also wired to want human society to continue and to survive and even thrive.
Faith and spirituality plays a crucial role here. In the earliest stages of human evolution, religion and spirituality came along and never left. Scientists have come to see that religion gives what is called “evolutionarily advantageous.” Faith and spirituality enhanced our ability to survive and thrive as a whole compared to other species. The future is better because of spirituality and faith.
I think of the words of that somewhat sappy Whitney Houston song, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well…” We instinctively know this and seek to make that future better for them and our species. Religious faith and spirituality is a tool to help in this job.
But where does the self-growth come in? Where does bettering our selves come in?
As you know, I was in Florida the past couple weeks. We took flew there and back. And at the beginning of each flight, the flight attendant goes over what to do in the case of an emergency. Part of the spiel is that if oxygen is needed in the cabin and the masks come down, parents or caregivers should put their masks on first and then attend to their child or dependent.
Yes, the larger goal is that all of us survive and thrive, that all of us get the air we need and have the life we want. The larger goal is collective betterment, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. But taking care of ourselves, making sure our selves are nurtured, is a vital, necessary step to get to that goal of collective betterment.
Fatherhood has made this so clear to me.
Fatherhood is for me a spiritual practice. It is the most sacred of spiritual practices. I care for myself to care for my son, yes. This is necessary. But I also give myself away to care for my son. I sacrifice my needs and wants to make sure his needs and wants are met. That’s what good fathers everywhere do.
Here we see the spiritual life in a nutshell. The spiritual life is a dance where we at one turn care for ourselves, at another turn we give ourselves away to care for the other, and at another turn we let go of pride to allow the other to care for us, when we are sick for example. Remember the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The Trinity is a perfect picture of the divine dance, one between the first family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, balancing caring for self, caring for another self, and accepting the care of another.
This divine dance is meant to benefit the whole of which we are a part, beginning with family and moving out into society and the world.
This is how Jesus saw God – as Father who in a similar way dances with us his children and calls for us to follow suit.
How Jesus saw God, as nurturing father, as tender caregiver of the universe, that is who we are all called to be.
I close with some of Mr. Rogers most poignant words, where he offers up his basic theology of life, one I share:
“At the center of the Universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.
…at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”