Nobody gets to have a perfect dad. The best are flawed even though they try. Some are just rotten. Fortunately, my dad was one of the better ones. He was always a kind and faithful presence in my brother’s and my lives growing up. Whatever happened, we knew we could count on him to be there when we needed him.
Not everyone can say the same. From time to time, I hear from men whose fathers have let them down. Some of their fathers were cold or absent. Some have stories of terrible abuse. These are complex problems with no simple solutions, but there are still things we can do to make things better.
Here are five of them:
1. Find a mentor.
You can only have one father, and you don’t get to pick him. You do, however, get to pick others who can help you grow. Find others you admire and build relationships with them. Ask them to help you become like them. These relationships will increase your knowledge, wisdom and skills. As you acquire these, you’re confidence will grow.
These mentors don’t all have to be people you know. Many men writing online can help. Simply reading and pondering their material will help you grow in those areas where a troubled relationship with your father left you lacking. James Altucher has been one of these online mentors for me and many others. Maybe he can help you too. Also, don’t forget to check Art of Manliness daily.
Don’t be lazy about this. If you were abused by your father, you were a victim. Don’t victimize yourself further by neglecting to be intentional about finding relationships you need now.
2. Dedicate yourself to a mission
Abusive men abuse, in part, because their lives are not devoted to a worthy and uplifting calling. Without such a purpose to draw them out of themselves, they become ingrown, self-involved, unable to rise above their own pain. Without a mission to give them a framework for transforming their pain into positive energy, all they can do is pass that pain in to others.
You don’t have to. By dedicating yourself to a worthy goal, your life has a direction and you have motivation to throw off everything that hinders you from achieving it, including the residual damage you sustained from your father’s problems.
If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, what your mission should be, pick anything. Don’t try to decided what to spend your life doing. Decide what sounds good to attempt in the next six months. Work on meeting women. Learn a martial art. Practice a musical instrument. Garden. All these things are short-term missions. As you pursue them, the long-term focus of your life will become clearer.
3. Work on forgiveness
This can be tough to hear, especially if your father was cruel or exceptionally abusive. Nevertheless, forgiveness is a process of freeing yourself from the lasting effects of the damage your father did. Forgiveness alone allows men to step out of the chains their fathers imperfections put on them and to pursue their missions unencumbered.
As tough as it is to hear that forgiveness is necessary, it can be even tougher to do. Fortunately, there are resources. These books might be a good place to start. However you start the process, the important thing is to get going.
4. Commit to being a better man than your father was
Even the worst fathers can bequeath the gift of a bad example. If your father was rotten, at least he showed you what not to be. If you had a father who was cruel, selfish, or wholly irresponsible, when faced with a decision, ask yourself what your dad would do in this situation. Then, do the opposite.
Of course, you don’t want to spend your life trying to prove that you are better than he was, as though what matters is winning the morality Olympics. At the same time, don’t neglect the bad example he put before you so that you will know what habits to cultivate and which to avoid. Do what he would not. Was he an alcoholic? Don’t drink. Was he violent? Find some positive way to handle your anger. Was he emotionally out-of-control, unable to resolve issues from his own past? Get therapy.
Whatever you do, map out your own path and make sure it leads you in a direction different from the one your father chose.
5. Try to remain open to the consolations of faith
No one is saying you have to run out and become some hard-core fundamentalist. Rather, a willingness to, at least, remain open to spiritual input will help with the five other steps. Christian scripture has much to say about fathers and fathering, including the promise that God will be a father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5) and that the Lord takes up even those forsaken by their parents (Psalm 27:10).
Being willing to connect with these truths can help. The solace of knowing you are not, ultimately, rejected by the Father who matters is a powerful means of coming to peace with the limitations of our biological dads. Be willing to ponder this.
In the end, know that these things aren’t magic. Certainly, they aren’t going to fix everything quickly. But, walking the path these principles map out will help you fix what can be fixed. And, in the long-run, they’ll help you live peacefully with everything that can’t.
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