What makes a good father?
We’d be hard pressed to write down a particular set of skills. In fact, it’s easier to identify the bad ones. Philosopher Simone Weil writes that “real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring,” and that it is. So it’s a rather simple societal task for us to call out the bad dads: the abusive, the deadbeat, the distant or hateful.
It’s much harder to talk about real good, which, as Weil points out, is “always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” We can’t capture it in a few quick strokes of the pen or one shining stereotype. It doesn’t lend itself well to a character in a movie or an item on the news. It has to be lived to be experienced.
I have been blessed to have a wellspring of good fathers in my life. Each of them is as unique as can be, and writing the full measure of their virtues would be an impossible task. What I can do to honor them is pass along a quality or two from some of my fathers that have shaped my life and my perception of what makes a good dad and a good man.
• Wonder: There is an undercurrent of culture which says a manly man needs not concern himself too much with book learning. This is not only wrong-headed but stupid. My great-grandfather, a child of the Great Depression, was forced to leave school and go to work to help support his family. Despite his lack of formal education, he was absolutely thirsty for knowledge. He collected historical artifacts, read encyclopedias in his spare time, and made it his business to know every detail of his agricultural trade, from horses to seed corn. He was a hardworking man, not just with his hands, but with his mind. He never, ever considered himself finished with the work of learning, and spent his 92 years full of wonder and awe of the world around him.
• Silent love: Charlie was the husband of my childhood babysitter. He did not talk much, and when he did his voice was gruff and almost unintelligible. He was cranky and shy. He had no children of his own, and he didn’t seem to relate to kids very well, spending his day smoking quietly on the front porch as the babysitting kids shouted around him. But if Charlie was needed, he would be there, promptly and silently. I can remember riding in his ancient green Chevrolet pickup, ferried silently and awkwardly back and forth from basketball practice and home sick from school. He almost never said a word, but in hindsight, he never had to. Actions of love speak so much louder.
• Playfulness: Some men get too “grown up” to play. What a loss. My grandfather’s work ethic is matched only by his play ethic. Stupid jokes and silly pranks, checkers and wiffle ball, guitar pickin’ and weekend outings, even his daily 15 minutes of shut-eye after lunch. The way you spend your leisure time is even more important than the way you labor, and little eyes are always watching.
• Storytelling: My father has many talents — agriculture, athletics, business — but the role he takes for granted is that of the storyteller. He has a memory like a steel trap and the easy, friendly demeanor that makes people settle in comfortably to listen to what he has to say. His tales of family and local history are a living link that helps us understand and honor our present. The role of oral storytellers in our society is vanishing, and without them, we will forget who we are and where we came from. I aspire to the breadth of knowledge and the skill of spinning a yarn my father has, and one-half of my own writing career I owe to him.
• Humility: My husband is full of talent and full of music. There is always a song in that man’s heart, and it gets richer and more complex the longer I know him. Back when we were engaged, he once told me that when playing music, he had a desire to be the least talented person in the room. I was baffled. But he explained that working together with a group of superiors makes you better and better over time as you work to match their skill and learn from their example. That lesson has stuck with me personally and professionally ever since.
These good men and so many others are different from each other in almost every possible way. But when it comes to goodness, it seems that that’s the way God wants it. As the great Christian author C.S. Lewis said, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different the saints!”