No wound too deep
Thanking a father for what he didn’t say
The most moving letters from WORLD members that I’ve received came in response to an Oct. 26, 2019, column about not playing catch with my father. Many readers said their experience was similar.
A typical comment: “My dad never, and I mean never, played anything with my brother or me. I deeply regret what I lost not having memories of my dad taking time to play with me.” Another wrote, “I know the great black hole that remains when a father is present and willfully absent at the same time. We finally walk away and begin the search for a Heavenly Father.”
Sometimes books I write lead to columns. This is the one time a column led to a book. The letters pushed me to research why my dad was unhappy and socially isolated decades before COVID-19. The result is Lament for a Father, published in time for Father’s Day.
These days I feel grateful for what mine provided but also what he did not: a bitter sense that the whole world is against me. Like many of his generation, my father never spoke of his hard World War II experiences. In his case, what he saw right after the war was the worst: concentration camps with piles of bodies and a few walking skeletons.
What if, as I was growing up in a Jewish home, my father had embedded in me the gruesome detail he saw while sweeping up the ruins of the Third Reich? What if he had told me how some of my great-grandparents probably received bullets in their heads from Nazi soldiers and collaborators? I grew up without consciousness of anti-Semitism. What if my father had rat-a-tat-tatted into my brain a sense that evil lurked around every corner?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I went seriously astray but retained an overall optimism unmarred by nightmares about Holocaust horrors. I regret as an adult not pressing my father further for information about his past, but I also see more method, and love, in his reticence.
Instead of blaming my father, I now see how Harvard Darwinism, Hitler’s power, and my mother’s nagging took away his self-confidence. I understand my mother more: She had a brutal father and a mother who gave up. My tendency at one point in the research was to blame my maternal grandfather, but then I learned how Russian Cossacks brutalized him until he escaped to America.
I could blame the Cossacks, but it didn’t start with them either. I’m not excusing everyone’s bad behavior, including my own. I do want us to focus on empirical proof for a Christian worldview: the universality of sin and our desperate need for grace.
Philosophers William James and Bertrand Russell a century or more ago, and Stephen Hawking and Antonin Scalia more recently, described a person who believed the earth sits on the back of a tiger, which stands upon an elephant, which stands on a giant turtle. When asked what supports the giant turtle, she quickly replied, “It’s turtles all the way down.”
History shows it’s sin all the way down. We are naturally wretched, passing on original sin in ways occasionally creative, usually repetitious. An iron chain seems to bond generation after generation—yet sometimes, with God’s grace and mercy, that iron chain becomes a readily breakable daisy chain. Those who see the miraculous transition cry out joyfully, as the Apostle Paul did, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).
Researching Lament for a Father taught me that he was wounded, as was my mother, as was her father, as were the Cossacks, as is everyone. But no wound is too deep for Christ to heal.
Note: If you’ve ever wanted to do journalistic writing for WORLD, the road to possible publication runs through my Austin living room. The 13th World Journalism Institute mid-career course will take place there on Oct. 7-13, God willing. For more information, please go to www.worldji.com.
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