Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Council of Dads

Some time ago, I read a book called The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler. You may know him as the author of Walking the Bible where he took about ten years to retrace the Bible through the war zones of the Middle East.

Bruce is a father of young twin daughters, Eden and Tybee. In 2008, he learned that he had “a seven-inch cancerous tumor” in his left femur. At that time, Bruce felt completely lost and he was extremely fearful of his future. As the fragility of his own mortality stared unflinchingly in his face, he came up with a novel idea called the Council of Dads for his twin daughters. Should he not survive the cancer, Bruce wanted a father-figure to be around his daughters, to give them timely advice, to stand in his place to counsel them, to help them in times of need, and to show them all the good things in this world that he may be unable to do so himself.

In a touching letter to six of his friends, whom he had elected to form the council, Bruce wrote these words, “A few days later, I woke up suddenly before dawn and thought of a way I might help recreate my voice for them. I started making a list of six men – from all parts of my life, beginning with when I was a child and stretching through today. These are men who know me best. The men who share my values. The men who helped shape and guide me. The men who traveled with me, studied with me, have been through the pain and happiness with me. Men who know my voice.”

The letters were sent to these six men with this heart-felt invitation, “Will you help be their dad? Will you listen in on them? Will you answer their questions? Will you take them out to lunch every now and then? Will you go to a soccer game if you’re in town? Will you watch their ballet moves for the umpteenth time? When they get older, will you indulge them in a new pair of shoes? Or buy them a new cell phone, or some other gadget I can’t even imagine right now? Will you give them advice? Will you be tough as I would be? Will you help them out in a crisis? And as time passes, will you invite them to a family gathering on occasion? Will you introduce them to somebody who might help one of their dreams come true? Will you tell them what I would be thinking? Will you tell them how proud I would be?...Will you be my voice?

The first dad was Jeff Shumlin. He was to be his daughters’ life coach and to teach them how to travel. Jeff believed in growth through a sense of community. He was to be his voice of risk taking, to travel to unknown places, to be wholly immersed in a foreign culture, and to go off the beaten track. In other words, uncle Jeff was to be the girls’ tour guide, a world navigator, and a fun organizer, all rolled into one.

The second dad was Max Stier. When Max was asked to be in the council of dads, he gladly agreed and replied, “I would start by saying how much you loved them. How I watched you blossom by having children. How good a dad you were. The most important thing a parent can do, I believe, is water a child profusely with love. I would water your children with love.” Whoa, what a powerful analogy! This is indeed the epitome of a parent’s love: to water their children with love, unconditional love.

The third dad was David Black. David was Bruce’s literary agent and he was instrumental in helping Bruce publish his books. So, you can say that David was a “broker of dreams”, someone who spurred Bruce on when he was discouraged and invigorated him with hope and purpose when he found none. Bruce wanted the same inspirational coach for his twins, that is, someone who would instill a sense of vision and hope in his daughters and prod them on to pursue their own dreams. When Bruce asked David, “What he learned from all these years as a curator of dreams. What’s the most important gift you can give to a dreamer?” He answered, “The belief in their ability to succeed…Because when you believe in them, you give them the strength to believe in themselves.”

The fourth dad was Ben Edwards, a bone radiologist. In his own words, Bruce spelt out the reason he chose Ben, “And these are the qualities I wanted Ben to impart to my girls. He would convey the importance of being from a place. How you carry that place with you wherever you go. How you keep coming back to it time and again no matter how long you live…” Bruce imagined that Ben would softly whisper to his girls these words, “This is where your daddy came from…This is where you come from, too.” In other words, Ben would teach his twins how to remember their roots, their historical birthmark.

The fifth dad was another Ben, by the name of Ben Sherwood. Bruce wanted someone like Ben to teach his daughter how to question everything and not to take things on its face-value. In this regards, Ben fulfilled this role perfectly. Ben’s fierce inquisitorial style was a cut off the old block, that is, he takes after his own father. In the book, Ben describes his own father in these words, “He was focused on family…Dad’s parenting style was to be present as much as possible, given the demands of his life. That meant he was here for breakfast and dinner, during which time it was expected that we would have a serious conversation about the world. My dad had a voracious curiosity. He ran a famous clipping service in which he dispatched yellow envelopes from his law firm with articles on some obscure topic from some esoteric publication, pertinent to someone’s work or family. We all got them. In college I had stacks of unopened envelopes because I just couldn’t keep up!” 

Bruce believed that under the wise guidance of Ben, his daughters would learn to see the deeper side of things. They would be less gullible in this world of the proverbial foxes and wolves. They would see the hidden motives and agendas, the superficial and the chimerical. In his own words, Bruce wrote, “Though Ben was one of the first dads on my list, he was about to become one of the last to know. The reason: Ben is the friend who questions. He challenges assumptions and picks apart flaws…Ben is the inquisitor. He’s the drill sergeant making sure every decision is thought through and every emotion pure. Push it! Push it! Just one more round. No pain, no gain!”

The last dad on Bruce’s list was Joshua Ramo. I guess this last choice was the easiest because Joshua was with him throughout his illness, his fight against the cancer, the pain and the sufferings, and the dreaded after-effects of the chemotherapy. In one passage of the book, Bruce wrote, “Then I got sick, and overnight Joshua became a fixture in our lives, a monthly comet and comforting compatriot. It was during those months that I discovered a new side of him – a side that reminded me of, well, me.

Further in the book, there is an interesting exchange between Bruce and Joshua based on future contingencies of his daughters and this exchange is best extracted wholesale for your digest.

If the girls came to you and asked what it was like during this year, what would you tell them?” Bruce asked Joshua.

His reply came swiftly, “I would tell them I saw a man who had lived his life in such a way that when he was confronted with the worst possible thing that can face a man, he was able to face it with no regrets. Think of how few people can say that. I’ve been with other people who are struggling through potentially terminal disease. I know what that looks like. You didn’t look like that. And the reason, I think, is that you know who you are. You have a clear sense of internal navigation.”

And the exchange continued, “So, how do you teach someone that? If my girls asked you for help in discovering themselves, what would you do?”

Ah, that’s easy,” Joshua replied. “I believe the best teacher is beauty. I’ll teach them to memorize Auden poems and Shakespeare sonnets so that wherever they are at any given moment in the world, they can just sit under a tree and have Auden or Shakespeare or whomever as their companion for an afternoon. I’ll give them the sound of Mahler symphonies that they can hear again and again and that will always trigger similar emotions. I’ll show them how to appreciate Chinese calligraphy, which is an expression of your internal energy. If you have any doubt in your heart, it shows up in the brushstroke.”

In one of the poignant passages, Joshua concluded, “What I want Eden and Tybee to know is how easy it is to see beauty. How the wonder they felt on that plane never has to leave them. Miracles are all around them. They just have to learn to see through the clouds, and go out and harvest those miracles themselves. And, of course, I’d want them to know that this way of seeing never left you (Bruce), even when you were sick. And it’s how all of us who love them want them to see the world, too.” (FYI: Bruce overcame cancer and recently wrote his latest bestseller The Secrets of Happy Families).

Bruce’s story led me to think about my own life as a parent with three young children. I often asked myself: What legacy do I want to leave for my children? Or what life’s lessons do I want my children to learn from me?

Here I am reminded of Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  I underscore “train up”. The Bible did not tell me to just teach them, implying a teacher-and-student relationship. Neither did the Bible tell me to nag, lecture or order my children around, implying an authority-based, hierarchical relationship. It uses the word “train up”. Training is a long drawn out process involving mentorship and apprenticeship. It also implies an intimate relationship between the trainer and his/her trainees. It calls for leading by example, applying the right principles, and giving the trainees enough room to develop their own strengths and talents.

But am I up to the challenge? Can I make a difference in the lives of my children, impacting them in a positive way so that they can do the same for their own children? What can my children learn from me as their parent that will remain with them for the rest of their lives?

Of course, I want the best for my children. Expecting them to embody enduring virtues like integrity, respect, honesty, trustworthiness, and having a sense of fairness, a good measure of responsibility, compassion and passion for life in general, having faith and hope at all times, and becoming successful in their own way without losing sight of what is truly important. To achieve all that, or most of them, before my children mature and marry off is a job that is equal to, if not more challenging than, the task of juggling the living room furniture all in one go!

The Bible in Deuteronomy 6:7 reminds me to bring my children up well. But to do so, I have to be set an example myself. It is said that kids are more inclined to believe God’s truth and embrace them when they have seen it embodied in their parents’ lives. A Chasidic saying expresses this well, “I did not go to the Master to learn sacred scripture, but to watch him tie his shoes.” Am I tying my shoe right?

In their lives, my children will be exposed to all kinds of influences. They will be swayed by their peers, pressured by their teachers, and even manipulated by the media. The question here is this: Whose influences will be the deepest and most enduring, mine or the others? I once overheard a conversation between a father and his college son. His father asked him who he wanted to be after he graduates. The answer came as a pleasant surprise to the father. The son replied, “I want to be like you, dad”

I guess as a parent I am still maturing in my own ways, learning from my past mistakes and sometimes making the same mistakes myself. It is inevitable that I will fail and disappoint. The road to parenthood will never end until I heave my last breath. It is a from-their-cradle-to-my-grave kind of job.

So, I think the legacy that I want to leave for my children is to train them to turn their eyes upon Jesus, to follow His example and teachings, and to come back to us for guidance and hope when trials come their way. This is the best legacy a Christian parent can give to his children. And, as best as possible, it is my hope that in this long, rewarding journey of parenthood, I will, on most occasions, reflect the likeness of Christ in my speech, conduct and thoughts. In other words, let me be mindful to tie my shoes before I go about training my children to tie their own. Cheerz.

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