Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I never thought I’d have reason to contact you. My family is well aware of my atheistic leanings, and up until recently it caused me no harm.
I live in Australia, and everyone else (mom, dad, two sisters) in the midwestern USA. Yes, there’s a time difference, but despite that I made it my duty to contact my mom and dad at least weekly, on my dime, at a time amenable to them, usually late Saturday evening.
I was raised in a relatively benign religious environment (Anglican) and again, up ‘til now we never had religious issues. Over the years, I expressed doubt, then became Pagan, and eventually just gave it all up and realized what we all now seem to feel, that “none of the above/no belief” fit best. Ma and Pa understood, and seemed to accept. My parents are actually good in that regard-they went out of their way to make us feel accepted. If I were gay, I’d have no problem outing myself to them.
However, on my last few calls, well, things started to change. I suppose the fact that my mother is facing a few serious health issues might be a reason for tension, but being a health professional herself, she knew the risks (serious, but manageable) and wasn’t really sweating it.
Then dad got involved.
Please understand. My father is a very intelligent man. He’s a high school teacher in Biology, and up until this event was my hero. He was all I could hope to achieve. His acumen was even the driving force behind my finally coming to terms with Atheism, and having the courage to finally just say it to the world: I’m an Atheist. He himself holds no particular belief, and jokingly referred to himself as an atheist during my childhood as a way to get out of Sunday morning duties.
But, during our last call he called me out, as it were and demanded I pray for my mother during the upcoming procedure. I politely said I wouldn’t pray, but I would hold her foremost in my thoughts and hope for a successful outcome. This wasn’t good enough for him. He insisted I pray for her, and NOW. I felt like someone had just backhanded me with a chain mail glove. This man, this paragon of rational thought, this man I held dear and was my basis for all I could hope to be was blackmailing me emotionally. Although mom (who was present for the entire exchange) said nothing, her silence was palpable. I did the only thing I could, I politely asked him to get off the subject or I would hang up.
I did. Mom has since sent me an apologetic letter, and asked to forgive and forget. I’m willing, but… Why? How could a sane, rational intelligent man be reduced to such bigotry? How has it come to this-and how can I ever look at him again with the respect I feel I owe him?
I know he’s under pressure, and is possibly facing the loss of his one true friend (they’ve been married for over forty years) and is likely under stress-but to take it out on ME? Over something as trivial as theism? This man was my hero. I cannot see him in such light any more.
Your father is scared. The fact that your mother isn’t sweating this, doesn’t mean he’s unaffected. What’s worse, especially for a man, he feels helpless. Men often have a very tough time with helplessness. It’s linked even to their sexuality. The word “impotence,” despite its sexual usage, simply means powerlessness. Men are trained their whole lives to be doers, fixers, and fighters.
Even if the worst outcome is not that likely, he’s facing the possible loss of the woman who has shared most of his life, and he is not equipped to do, fix and fight the menace that is threatening her. What he’s experiencing is not just pressure, it’s a primal instinct: “Protect your mate.” Such a combination of anxiety and powerlessness can sometimes make otherwise intelligent, rational people behave emotionally. Under the right circumstances, any of us could find ourselves in such a state.
Your father has not been “reduced to bigotry,” he feels desperation. Despite the fact that his interest in religion has been minimal to nonexistent, it is clear that he is not an atheist, and he now feels the need to draw upon what he hopes is a resource. He wants all the help he can get, and I suspect that having been so competent all his life has made him not very graceful at asking for help. So he was clumsy, demanding, defensive, reactionary and brittle when he asked you to pray.
When distraught people appear to deserve compassion the least, that’s when they need it the most.
Mitchell, it’s important to get clear in your mind that his recent behavior is not about you, it’s about him. It’s not about his value, just his humanity. Your worthiness as a son is not on trial, and his worthiness as a father is not on trial either. None of what he said over the phone takes anything away from the excellent things he did to raise you to be who you are. You can continue to admire him for the fine parent he was. The scared husband he is currently being does not cancel out any of that. He can still be your hero, and I think he still deserves that honor.
I suggest that you consider writing to him rather than calling him. Writing allows you to choose your words carefully, to be uninterrupted, and to avoid getting into the emotional feedback loop that both of you were in at the end of the last phone call. While it is understandable that you hung up on your father when he didn’t accede to your demand to drop the subject, still it was not productive. You were both caught up in a father/son power struggle and had lost focus on your mother’s needs. Her silence, which you say was palpable, might have been about feeling forgotten.
Completely disregard anything about prayer. Don’t get stuck in arguing about it at all. There are those who might say just tell him you’ll pray so he’ll be satisfied, but you’ve clearly refused, so if you tried that now, he probably wouldn’t believe you were sincere. Besides, that still wouldn’t heal what is really hurting in your relationship with him.
Instead, reach into yourself for your empathy. Find your own feelings about this. They may be less intense, but there are feelings you can identify with him. In your own words, write any of this that is true for you:
Dad, I know you’re scared about Mom, and I’m a little scared too. And I know that you feel helpless, and I do too. But we can be helpful for Mom by staying calm and helping her with things she needs. She needs us to be level-headed and working together. She also needs us to be well-informed. One thing we can do is to learn all we can about her diagnosis and about the procedure. We will feel less helpless, and we’ll be able to make wise decisions and provide good care. I’ve read several articles about this, and here is a list of the ones I think are the most useful. Because you know so much about biology, I would really appreciate your thoughts about them.
Finish by telling him that you love him, and how you’re grateful for his intelligence and good judgment while raising you. Tell him just as you told us why he’s your hero. Maybe he doesn’t know that. Dads need to hear it.
By learning all you can about your mother’s challenge, and then appealing to your father’s talents and strengths by asking for his educated opinion and advice, you’ll build a bridge. Then neither of you will be taking your fear or frustration out on each other. You’ll be coming together for the sake of the woman you both love.
I wish you, your father, and especially your mother the best of outcomes.