Words of Shame, Words of Love
When I was very small, my father sometimes told me:
I still love you even when you are bad.
This was his habit after scolding me — although it’s possible he said it only once and it made such an impact that I remember it happening multiple times.
Memory is a tricky thing, especially such early memories, and it’s hard to be certain what actually happened. What I misremembered at the time, and what I’m misremembering now, may be the imposition of adult priorities onto a reconstruction of my childhood.
I’m sure his intention was to reassure me that his anger at me was temporary, while his love for me was enduring, but he had the opposite effect. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time, I just remember thinking something very much like, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?”
What a terrible thing to say to a child.
You are bad.
Not, “I love you even when you misbehave.”
Not, “I disapprove of your behavior, but I recognize that your behavior does not reflect your essence. I confirm my love for the fundamental ‘you’. ”
Instead, all I heard was: YOU are bad.
I, your father, paragon of magnanimity, am capable of resolving the paradox and loving you despite your fundamentally unlovable nature.
That’s pretty fucked up.
If my adult memory is not playing tricks on me, then I do remember thinking “Thanks for that, you condescending fuck,” although I never would have had the testicular fortitude to say it aloud.
I also did not have the sophistication to forgive the imprecision of the words and understand the clumsy but well-meaning sentiment behind them.
He must have reconsidered the implications of those words at some point, because I don’t remember hearing them past the age of 6 or 7.
I do have another memory of my father, though. It was from when I was perhaps 13 or 14. Somewhere along the line I’d developed a fear of heights. On family vacations to amusement parks I would be the only one of the children tall enough to ride the thrill rides, but I would make excuses to avoid them.
One day I was helping my father with some household task that involved my standing on the top rung of a stepladder, which was just high enough that my acrophobia gave me some difficulty performing the task.
I remember looking down at my father, who was holding the stepladder. He said, “Ben, I know you’ve got a thing about heights. But I really need your help with this, and I’m starting to feel angry with you.”
I was often afraid of my father’s temper growing up, but I don’t remember feeling afraid that day. The anger was audible in his voice, but it was also controlled. That day, my father found exactly the right words to say. He acknowledged that my emotions were real.
He did not ask me to stop feeling fear, only to control it enough to accomplish the task at hand.
And he also showed me that it was possible. He acknowledged his own anger, but he did not blame me for it. He did not say, “You are making me angry,” but, “I am starting to feel angry.” And he did not allow it to interfere with the task at hand.
He controlled it.
We completed the job, and I stepped down off the ladder.
I think my father must have thanked me for my help, but I don’t remember that clearly. I do remember taking pleasure in having overcome my fear, and at having accomplished a job together with my father.
Some weeks later, I went to an amusement park with a group of male friends. I did not mention my acrophobia as we stood in line for the first roller coaster, but I did feel a sick dread rising in my stomach as we climbed the spiral stairs to the top of the ride. I remained stoically silent as we boarded the coaster, strapped ourselves in, and made the slow clacking ascent to the top of the first drop.
I clenched my jaw and clung tightly to the safety bar as my friends screamed and whooped and laughed and threw their hands in the air. There was no pleasure for me in the ride itself, but when it ended, there was the pleasure of relief that the frightening experience was over, the pleasure of having overcome my fear, and the pleasure of camaraderie with my friends.
As we spent the day going on ever higher and faster thrill rides, I developed a mantra that I repeated silently to myself: “This is fun. This is what fun feels like.”
It began as a convenient internal lie to help me save face in front of my friends, but I was surprised to find that the more I repeated it, the more it became true. By the end of the day I was racing to the next ride as eagerly as my friends were, throwing my hands in the air and screaming and laughing alongside them.
The fear I felt never lessened. I still feel as much fear when I climb the stairs to board a roller coaster now, in my thirties, as I did when I was thirteen. But it’s alloyed with so much pleasure that it’s always worth it.
And that mantra that I developed — “This is fun. This is what fun feels like” — has come in handy in many other situations. When I first worked up the nerve to approach a girl I liked. When I left my hometown to start a new business venture in a strange city. When I severed old business ties to pursue more meaningful work. The ability to convert fear into excitement has been the key to so many good things in my life, and it started when my father taught me to acknowledge my emotions without letting them interfere with the task at hand.
I forgive you, Dad, for saying the wrong words when I was young. And I thank you for finding the right ones when I was older.
I showed an early draft of this piece to my friend Thomas P Seager, PhD, and he asked me to relate it back to “The Father of My Children,” another piece I wrote about things I wished my father had said to me when I was growing up. Tom asked me what this story tells me about the kind of father I want to be.
The question stumped me, because I hoped to find a more insightful answer than “the kind who chooses his words carefully,” because of course with the benefit of hindsight I do trust that my father’s intentions were good, and I don’t believe he chose to be hurtful when I was small.
The question is a good one because it prompts me to approach the prospect of fatherhood with humility. Mistakes and misunderstandings are unavoidable, and I can only hope that I do enough good to balance them out.