Fatherhood is an institution as variable as the men who inhabit it. Human civilizations have long struggled to circumscribe its “proper” contours. Few enduring answers have been found.
In the 16th century, German clergyman and progenitor of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther posed this question, “Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other?”
It’s a topic that continues to be discussed at dinner tables, dugouts, pew and PTA meetings. We’ve all seen the variations. There are fathers who seek to redeem themselves in their children’s accomplishments. There are the fathers who are laissez faire. There are those who hover; and those who smother. There are those who coddle and those who cajole. There are those who are absent and those who we have lost.
Ecclesiastes 11: 6 admonishes us, “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.”
As the passage suggests, one cannot know beforehand whether any crop — be it corn or child — no matter how well tended, will flourish. All fathers can do is dutifully attend their labors and hope for the best.
Most fathers — those truly parenting, anyway — try to imprint virtues and rectitude. They try to teach their children what is to be a “good” man or woman. This endeavor becomes more complex as women’s roles have shifted, but as Luther’s query suggests, the issue isn’t as new as we might like to think.
The current deluge of media images provides all manner of possible fatherly models. Even if they don’t give us an exact template for reality, they reaffirm the wisdom of another German, cartoonist Wilhelm Busch, who wisely observes, “To become a father is quite easy, to be one is far more queasy.”
Luther’s response to his own inquiry was predictably more austere, “God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.”
To this point, the American author, Clarence Budington Kelland wryly observed, “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”
The better fathers provide a consistent template — couched in an examined and purposeful existence. In so doing, their children don’t learn by abstract creed, but by concrete example. They see triumph and travail, but more importantly, they see how dad chooses to deal with it.
While we only consecrate one day as “Father’s,” good fathers consecrate every day of their children’s lives with otherwise unremarkable moments — pregnant with life lessons and love. To all who are fathers, we wish you a happy day.