12 January, 2012
Learning to speak your name and to discover your place—that is, to know who you are, where you are, and why you are—are central to our maturation. It requires much in the way of learning and revelation. Gautama the Buddha had to sit still and meditate under the Bodhi tree for 49 days, enduring
bolts of lighting, high winds, heavy rains, and flaming rocks. In my case, I had to chase my daughter all
day and get up with her in the middle of the night for well over 49 days, wrestling with diaper rash, fevers,
projectile vomit, and the constant fear, will-she-die-in-her-crib-tonight? But you have to accept learning and revelation from wherever they come. Much of our maturation comes from seeing and hearing something new in the familiar, from finding some revelation in the everyday. I once went into the desert in search of extraordinary insights. I wanted
to return home with a suitably packaged revelation that I could then unpack for the rest of my life. It’s all
so innocent. And some places, no doubt, do seem to offer uncommon gifts. But if we think of newness
and revelation as the exclusive property of the desert or some other exotic travel destination, then we
restrict our opportunities for growth. We risk becoming blind to grace closer to home.
Most of my growth and learning as an adult have been in the home with my daughter, Sabine. This whirlwind of incarnate grace--of chaos and power and beauty in motion—has blown into my life, irreversibly changed its course, and taught me my name. My name is father.
I once traveled through a dark night—it lasted for many years. Amid that darkness I searched for a course that would steady my life and return joy to it. I was haunted by ghosts from my past, profound pain, and persistent questions about the meaning of my life. What chased off the ghosts? What remedy cured the aches and wounds? What enlightened answers addressed my abiding existential questions? In the presence of a face, the ghosts scurried away, the pain receded, and the profound questions dissolved. I had found my course—well, actually, it found me. It was a face—the face of my daughter.
That face taught me who I am. That face taught me why I am here. My journey—a journey shared with the woman who became my wife—has led me through and beyond my ghosts, pain, and questions. And while I do not rule out the possibility of their return, they have presently quieted in the midst of a seemingly endless succession of professional and family tasks—teaching that new course, advising those students, writing that over-due article, attending the next
meeting, wiping up that milk, picking up this duck, crouching for hide-'n-seek behind the chair, reading
Curious George again and again as if caught in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, knowing that I cannot rest, cannot stop but must push on, for this Formidable Presence, my daughter, does not pause except for those occasional intervals of sleep. In the midst of this relentless cyclone a line from Thomas Hardy comes to me, “My ponies are tired,
and I have further to go.” In that moment I pause and smile, for my toil has been given a name and I know that my life is overflowing with meaning. I know that this is my life and that a journey of unspeakable grace has swept me up and bathed me and my aching questions in a love and beauty that now have a face and a name.
I have always sensed a nameless presence in my life. It seems right to say that the nameless presence and its ways have surrounded me with a grace that comes with names I can speak and faces I can touch. Does this sound sentimental—a man saved by the love of wife and child? I assure you: there
is little that is romantic about my life or the lives of people like me. The challenges of daily life do not
permit it. I have aimed for honesty here. For if I get it right, others will see themselves—and not only me—
in these words. So here is an honest statement: in the midst of daily life, when I am utterly exhausted and
sleep deprived, I will on occasion step back, look at my life and its considerable encumbrance, and, while
taking stock of this swirling chaos, I delight in this life, and I know where I am, who I am, and that I would not choose to be anyone or anywhere else. My journey is no longer in the distant desert. It is the daily trek within my home.
Have I sold out? Traded creative angst for domestic comfort? Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Have I settled for settled? Early in our courtship—on its second day!—I sent that Emerson quotation to the woman who would become my wife. I knew our courtship would introduce much chaos and discomfort into our lives, and I was probably
hoping that Emerson would assure her that chaos can be necessary. But what happens when, having made it through the chaotic and turbulent days of the courtship, you marry, have children, and acquire some solidity? Have I shut out any hope for growth and change? It’s a fair question, but one I almost never ask myself, because I am unsettled daily. You want to see a life turned upside down? You want to
see chaos and uncertainty? My daughter alone recreates my world, sometimes hourly. Foucault writes brilliantly of the power of social institutions to discipline the self. But he missed a significant source of power: the power of infants and toddlers to command and reorganize the world around them, especially the world of their caregivers. Children unsettle our lives and therein lies our hope. I do not claim that children alone offer such hope of growth, only that they are one of the best avenues to it. We often want to run from the encumbered life—from all those responsibilities and commitments that inhibit our freedom. In fatherhood,
however, one discovers a different kind of freedom—the freedom of belonging and of caring; the freedom
of being at home in yourself, because you finally know who you are. You are father.
We all have more than one name, of course. In addition to father, I am husband, colleague, friend, citizen, human, and Child of God. All these names and the roles that accompany them are significant. In our culture, however, father is the name that is the least spoken of. Yet, when spoken by our children, it is the name that most stirs and transforms our hearts. In our search for a course, we may, if we are lucky,
be found and rescued by hearing and learning our name. I know I have been found—over and over again. I hear my name, again and again, and not only spoken by my five-year-old daughter, Sabine, but by my still younger twins, Luke and Olive. And in the hearing, I learn to speak my name and become myself.
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