by Alexis Johnson, Ph.D.
During the fall of 2002, the Washington DC area was terrorized by a string of deadly sniper attacks. The culprits have turned out to be two men: a 42 year old American black veteran of the first gulf war and an 18 year old Jamaican. The defense for the young man has taken the tact that he was insane, controlled by the older man whom he often refers to as his father. The young man has made many drawings while in jail suggesting why the attacks occurred (avenging blacks by declaring jihad on whites) and what is the relationship between the two men. Among the sketches is a portrait of the two with their arms around each other and the caption: Judge not…Father and Son. In a self-portrait, a male figure wearing only underwear is covering his face in shame. This caption reads: Face of Failure. Failure means death. Sorry dad.
What are we to make of this? How can it be that the psyche of a young man can be taken over by a father figure and participate in killing innocent strangers? What is missing in the psyche that makes this possible? One way of looking at these psychic deficits is to look at the role of both the personal and spiritual father in enlivening the capacity to self-reflect or think about the self and its actions.
This past year I have given several workshops on the role of the father in our psycho-spiritual individuation journey. The theme has been finding our relationship to the masculine principle- both personally and spiritually – as the second psychological step of this journey. This assumes that the first step is gathering basic trust and the root of hope by merging and separating from the mother over and over again. The father stands a little outside of that process, waiting for the child to turn his excitement and attention in a new direction. Depending on both the child and the father, that turning towards each other may be a few months later or a few years later but when it happens it will be a different experience than the child had with the mother.
If the mother principle is nurturance ‘I am delighted to be taking care of you’ the father principle is thoughtful autonomy ‘ you can take care of yourself just like I do. Dad is thinking, agency, self-assertion and aggression, both positive and negative. Dad is the bridge out of the home, out of dependence, out of neediness. (When I speak of mother/father principle I am not speaking exclusively of the gendered adult parent, I am also speaking of the yin/yang within each of us.) Ideally the inner biological individuation thrust of the child will be both mirrored and modeled by the yang side of his parents.
What has been striking to me in these workshops is how many of the men and women attending have been under-fathered. Yes, some are dealing with the issues of an authoritarian, moral rule giver, who was way too close and too controlling, but many more are dealing with the presence of an absence. They have been left to fend for themselves around the yang issues. The men are struggling for their masculinity, the women for their authority in the world. Sometimes, both are struggling to find a moral compass, an inner authority that gives them both purpose and sureness. Internally, where there should be a father figure, from either a personal or a spiritual source, there is a black hole, a father hunger. Sometimes this hole is filled by demons ‘men and the things of men are bad; sometimes this hole is full of yearning’ if only I had a good father then I would know what to do. In my workshops I meet people facing the pain of this loss, this absence that happens in different ways.
Sometimes Mom is a single parent or widowed and there is little or no contact with the biological father. More often I have found that the father is physically present but emotionally absent. There are many varieties of this present-but-absent father.
In some households Mom marginalizes Dad. Sometimes Mom protects Dad from the emotional world. He is allowed the illusion that he has no dependency needs, no attachment needs, all he has to do is go to work and provide for the family and she will take care of everything else. Implicitly, he is not strong enough to deal with feelings. There are no emotional conversations, only informative and logical ones. This can work very well when there are children in the home and mom and the kids can move around the emotional field, leaving Dad in the office. Sometimes he is lonely, but that is better than being hassled! Another marginalizing strategy is to criticize Dad for not being enough; not being supportive enough to her and/or the kids, not earning enough, not man enough. Often in these families the kids are co-opted into seeing him though her eyes and agreeing with her: he is not enough. That makes it easier to marginalize him and keep him out of psychic space. But it makes it very hard to feel like a real man if you are male or to feel assertive in the world if you are female.
Internally Dad has to be complicit in order to be marginalized. Sometimes he was not parented himself. He doesn’t feel like a real man or a good father. Or he has been to war. That is certainly true of my generation (born in the 40’s). War changes men in profound ways. The horror of war, the sights and the sounds and the smells all tell men to cut off emotions for to feel what is going on might lead to psychic collapse and that could lead to physical death. When Dad comes home from war, his emotional range has been severely narrowed. Humor is OK. Anger keeps you strong and able to do what you need to do. Substance abuse is better than memory. As for the rest of the emotional field, it is best ignored.
Substance abuse has multiple roots and multiple consequences. When we can’t face the pain of emotional and spiritual realities, avoidance feels like a genuine option. This Dad is absent/or and sometimes dangerous. He is unpredictable, can’t be counted on, and is very hard to internalize in a healthy way. It is hard to see the good in such a person, to absorb his strengths and talents, when he is unreliable and/or dangerous. It is best to stay as far away as possible.
Of course, these examples can interact but in all of these ways, Dad can be present but absent. We have missed the energetic exchange that the good enough father can provide. We have missed the opportunity when young to idealize the masculine. Through that idealization we might have taken in strength and determination and will and the capacity to step back and objectively think about the situation. For we all, male and female, need our yang. We need the life affirming aggression, the force, the drive, and the spirit to follow our own destiny. When we live in father hunger, we search for gurus and answers outside of us. Like the young Jamaican sniper we can be taken over by a strong male presence that fills us up and gives us direction. We can vote in political leaders who promise to keep us safe but don’t tell us the cost.
We live in a culture that over values thinking and logic and under values feeling and intuition. For many of us on a path to wholeness, we have found great excitement and fullness in connecting with our emotional selves. But that does not mean we can throw out thinking and making choices and judgments. We need the father principles to be active and honored within us. If the father was either absent or too authoritarian, then claiming his attributes might be difficult, but it is all the more necessary.
Helping others find their self-will and ability to think clearly and morally first involves being centered in those aspects of oneself. Gathering positive will and positive strength is a practice but first it must be noticed as missing. Only then can the search for it begin. I think one of the best places to look is the relationship to the father and grandfathers. Knowing their stories is very helpful for when the story is known it is easier to find compassion and take into oneself aspects of these men that will be helpful. And if I can do if for myself, it is more possible to help others do the same.
See yourself as your backbone, each vertebrae sitting on the next, strong and secure. Allow that backbone all the space it can use to be tall and free. Allow the bones of the neck to be free, holding the head high and comfortable. Now allow your body to form itself around that strong flexible structure. Gaze out on the world from that stance. As you breathe in and out allow yourself to know your strength and capabilities. Allow yourself to see clearly and objectively whatever problem you are facing creating space between you and the problem. Thank your backbone and your father and your father’s father for this stance in the world.
Through personal work of this kind we can help ourselves and those we work with gather this very necessary strength and capacity to self-reflect. Without it, we can be pulled like the moon by the sun, never sure of our own true direction and destiny.