Killing the Father: A Post-Patriarchal View on Parenting and Letting Go
Article ID: 15110
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Tim Ward
Posted: June 24th. 2012
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Two years ago I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with my 20 year old son, Josh. What started off as an adventure vacation turned into a rite of passage for both of us – a letting go of the past relationship of parent child, and the discovery of a new friendship, man to man. I wrote a book about the experience, Zombies on Kilimanjaro; A Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds, and in the writing, I found myself pondering the connection between patriarchy, fatherhood, and mountaintop experiences.
I thought of Abraham and Isaac and their famous journey up Mt. Moriah. As recounted in the Book of Genesis, God spoke to Abraham and told him he was to sacrifice his son on the mountaintop in order to prove his obedience to the Lord. At the last minute an angel stayed Abraham’s knife hand, sparing the boy. One can only imagine the conversation that took place between them:
“Guess what my son? My imaginary friend Jehovah just sent an invisible being to tell me he changed his mind – he doesn’t want me to kill you after all!”
“Great news, Dad! Maybe we can do another hike together some other day!”
The Bible story reveals the Hebraic paradigm of obedience to the heavenly Father, and his proxies on earth. The patriarch literally has the power of life and death over his children. We see this in Moses on Mount Sinai, carrying God’s ten commandments down to the “children of Israel” to obey Him – or suffer the consequences. And we see Jesus’ obedience to the Father in his lonely ordeal and willing death on the cross: “Father, not my will, but they will be done.” This Hebraic structure has been institutionalized in Christianity. We see it most blatantly in the Catholic Church, from the Pope, the “Holy Father, ” down to the lowly “father” – the village priest (and let us not even get into how these fathers have abused that trust) .
Pagan patriarchal myths, however, follow a strikingly different father-son paradigm. We see myths of father wounding and father killing, as the son takes power from the father by force. Cronus castrates and exiles his father Uranus; Zeus in turn vanquishes Cronus and takes his place as ruler of Gods. And Oedipus unknowingly kills his father on the road to Thebes, married the queen his mother and takes the throne. Scholars of Greek myth such as Robert Graves see in these myths a pre-historic tradition of killing the old king and crowning a new one as the son of the Goddess, whom the new king ritually weds.
Following this mythic paradigm, we see Luke Skywalker crossing light sabers with Darth Vader (“Dark Father”) . He defeats not just his parent, but the Dark Side of the Force, in order to establish a new order. It’s worth remembering that master myth scholar Joseph Campbell worked as an adviser to George Lucas on the Star Wars movies.
In our modern culture, we see both Pagan and Hebraic mythic patterns contending to for expression in each young man’s life. Will he be obedient to the father, follow in his footsteps, apprentice in the family business, uphold the family name? Or will he be a rebel, question authority, refuse to fight his father’s wars (Star or otherwise) , and chart his own destiny?
I remember when I was nineteen pushing back against my own father’s authority, his rules, his plans for my life – where he thought I should study, what kind of job I should have. I left home after high school, worked to earn my tuition, and then went to university 3, 000 miles away. When I look back, I can see that my desire to be free of my father fueled my desire for independence. Ironically, perhaps, this ended up making me rather a lot like my father: he was an independent freelance journalist; I became an author.
When I had my turn at parenthood, I was careful not to be like my own dad – domineering and forceful. I was nurturing and supportive of my son. So imagine my surprise when at 17 Josh turned to me in the middle of a fight about him not doing his homework and said to me, “I don’t have to put up with this crap any more. I’m going to go live with my mother.”
She and I had long been divorced, and he had split his time between our two households for 15 years. With a single stroke my son cut the cord between us. For the next six months he stayed with his mother and refused to see me. He had killed the father. And now that I was in the father’s role, I did not like this father killing, not one bit. While I raged and fumed in the weeks after Josh split, I had this funny double vision, this sense of what it must have been like for my own dad when I left home thirty years earlier. I thought about the loss my father must have felt. And even the loss Darth Vader felt. Even if Luke wouldn’t join the Dark Side, I’m sure Vader would have appreciated some way of staying connected. Did it always have to come down to crossing light sabers or fleeing to another planet?
I never really resolved my sense of difference with my own father. He kept trying to tell me how to run my life. It used to make me bristle when I went back home for a visit. Through the years, I developed a psychological buffer that kept him at emotional arm’s length to protect myself from him. I didn’t want Josh to feel this way towards me, and yet by the time he was twenty, I could sense the buffer developing in him.
I could see it from both sides now. I realized that for my father, being the advisor and protector were roles that gave him a way of being connected to me. But that desire to control was exactly what I rebelled against as a young man, and could not tolerate at all from him in middle age. Yet with my young adult son, I felt this same instinct at my father - to try to tell him how to manage his life. While this gave me some compassion and understanding towards my father, I remained at a loss how to deal with it with Josh. Until Kilimanjaro.
I realized as we walked and talked our way up the mountain that indeed, something had to die. Not a person, but a parent-child relationship had to be let go. As a parent, your kids look at you as a god or goddess – at least for a time when they are young. As mom or dad we get to appear wise and powerful, and indeed, our kids need that belief when young to feel safe. When they are teens, they see right through that delusion, but sometimes we try to keep it up.
For me, on Kilimanjaro, it was time to let the myth of the all wise and powerful father go (after all, I was the only one still buying that story anyway) . I decided to do this by telling Josh the story of my life. The real story, like I would tell to a close friend, not to a child – about my own struggles growing up, my infidelity, the messy divorce from his mom, the bad decisions I had made, and how I tried to right them. In my case, this included describing weird psychic shit I went through on my personal spiritual quest: encounters with my shadow and personal demons which were very vivid to me. I knew it would forever change how he saw me. But didn’t really know how he would take it. I thought again of Darth Vader. Dying in Luke’s arms Vader says “Take off my mask, Luke. I want to see you with my own eyes just once before I die.” In allowing the mask to be removed, Vader exposes his damaged face for his son to see. I felt something like this - the desire to show my son the man behind the mask.
We had an afternoon of rest four days into the trek to gather our strength for the ascent to the summit. We lounged in the tent, and I told Josh the story of my life. I did it I did my damnedest not to pretty it up, to keep it unvarnished, raw and real. Afterwards, he told me he had always suspected the reason for the divorce was that I had cheated on his mother. He said, to him, infidelity was the worst betrayal.
“But what I want to say to you now, Dad, is that I’ve held that against you for a long time. Like it was something about you I didn’t think I’d be able to let go of. I didn’t expect you to know or care what I felt. But hearing what you said this afternoon, it gave me a glimpse into the messed up world you were in back then. I guess it reminded me of your humanity. I just want you to know, now that I have heard your story, I forgive you.”
When he let go of that grudge, something shifted in our conversation, something that lasted long since we came down the mountain. The buffer thinned. It’s easier to talk, easier to listen.
I think what Josh and I found on Kilimanjaro was our own way through the Patriarchal dilemma that young men face: to obey the father or else kill him. At the heart of Patriarchy is the need for power over another – even when it’s in the guise of a concerned father or caregiving mom. But when you truly let go – then what’s the bond that draws together parents and their adult children? That’s new territory for me. Josh put it this way, as we walked down from the icy summit:
“I guess having a father-son relationship is sort of like having a professional relationship. You were like my boss. You had your duties to raise me. I had duties to follow your rules to better myself. Now those duties are all gone. I’m setting my own rules, but I still remember that you were the one who got me on my way. So it’s like getting together with the old boss after you’ve moved on. We have a more well-rounded understanding of each other because of the past. We’ve definitely seen each other at the best and worst. So it’s good to talk about what’s going on with our lives, discuss ideas, or just share the present moment. It feels more like a close, deep friendship, but with a lot of other things behind it.”
Darth Vader should be so lucky.
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
Bio: Tim Ward is a Goddess worshipper and author of six books, including a groundbreaking book about the Sacred Feminine from a male perspective, Savage Breast: One Man’s Search for the Goddess. Tim is also the publisher of Changemakers Books (an imprint of John Hunt Publishing) . He co-owns Intermedia Communications Training with Teresa Erickson, his wife and business partner. They live in Maryland.
Tim’s new book, on which this article is based, is Zombies on Kilimanjaro: a Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds, is now on sale on line and in stores worldwide.
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