This article first appeared on PsychologyToday.com
Not long ago I finished a long and difficult therapy session with a husband and wife who run a highly successful business. Aside from their marriage falling apart, the man was a fairly poor father, and both their fathers were even worse. In this session the man finally acknowledged he hungers and grieves for public acclaim and recognition.
“I want to be a great man,” he said, admitting how he wanted to be seen by others.
“No,” I replied, “You want to be a famous man.”
“That’s right. To me, they’re one and the same,” he acknowledged.
“I know that,” I said, “but being famous and being a great man can be very different.”
“I’m not sure what distinction you’re making,” he said.
I paused to really think about this.
“My father is a good example of the difference,” I said. “My father is not famous by conventional standards. He receives no public acclaim. He’s never written a book. He was not a business tycoon. He’s not rich. Only the people who know him and love him will miss him when he’s gone.
“But my father is truly a great man. He taught me to do the right thing, to tell the truth even when it’s difficult, and to keep my word. I watched him do the same. I got to watch the best in him stand up. My father has basic decency and the capacity to really love someone–two things you can’t take for granted. He really loves my mother. He really loves me and my brother. And he gave me the greatest blessing a father can give a child. He gave me a father I can respect.”
In tears, the man said, “I wish that I could say that about my father.”
I paused for a moment. “I wish you could say that about your father too.”
“My father was famous,” the man said with disappointment.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied.
As the session progressed we talked about how the man manipulated his children into revolving around his needs, supporting him emotionally, and capitulating to his tantrums. The more we talked the more I, once more, appreciated my good fortune to have you as my father.
When we briefly lived in Wisconsin I was about 11 years old. That relocation was disappointing in many ways. Around the time you and mom decided it was best to return to New York, you and I were sitting on the front steps of the house. You turned to me and said, “Well, I guess I won’t be a hero in your eyes anymore.”
I was pretty taken aback and didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think any less of you because the move didn’t work out, but I was surprised you would be thinking of me thinking of you that way and that this made a difference to you. I was also embarrassed, because I realized I didn’t think of you as a hero even before Wisconsin. You were my dad. You were a hard working, honest, family guy. I loved you. But I thought heroes were fireman, policeman, or soldiers with medals for bravery. I didn’t yet understand how good fathers are everyday heroes.
So for your upcoming 90th birthday and for Father’s Day, I want to tell you that half a century later things sure look different. I can honestly say that by watching what you have done with your life, how you have handled adversity, how you love mom, how strangers are nice to you simply because you’re such a nice man, and myriad other things, you have become my hero. And I will always be grateful for having you as my father.
So Happy Birthday, Happy Father’s Day, and God bless you.
With much love,