In his younger years, Fred's relationship with his dad was lousy. He often considered his dad his nemesis. Yet as he gradually worked on improving all his relationships, Fred eventually knew it was time to heal the old wounds with dad. Below is the inspiring story of how this young man was able to have a major breakthrough with his dad. This poignant essay beautifully shows how one person alone can change even a very difficult relationship.
Breaking Through With Dad
By Fred Burks
At age 27, after having spent two adventure-filled years living and teaching English in mainland China, I found myself getting ready to move back to the US. With two years completely immersed in another world away from family and friends, I'd had plenty of opportunities to reflect on my life back home. In those periods of contemplation, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction in realizing that I had come to really enjoy my relationships with all of my friends and family back home with only one major exception – Dad.
As a child, I had very mixed feelings about my father. He took us on wonderful, exciting vacations car camping around the country for a month out of each year. In his engaging moments with me and my sister and two brothers, he could be adventurous, enthusiastic, and a lot of fun.
Yet like so many fathers out there, most of the time he was distant and unavailable. As a Methodist minister and a fighter for peace and justice, his work was by far his greatest passion with family a distant second. What's more, at meals – our only regular gathering time each day – he would all too often preach politics to us, his unwilling captive audience. There was no debating him, either. He was always right.
In looking back, however, I could see now what I once would never have admitted – that I was just as stubborn as dad. There was no way I would acknowledge that he was right in a debate or argument. I would argue with him fiercely, yet still he managed to get me every time. I remember countless times when our interactions ended with me stalking off frustrated and angry, as dad settled back triumphantly into his chair reading the newspaper. Sometimes I just hated him. His righteous attitude seemed so hypocritical and just wrong!
After moving away from home at age 18, I had dedicated myself to improving my relationships with my family and others in my life. Thanks to some wonderful divine guidance, I had been successful with everyone except dad. He was the one person I still just couldn't get along with.
As I contemplated leaving the wonderfully rich experience in China, I knew that the time had come to change this. I knew that on getting home, if I wanted to get along better with him, my job was to learn to let dad be dad. I realized that I could not change him, but I could change myself by letting go of my need to be right and of my harsh judgments of him and his behavior. I knew that If I wanted to change our frustrating dynamic, I was the one who would have to change.
The idea came to me that the best way to heal this old family wound was to move in with dad and make a commitment to opening my heart and to becoming friends with him for the first time in my life. I knew it would not be easy. Yet I also knew that if I could hold fast to my intention of not needing to be right and not letting his comments get to me, we could have a significant breakthrough. I wrote dad a letter asking if he was interested in becoming friends, and if he would be open to my living with him on return from China to work on this.
Dad was thrilled at the idea of us becoming friends and warmly welcomed me into his home. He was very supportive of my desire to move through our difficulties. He even spruced up a little room in his house for me. Yet after a brief, enjoyable "honeymoon" period of about two months, I found those same old patterns staring me right in the face again. Dad again was always right and I ended up leaving frustrated, knowing that I was actually right – just like old times. Why did it always have to end up that way?
Yet I held to my commitment. I remembered that If I wanted to change this disempowering dynamic, I was the one who would have to change. So gradually, I learned to hold my tongue. When discussion turned to debate, I would do my very best not to engage, not to get caught up in trying to prove him wrong. If the conversation turned competitive, I learned to be quiet and to wait for the appropriate moment to excuse myself, so that I could go let off steam on my own.
Even though I still didn't agree with him, I slowly learned to simply listen and to be OK with letting dad have the last word. I couldn't change his behavior or beliefs, but I was gradually changing mine.
Those few months were tough. It's not easy to break deeply ingrained family patterns, but I was committed. Every time things spun out of control, I reminded myself of my deep intention to become friends with dad and even to love him. By holding strong to that commitment, I got increasingly better at pulling back whenever our talks didn't feel supportive.
By the end of six determined months, I had done it! I could sit through a conversation where dad was telling me how I was wrong and feel no need to engage or respond. When he challenged or blamed me, I could just let him have his say. I learned to just acknowledge that I heard him, remembering not to take anything personally and to just let dad be dad.
As I got better at this, I eventually came to understand that dad was not consciously trying to attack me. He was just playing out old patterns and programming within himself. I could accept and even love him just the way he was – even the part of him that would very rarely admit he was wrong. Dad seemed to notice the difference, too.
I especially remember one particular day when dad was doing his thing. I simply nodded my head occasionally and said "I hear you, dad," without feeling any need to defend myself. At one point he fell silent, and I just sat quietly waiting. Then I heard words I don't think I'd ever heard him say in these circumstances, "Well, Fred, what do you think?" And for the first time in a situation where we didn't agree, I felt dad was really interested in what I had to say.
From that point on, though we still would hit occasional rough spots, dad and I began having meaningful conversations. He became increasingly interested in my opinion and his tone of voice lost that cutting edge. For the first time ever, we were actually friends!
What an incredibly empowering change in my life – in our lives! I was amazed that although my deep intention was just to let dad be who he was, once I made the big shift, dad shifted, too! What a gift!!! From that point on, our relationship gradually grew warmer and deeper.
Many years later for my dad's 70th birthday, I recorded his fascinating life story on over two hours of audio tape. What great, rich stories he had! What a wonderful, bonding time we shared!!! What a long way we've come!
Thanks, dad, for being such a wonderful presence in my life. And I give thanks for the divine guidance which helped me to realize that if I want to transform any significant relationship in my life, I can stop trying to change others and open to accepting and loving everyone just as they are.
By focusing on making shifts and changes in myself, I now know without a doubt that I alone can positively change any relationship in my life.
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