The Value of My Father's Life

How should a life be measured?

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I have reflected on the question for the last few days as I ponder the passing of my father. It is easy to focus only on the end of his life and the decisions that led to his isolation and estrangement from his family but I do not think that is fair. My father was a mean and angry man who did mean and angry things, but he did not do only mean and angry things. Like all of us, he was much more complicated than that.

He was a violent man who beat my mother while they were married. When she took their three young children (we were all under 5 years old), he could have abandoned us. He could have ignored his responsibilities and refused to pay child support. He could have, but he didn’t. The checks always came.

When my mother divorced her second husband and became a single mom to three teenage boys she found herself in dire financial straits. She asked my father for more child support. He didn’t have to pay her more as there was no court order compelling him to increase the payments, but he did. As seemingly incapable as he was of giving emotional support he never wavered in his financial support.

As a father, he was often impossible to please. I have vivid memories of being a small child and him harshly criticizing me for the way I pulled on my socks, took off my shirts and even my choice of spoon when I ate my morning cereal. I was a pigeon-toed and awkward child and his biting “humor” found in me an easy target.  He called me "spastic" and when someone else was clumsy he said they had "pulled a Bart." His words were incredibly hurtful and damaging. To this day the memories of his words still bring a sense of fear and anxiety.

As mean as he was this angry man found the time to play with us. He taught us card games, played board games with us and organized football and basketball games with the kids in the neighborhood. He took us to San Diego Padres baseball games and Chargers football games and took us to the beach and taught us how to ride the waves on an inflatable raft. These moments were not idyllic, he was often impatient and critical and some initially pleasant times  degenerated into tears, but he gave us attention. He was inconsistent and unpredictable but there were times when he tried to be a dad.

His struggles with being a parent did not end when I reached adulthood. He struggled with my independence and career choices. He wanted more from me than I did for myself. He appropriately questioned my decision to drop out of college and forcefully encouraged me to re-enroll. When I did, he paid my tuition all the way through medical school. In spite of his financial support he did not have much faith in me. I will never forget his response when I told him of my perfect GPA at the end of my first year at the University of California, Irvine. He said, “I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.”

He was not a man of encouragement. He seldom gave praise and never gave hugs. Growing up I never thought he was proud of me or that he loved me for who I was. He seemed to see every flaw and catch every mistake while missing or minimizing every success. And yet, when I looked into the audience as I walked off the stage with my Medical Diploma in my hands I saw my father head and shoulders above the crowd, standing on his chair and proudly pumping his fist in the air.

For the three years I was in my Family Practice residency he was incredibly supportive of me and my family. Each month a check for $500 came in the mail, (almost $1000 in today's dollars.) He knew my resident’s salary was not enough to support a family and he did not want Lisa to have to work. It is because of him that she was able to stay home with our son.

His generosity had a profound impact on our lives, which made his decision to disown me shortly after graduation so difficult to process. I knew he was angry and had fits of temper, but I had always hoped there was some measure of good underneath. I had heard the horrible stories told by my step-brother and mother, of physical and verbal abuse, but thought that he had softened with age, and that love, especially for his grandson, would win out. It didn't.  His choice to cut off all contact with me and my family for the remaining 24 years of his life proved that anger ultimately won.

So how do I measure his life?

There is no question that his anger and inability to love left marks on me. My battles with anxiety, insecurity and anger are part of his cursed heritage. I struggle every day to overcome the damage he wrought. It is only by the grace of God that I have learned what it means to be a loving husband and father. Although I had no role model in my own family, God blessed me with a father-in-law who modeled goodness and kindness. 

In spite of the damage my father did it does not seem fair to ignore the support he gave me earlier in life. His gifts were tainted and had strings attached but they made a difference nonetheless. They had value. While the good he did is dwarfed by the harm, his warped generosity did help my family through difficult times. He was not a good man, but he was more than just a bad man.

I think this is the reality for all of us. None of us are totally good or totally evil. We are all broken people who fail and succeed to varying degrees. This truth of universal brokenness begs the question- How do we measure a life? Do we pull out a set of scales and divide up a man’s deeds and see where the balance lies? If so, do we give greater weight to more recent harms or blessings?  Many people have done terrible deeds believing in the moment that they were doing the right thing. How do we decide where to draw the line?

I do not believe that I am in a position to answer this question for others. It is not my place to decide. As I think about my father I realize there are pieces of his puzzle that are hidden from me. I have no knowledge of his childhood or of his relationship with his father. I do not know if he was abused or scorned, loved or hated. I do not know his mental history. As an experienced physician I see in his behavior hints of mental illness that were not visible to me when I was young. I do not know if he battled his demons or embraced them. I do not know if he was even capable of love. 

What I do know is that he paid a price for his sins in this life. I have wonderful children who fill the world with love, joy and laughter. My father never knew them. Theirs is a joy he never shared. In my relationship with my father-in-law I experienced the incredibly rich blessing of shared respect between two grown men. I received the wisdom of his years of life experience and he received the joy of seeing his wisdom shape me into a better person. My father never experienced this blessing, the joy of adult friendship with a son. My father lived the pain of loneliness.

Sadly for my father, the pain of this life pales in comparison to the pain that may await. My father rejected faith many years ago. To my knowledge he never turned to God. For the rest of eternity he will give account to His creator for his choice. It is God who will judge.

As it is God who will ultimately judge there is little to be gained expending energy judging my father. My time is better spent judging my own heart. When I turn my gaze inward I see incredible room for improvement. I have more bad in me than can be expunged in one lifetime. While true goodness eludes me I nevertheless intend to spend the rest of my life striving to be a better man.

The success of my self improvement efforts will be measured after I am gone. I often tell others that I have two goals in life, both to be fulfilled when I die. The first is that when I stand before my God I will hear Him say, “Well done.” The second is that my children will tell others on my passing that I was the greatest man they ever knew. I do not know if I will ever achieve these goals but I am certain that they will not be achieved without continuous intentional effort on my part.

I am also certain that the pursuit of these goals will bring peace and joy in this lifetime, and confident hope for the next.

- Bart


Parenting by iPad

I see it more and more in the office. Little children with an iPad or an iPhone in their hands. Some are too young to speak in full sentences yet they can clearly communicate their desire to watch a movie or play a game. Mom and dad rapidly comply with their wishes as it accomplishes their primary objective, a quiet child. While I can understand the desire to be able to interact with another adult without being continually distracted by your child I fear that there are unintended consequences ahead for these parents and children.

My concerns are increased by how often I see  this parenting behavior outside my office. It can be seen almost anywhere we see parents and their children. Children riding in the child seats in shopping carts, at tables in restaurants, in church pews and even at family gatherings can be seen sitting alone staring at a miniature video screen. The children appear to be happy, content and quiet, yet I wonder. When did quiet children become the ultimate parenting goal?

While the unending questions of a toddler can be wearisome, they are an essential part of intellectual and social development. Through them the child learns not only how to speak and communicate but also how the world works. These repetitive conversations help forge a relationship of trust and respect with parents. Parents learn the personality and interests of their children and strengthen the bond they share. Children learn from what goes on around them. They learn appropriate social interaction from watching adults interact. They also learn patience and self control. None of this happens when the child sits in a corner with an iPad.

While a child's quietness may make a parent's life easier for the moment, this is not a healthy goal. Good parenting has never been easy. I fear that the current generation of parents has either never learned or has already forgotten that we do not have children for ourselves. Children are not toys or playmates to be called upon when entertainment is desired. They are a gift from God, made in His image, given to parents to be loved, trained and served. Children need parents who will sacrifice for them, who will answer the repeated questions and play the silly games, who will love them, listen to them and give them attention.

There is no app for that.

- Bart

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Helping our Children Make Good Choices

All good parents share a common trait. We worry. We worry about what our kids might do and what they won’t do, about what they will be and who they will be with. We worry about the types of people they will be and the choices they will make. “Make good choices!” is a near universal parental admonition. But what are good choices and how do we make them?

This question came to mind recently as a chatted with a long term patient at the end of the visit. He was the last appointment of the morning so I had to time to chat at the end of the visit and ask how his children were doing. They were both at the edge of adulthood and he talked about his desire that they do well in life. I knew he had put effort into being a good father and had tried to give his children wise counsel. He told me that the words, “make good choices” had crossed his lips on many occasions.

I talked about parenting my own children (both who have reached adulthood) and how I had given them similar counsel over the years. One difference between us was that as a result of our faith our family shared an understanding of what good choices were. Right and wrong were not defined in the heat of the moment nor dependent on the particular circumstances in which we found ourselves. Right and wrong, for our family, have been consistently defined according to scripture.

Right and wrong were also regularly discussed in our home. My wife and I long ago took to heart the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 6 when he told the people of Israel that God’s word and the principles therein were to be discussed and applied as an ongoing part of daily life. Discussions of truth, of what was right and wrong, were common and made their way into conversations at dinner, while waiting in lines at Disneyland, on car trips and during walks in the park. The result was that when faced with moral decisions our children did not struggle to determine what the right path was. It was something that they already knew and understood.

Families like ours are increasingly rare. In American culture people have moved away from the moral clarity of scripture to the moral relativism of secular humanism. While definitions of right and wrong were once commonly understood and rarely questions they are now subjective, momentary, individual and abstract. The result is a generation of children who lack a moral compass and who define rightness not according to an enduring standard but as feeling good about something at a particular moment in time. In the absence of a defined standard "making good choices" becomes impossible.

We do best as parents when we not only encourage our children to do right but teach them what rightness is and from whence it comes. When our children understand these truths making good choices can become a reality.

-          Bart

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Top 10 Mistakes Parents Make with their teens

Parenting teens is hard and not every parent succeeds. Here is my list of the top 10 mistakes I have seen parents make.

10- Thinking they are almost done parenting

Some parents see adulthood as the finish line. The closer their children get to 18 the less guidance they offer. We live in a world filled with temptation, which only increase in college. Our children often need more time and guidance when they are older. Good parents spend the time.

9- Arguing with their teenager

People who argue with their bosses get fired. Learning to control your emotions and to submit to authority when you don’t agree are priceless life skills. Losing our temper or debating with an adolescent teaches all the wrong lessons. Set rules for disagreement early. Let your children have an opportunity to respectfully disagree and express themselves but enforce consequences when they do not accept your decisions.

8- Skipping family dinners

The importance of sharing dinner and conversation cannot be overstated. Have everyone put their phones away, turn off the TV and review the day.

7-Emphasizing college prep over life prep

Character is more important than education and relationships are more important than academic success. I went to community college for two years and took 5 years to get a bachelor’s degree. I came out okay. My son started at community college and was in the top third of his law school class at UCLA. Too many families sacrifice too much for the pursuit of a better school. It is almost never worth it.

6- Telling instead of parenting

Many parents tell their children not to drink, do drugs or have sex. Very few talk to their children about what to do when friends drink or use, or how to construct their lives in a moral fashion. Telling takes minutes. Parenting takes a lifetime.

5- Not hanging out with their kids.

Healthy families do things together. Good parents look for opportunities to spend time with their children instead of opportunities to get away from them. Date nights with a spouse are important, date nights with your kids can be priceless.

4- Modeling materialism

When we always have to have the best and latest we teach our children that happiness is dependent on things. Doing without, and telling our kids why, can be a powerful teacher.

3- Not teaching how to handle money

We live in a very expensive world. Our teens often have no idea of how much living costs. If our kids do not know the cost of a mortgage, car payments and insurance, food and utilities, how will they be able to choose a career path? Good parents teach their children how to spend, how to save and the importance of avoiding debt.

2- Not monitoring media

We live in a perverted and dangerous world. Parents who do not follow their children on social media, and who do not know the shows and movies their kids watch or the music they listen too are not doing their job. Once innocence is lost it is gone forever.

1- Trusting their teenager.

Wise parents do not trust their teenage children. They know where they are, what they are doing and who they are doing it with. Since we were all teens once ourselves we should know the trouble that awaits those kids who lack parental oversight.

-          Bart

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Love is never Hopeless.

waiting for a boy to become a man can be hard!

waiting for a boy to become a man can be hard!

It is very hard to look at a 13 year-old boy and accurately forecast the probability of future success. For my son Nate it was darned near impossible. The standard indicators of future success- a clean room, completed chores, and finished homework, were noticeably absent. At that age it seemed that his greatest hope for success in the world was dependent on there actually being a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion. If there was one (or two) things he was really good at it was killing aliens and zombies. It was a skill honed and developed through hours of practice that arose out of a singular devotion to duty.

As a father it was incredibly frustrating. Like many dads looking at his cluttered room and hearing the endless video game explosions led to visions of my son standing at an intersection with a piece of cardboard that said “Will work for food.” (Although the thought that he might actually be willing to work was slightly comforting.)

My frustration was in large part my own fault. I had unreasonable expectations for a 13 year-old. (My wife will say that I also had unreasonable expectations for a 14, 15, 16, and 17 year-olds as well.) I was basing my opinion totally on what I saw with my eyes. I was ignoring two important things that I could not see- the goodness of his heart, influenced by the Biblical teaching that was a large part of his life, and the bigness of our God, who Nate had made a commitment to at a young age.

I was allowing present circumstances and performance to completely determine my perception of the future of my child. I was stupid, and on many occasions I did not show him love as I should have, for love does not only believe in the good intentions of someone’s heart for the present time, love believes that goodness of heart will result in good in the future. This belief that the future will be better has a name. It is called Hope.

Paul listed Hope as one of the characteristics of love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love always hopes.” Even when current evidence is lacking, even when someone is failing right in front of us, when it comes to relationships with those we love, our family, especially our spiritual family, true love brings hope. Hope that the future need not be defined by the present. Hope that God is able to make broken people whole, that God can change lives for the good.

It is difficult to hope sometimes, difficult to believe that the future can be better. We need God’s help to love like this, need Him to remind us that He is in control, need to trust His ability to work in the lives of those He loves. But if we love others and love God we must trust, for love always hopes.

I had hope for my son. If I had allowed his dirty room and video games to define him, I would have not encouraged him to be more and do more. My hopes were not disappointed as he has since exceeded my hopes for him. He is a good man, a loving husband, and a devout believer. He is still equipped to deal with the coming zombie apocalypse, but he is also finishing a law degree at UCLA, and working for the District Attorney, where he is displaying a talent for dealing with real life bad guys. Thank God for hope.

-          Bart

This is the 13th post in a series on love based on 1 Corinthians 13. If you have been encouraged by this post, please consider sharing it. If you have a story or comment to share, please share it in the comments. You can be sure to receive all future posts in your email by subscribing to the blog as well. (Link is upper right on a computer, at the bottom of the page on a mobile device.)