Releasing My Father

(I believe creativity is a journey of self-discovery. Some discoveries are wonderful, some are painful. This is part of my personal journey.)

This is the hardest piece I’ve ever tried to write.

It’s personal, it’s painful, and a little embarrassing.

But I believe that I need to do it.

A little background first. A couple months ago, I stumbled on the “Better Questions” email from some guy named Dan Barrett. I’d never heard of him, but the pitch was “…for people who want to think more clearly, work more productively, and live more creatively.” I don’t have to tell you that the last phrase jumped out at me, right? It’s the center of my struggle for the last several years. The email was free, so why not? Once a week, if I don’t like it, then it goes straight to unsubscribe.

I think it was the second email I got where he says, “We are story making creatures.”

Hello, now you’re talking my language! Dan offers something worth pondering in the emails, so when he offered a free webinar series on simple goal-setting (titled “Simple Goal-Setting 2020”) I thought it was worth a shot. I’m at a point in my life where I need to figure out what my future is going to be. Let’s face it, most of my assumptions about where I’d be at this age/time of life have fallen apart. What’s the worst that could happen? He’s boring and I skip the rest of the series.

Instead, he led a bunch of us through some fundamental exercises to help us understand what has been hindering us and how to move forward.

Which brings me back to the piece you’re reading. What I discovered in this process was deeply emotional. In my life, I have discovered that there is a feeling “in my gut” when something is right for me. I know when I’ve found my personal truth. By the time I’d finished the exercise on my personal barriers to success, I had that feeling. It was profound and frightening, as profound moments often are.

Let me give you the nutshell version. Most of what I discovered about myself wasn’t new. My biggest obstacle to success is fear. I’ve known that for years. I even know what that fear centers on–fear of letting people down. This is the point where I usually stop. But the exercise was to keep asking “Why?”. Why are you afraid of letting people down?

Because I’m afraid to let my father down.

If you know my relationship with my father, that won’t come as a surprise. I have had a serious case of hero worship for the old man all my life. He was smart, confident, accomplished father. Most of my friends liked him too. It was a high standard to shoot for.

But there was still a “Why?” lurking, I realized. Why was not letting Pop down important?

The answer hit me between the eyes. Because, in my head, I’m still “Young Jay”.

My name is my father’s nickname. I look like him, and I sound like him. I’m the oldest son. I was “Little Jay”, then “Young Jay”, then J.D. to his J.K. There was no way I could escape the comparison. And I saw myself getting hammered in that contest.

My dad had the attention to detail of a Mechanical Engineer (his training), and the discipline of a Navy officer (he retired as a Captain). I couldn’t hold a candle to him in either of those categories. His IQ tested out higher than mine. He could do things with a car that I can’t even imagine, and cars were a big deal in my family. His professional career was, to my eyes, much more successful. He engendered a level of respect I never felt I could or would match.

I couldn’t meet the standard, I was going to let him down; I was going to let everyone down. So I became ever more cautious, never accepting the challenge that Robert Browning wrote, where “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp…” Nope, too likely I’ll fail. Too likely I’ll let him down.

I was still “Young Jay.”

And that is stupid.

I’m almost 63 years old, almost as old as Pop was when he died. Oh, yes, I’m afraid to let down someone who isn’t even here. My father died 20 years ago. Read that last sentence again. 20 years ago.

My first thought was, “God, that sounds like such a cop-out. It’s my father’s fault.” Then I realized the truth. It wasn’t his fault. He NEVER laid this burden on me. I was never told that I had to live up to him. The expectation was I had to be the best I could be. Thinking about it, I am certain that it would disappoint him that I have wasted this much time on this fear, and sad that I’d made him a negative in my life. Because he wasn’t. Yes, there were issues. Fathers. Sons. It happens, it’s normal. For all my hero worship, I now can see his humanity and imperfection. It doesn’t diminish him, it helps me understand him better. Pop was not a warm, huggy kind of father. My mother told me he saw fatherhood as a serious job. He approached that job with the tools he had as an engineer and officer. Turns out his oldest son could have used a few more hugs along the way. I’m not broken by it. Before the Parkinson’s took him away from us, he had begun to relax around his sons. I was getting to know him a little as a person when the disease eroded so much of who he was, finally killing him.

Am I my father? Nope. Like him, I’ve changed careers a couple times. I’ve been a good enough husband and father. A good enough brother and friend. A valuable employee (if not always a compliant one, but then that’s my father in me too!) I was a good son.

But there remains this anchor. This fear that I am not living up to him. That I will let him down. That being anything other than perfectly “squared away” was a failure. Out of that grew a bunch of patterns of fear based behaviors that snaked into every part of my life.

It’s not his fault, it’s mine. I have refused to let him go. It’s my hands holding onto him, not his hands holding me back. He never would have done that. It wasn’t his nature, not his personality. My fear of letting him down is, in fact, the most profound way that I have let him down.

And it’s over.

2021 is a new year. I will turn 63 years old this year, almost as old as he was when he died. I’m leaving “Young Jay” behind. I’m letting “Old Jay” go. His spirit will always be at my shoulder, as it has always been. But now I will say, “Look, Pop! I’m trying something new. It stinks right now, but I think I can do better.” And his response will be what it always was, what I’ve ignored for too many years.

“Good. Keep going.”

I will Pop. I promise.

(A note about my Mom. It feels like I ignored her in all this, but that’s the difference in the relationship between us. Looking back, I realized I was a bit of a Momma’s boy growing up. She and I grew closer after Pop died. I would never want to disappoint her, either. In some ways, her disappointment was a much sharper pain. They were two very different people, with imperfections and struggles I knew nothing about as a boy. I am who I am, for better or worse, because of both of my parents. Mom died 15 years ago. There is not a day that goes by when I do not miss them both.)

(Yes, this was every bit as hard as I thought it would be.)

If you’re interested in Dan Barrett’s “Better Questions” newsletter or reading other stuff he’s done, check it out at the “No Less Than” blog. Dan didn’t pay me to say stuff about him, he won’t know I’ve written about him till this post publishes. He’s an interesting guy, who thinks interesting thoughts (most of the time).

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