Sunday, June 19, 2016

Reflections on Fatherhood After Coming Out

I published the following post on Father's Day five years ago, eight months after I had begun the process of coming out. The words I wrote then still resonate with me today, and I thought perhaps they might with others as well.

It is impossible to truly love others when you hate yourself. 

This is one of the great realizations to which I have come since beginning my journey out of the closet eight months ago. 

I thought I loved my children. There is no question that I did love them to the extent I was capable of doing so. But it was a stilted love, a love that was handicapped by shackles forged in the furnace of child abuse to be sure; but even more significantly, it was a love that was constrained and deformed by the self-hatred that filtered every emotion, contaminated every thought, and caused virtually every effort to love freely and authentically to be stillborn.

When one is incapable of living authentically, one settles for the next best thing: a role played to perfection. But playing this role requires almost unimaginable effort, moment after moment, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And, paradox of paradoxes, the effort to successfully fulfill this role creates a poison that slowly, inexorably and with deadly results, both feeds the self-hatred that created the role in the first place and contaminates the relationships with those who are the imagined beneficiaries of this role-playing.

The tragedy of it all is that one doesn’t realize – Dorian Gray-like – until it is perhaps too late, that one has totally missed the mark: blinded by a perverse sense of self-righteousness, believing that the role one is playing represents the height of self-sacrifice, the success one mistakenly believes that he is achieving in playing this role prevents one from seeing the hideousness that has grown, mold-like, behind the mask.

There have been times, during these past eight months, when I have harbored more than a small amount of bitterness toward the LDS Church. To be sure, I cannot blame the Church for the emotional and psychological deformities that were the legacy of child abuse. I also cannot blame the Church for instilling the self-hatred that helped create the false persona that transformed role into reality. 

I do, however, blame the Church for encasing that self-hatred in the tomb that became my life, for encouraging the role I assumed, for clothing it in a mantle of righteousness, for fostering an environment where perception is far more important than reality and, most of all, for the hideous deception that living a lie would bring happiness to me and, by extension, to those I love.

I now look back on my early years as a father and shudder. I have realized, since coming out, that not only did the role I was playing inhibit me from forming truly authentic and loving relationships with my children, I also did permanent harm to them by passing on to them the intense shame that burned deep within me.

A couple of months ago, I read an article in entitled “Passing On the Shame,” by Michael Farnworth, former professor of Family Psychology at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho). Though Farnworth was writing about a more generic type of shame, the effects that he described in his article of passing on this shame to his children cut me to the bone:
“My early parenting years reeked of immaturity and manipulation. I unwittingly subjected my children to emotional, psychological and spiritual bullying that wounded their vulnerable souls. I made them strangers in their own lives as they bartered parts of themselves trying to please me. I passed my own childhood shame on to them. I was devastated when I finally awoke from my cultural trance and realized what I had been doing ... 
“[Shaming is] a look, a tone, a name, a tease, a rebuke, a challenge, or a question that subtly implies: What is wrong with you? Shaming incubates fear of not being good enough, of being unworthy to be embraced and loved by others. It is a sense of being flawed and inwardly broken … 
“Despite my multiple apologies, the damage I did to them was irretrievable. I could not erase the numerous times I had made them feel wrong so that I could feel right. I could not return to them their sense of courage after having forced them, by fear, into acceptable human packages of behavior.”
Words cannot express the degree to which I bitterly regret the effects that my stilted role-playing and my shame had on my children. My only defense is that it was not conscious or intentional. Beyond this, however, I stand naked, exposed to the full import of the consequences of who I was:  “Despite my multiple apologies, the damage I did to [my children] [is] irretrievable.” 

Coming out has already blessed me to see all of what I have just described. It has also given me the opportunity to break out of my “role” and to start living an authentic life. I now have the opportunity to try, despite various types of obstacles, to form more authentic relationships with each of my children, to love them genuinely, free from the toxins of self-hatred and a belief-system that places form over substance.

In so doing, I am very conscious of the fact that I cannot do this on my own; in particular, I cannot unilaterally heal that which has been broken in my relationships with my children. 

Some members of the LDS Church are wont to talk about “applying the Atonement.” I have never understood this phrase and frankly despise it; in my mind, it reduces the Atonement to some sort of mathematical formula in which Christ becomes frankly (and paradoxically) irrelevant.

What I need, what I believe I have been offered, is Grace. In this regard, I am reminded of a scripture that my oldest daughter read in stake conference when she was six years old:  “We love him because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19]. It is impossible to love when filled with self-hate. Grace must first consume that self-hate, and only then can authentic love flow.

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life… Grace strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. 
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you… Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’”
-   Paul Tillich, Protestant theologian

My hope on this Fathers’ Day weekend is that the Grace that has enabled me to accept myself will now bless my relationships with my children so that what is misunderstood may be understood, what is hurt may be healed, and what is broken may be made whole.

Postscript: I am very grateful to say that, during the past five years, my children and I have been abundantly blessed by Grace and authenticity, and none of us will ever go back to the closets we used to live in. 

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