Part 2: Fatherlessness and the Longing for Connection and Affirmation
In an earlier post, I mentioned as a key vulnerability point “Fatherlessness that leaves ‘holes in the soul’ and a longing for connection with a father figure — which a charismatic authoritarian man will gladly step in to act as and act out as. I suspect the dynamics here often lead to learned passivity, learned helplessness, learned devaluation of personal worth — and a false elevation of authority systems, masculinity, and patriarchy.”
About three years ago, I commented on the history of various men’s movements when TWW posted an article on the movie *Courageous* and the “Resolution for Men” that was being promoted with it. See: Comment 1 on general background about men’s movements over the past 50 years, Comment 2 on Promise Keepers and Christian publishing during that era, Comment 3 on core issues in gender roles, and Comment 4 on some specific streams in the secular men’s movement of the 1980s and ’90s.
Because I was involved with recovery ministries for men starting back in the mid-1980s, I read many of the secular books dealing with men’s issues. (It would still be 5+ years until Promise Keepers started, and with it, the floodgates of Christian publishing on materials for men opened … with just as much debris in that flood as life rafts.)
Poet and storyteller Robert Bly was one of the more popular writers for men in the 1980s and early ’90s. His book Iron John was a bestseller, but I found his follow-up book on The Sibling Society even more helpful on the historical roots of the mess that men often found themselves in. In it, he addressed issues of fatherlessness and the imprint of generational dynamics left on Boomer men by fathers who came of age during the Depression and World War 2, and who came home as fathers who were typically physically present but emotionally absent.
The key idea in The Sibling Society is that when the older generations are not people that younger generations want to emulate, then the younger ones create connections with their peers as the influential “others” in their life. This action cuts them off from those who could/should call them forth into being adults, which in turn sets them up to extend adolescence and delay maturity. (It can also lead to “Lord of the Flies” type situations where influence by dominant peers leads others into conformity and, ultimately, evil.)
As it turns out, Robert Bly had written the foreword to a revised and updated edition of the monumental research work by Alexander Mitscherlich: Society without the Father: A Contribution to Social Psychology. (If I remember right, this was originally published in the early 1960s in German — my copy is currently hiding in a box somewhere.) Mitscherlich had studied the fallout of the Industrial Revolution, where fathers increasingly abandoned the home, and especially the specific dynamics of what happened in his native Germany after the loss of so many men during two world wars. What had happened to the children of the WW2 years, when a generation of fathers and grandfathers in families — and in society — did not return home?
Bly titled his foreword “Mitscherlich and His Uncomfortable Thoughts.” He summarizes the entire message of the book in just a few pages, which is very helpful. Here are his restatements of seven of Mitscherlich’s “uncomfortable thoughts.” (Some quoted, some paraphrased.)
1. “The father society has collapsed.”
2. This vacuum led to the arrival of the sibling society that expects peers and committees.
3. “Once the sibling society is well in place, the citizens may find great difficulty in maintaining distinct viewpoints or rebellious trains of thought.”
4. “Sons and daughters now experience a double fatherlessness” as there is no fathering in the home life nor in the public realm of social/political institutions.
5. “In the fatherless society, the children – particularly the sons – have holes in their psyche that fill with demons.”
6. Serious regression [i.e., primitive behavior – aggression, violence, terrorism, aliteracy, etc.] is taking place.
7. The absence of the father causes many boys to be stuck in a prolonged and more severe adolescence.
Mitscherlich’s idea #5 is probably the most disconcerting — but most relevant to reflecting about the magnet attraction of supposed “manliness” in the Neo-Calvinism/Neo-Puritanism movement. Here is what Bly says in expanding on this:
In the fatherless society, the children – particularly the sons – have holes in their psyche that fill with demons. But Mitscherlich says that if the sons do not have constant association with their fathers in a human way, if they do not see the father when he is working, failing, laughing, complaining, pleased, weeping, hurting, stupid, fooled, then a hole develops in the son’s psyche. It doesn’t remain empty long but soon fills with demons. (Page xvi.)
I don’t fit in the complementarian camp, and I’m not suggesting that if men were only acting like “manly leaders,” all would be well with the world. Basically, I see that the traumas of the Depression and WW2 created deep grief — especially for men, in an environment where males of the Builder generation were already being pressured to give up so much of what it simply means to be human: expression of emotions, joy in family life, etc. The Boomer generation rebelled, and I’d suggest much of that has ended up in selfishness and elitism and what is being called cultural authoritarianism, meaning trying to control society, whether by liberal or conservative beliefs and politics — and those who oppose this generally cannot be squeezed into the categories of either left or right, but are being called cultural libertarians. And with so many in next generations being reared in homes of divorce, what are the results? An even more amplified deep-soul longing for the father, amidst generations of “partial orphans.”
Remember The Blessing by Gary Smalley and John Trent? It was first published in 1990, during an era when many Boomers were part of movements for recovery from addictions. The book made a significant impact in ministry circles with its emphasis on how important it was for parents to accept, bless, and affirm their children. That unconditional love — both shown and told to children — was what we long for. But, in the wake of multiple generations of waves of fatherlessness in home and society, that longing for blessing is often only partially fulfilled, mostly by mothers. But, if it is true that sons especially need a father to call them forth and the community of men to provide support, then what can be done for the fatherless sons?
And who is ready to receive, affirm, bless, comfort, disciple, encourage, minister to, and serve others? Substitute “fathers” in the Church.
Problem being, many substitute fathers are counterfeits who woo, flatter, groom, reduce fears with predictable rules, discipline, guilt-trip, motivate, and seduce.
Welcome to the world of the charisma-driven authoritarian system … where susceptibility can easily lead to seduction into legalism, perfectionism, and a Spiritless form of godliness that denies the power thereof.
But there is hope for substantial healing, and none of us are Fatherless in Christ!
Check out Spiritual Abuse Article Index and see what seems of interest on spiritual abuse …
Also, on issues of fatherlessness and men growing up without letting “demons and addictions fill the holes in our soul,” I still recommend one of the pioneering books in the pre-Promise Keepers Christian men’s movement. It’s by Gordon Dalbey: Healing the Masculine Soul: God’s Restoration of Men to Real Manhood. I read the first edition of this book in about 1988, and found it especially helpful for his synthesizing of insights from psychology, theology, and social dynamics. It was one of the very few more holistic books for Christian men available way back then, and we used it in our support group for men dealing with any kind of gender identity, sexuality, and/or addiction problem on the spectrum of issues.That was from 1989-1991, and his book was one of the few Christian ones available that touched on similar core issues of woundings and longings that secular men’s movement books of that era did.
Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to reading Mr. Dalbey’s follow-up book, Sons of the Father: Healing the Father-Wound in Men Today. It’s a revised and updated version of his 1992 book (which I also remember from back then), Father and Son: The Wound, The Healing, The Call to Manhood. From my past experiences in reading Gordon Dalbey’s books and discussing them, I expect to gain challenging but practical insights relevant to Builders, Boomers, Busters, and generations beyond.
In fact, I’ve been in touch with Mr. Dalbey recently. (He’s now in his early 70s.) I had a chance to thank him for his wisdom, and for pioneering ministries for men that incorporate global/multicultural insights from his experiences in the Peace Corps, and that are based in grace and not in guilt, empowered by the Spirit and not encumbered by the Law which never ever brings anyone to maturity.
I have been considering writing more extensively about men’s issues once I finish my curriculum project for training church planters and social entrepreneurs to Do Good Plus Do No Harm. I see that possible move as a logical extension of my writing about spiritual abuse and recovery, as it is apparent that so many malignant Christian ministries target wounded young men by supplying counterfeit fathers that will never bring healing to the father-wound suffered by so many … So, if I happen to come to mind, pray for me to have discernment about what to do and directions to take.
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