Category: Articles

The Art of Fatherhood


by Kent Nerburn

Little is perfect in our lives. We dream of perfect love, we try to become perfect people, we challenge ourselves to see the universe as a perfect creation. But all our efforts and struggles are doomed to disappointment. We are not perfect. We are fraught with self-interest and unquenchable longings. Nothing is ever enough.

But there is one place where perfection is given to us in all its wholeness: Fatherhood.

When you look upon a child you have made, there are no limitations and longings. You are looking with a perfect love.

This is only natural. A child is born with a perfect love and dependence on its parents. It offers itself fully, unconsciously, in the complete unity of its being. There are no conditions and there are no motives. In its lack of self-consciousness it offers itself as a perfect gift.

In the perfection of its love it calls forth the perfection of yours.

For one shining moment, made flesh in time, you experience that oneness that comes from wanting nothing more, nothing less, than the life you have been given.

I thought I never wanted to be a father. A child seemed to be a series of limitations and responsibilities that offered no reward. But when I experienced the perfection of fatherhood, the rest of the world remade itself before my eyes.

I was not limited; I was freed from the fear of limitations. I was not saddled with responsibilities; responsibilities ceased to be a burden.

Nature aligned itself. My fatherhood made me understand my parents and honor them more for the love they gave. My son-hood was revealed to me in its own perfection and I understood the reason the Chinese so value filiation, the responsibility of the son to honor the parents.

I saw my own imperfection cast in high relief, because I knew how much I wanted to do things right. I felt the unity of generations cascading into generations from the beginning of time. I felt something in the world that was more important than I was.

And that was just the beginning. I knew every other man with different eyes. I hated war with a new passion, but knew what I would fight to save. I loved women for the gift they carried within, not only for the beauty they showed without.

I knew a new kind of love that was devoid of self-interest and desire.

In my bondage to a child I had found true freedom.

The power of this experience can never be explained. It is one of those joyful codings that rumbles in the species far below understanding. When experienced, it makes you one with all men in a way that fills you with warmth and harmony.

This is not to say that becoming a father automatically makes you a good father. Fatherhood, like marriage, is a constant struggle against your limitations and self-interests. But the urge to be a perfect father is there, because your child is a perfect gift. In your heart you know perfection, and it sets a standard that lifts you upward in your daily life.
So move cautiously toward fatherhood. It is much easier to become a father than to be one. When you become a father your whole life suddenly becomes measured against your vision of what good fatherhood should be.

And if your life is not in order — if you have not married well, if you are haunted by personal demons that eat away at your life, if you do not have the discipline that fatherhood requires — you will live in a private shame that will drag you downward and keep you from being the father that lives in your heart. Nothing — not alcohol, not other women, not running away — will shield you from the harsh truth of your failure.

So look upon fatherhood as a gift. It is one of life’s common miracles, available to everyone and given freely to us all. A child, whether healthy or ill, misshapen or beautiful, opens the world into a new sunlight. It is an experience greater than a dream.
If it is true that God loves us like a father, we can all rest peacefully. We are loved with a perfect love.

A two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, Kent Nerburn is the author of thirteen books on spirituality and Native American themes, including Simple Truths, Neither Wolf nor Dog, and Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce (featured on the History Channel). He lives in Minnesota and his website is

Excerpted from Letters to My Son. Copyright © 1994, 1999, 2014 by Kent Nerburn. Reprinted with permission from New World Library

In The Shadow of the Father


by Kent Nerburn

The image of my father floats like a specter before me as I try to form my thoughts about manhood. I see him as he is now — a shell of a man, lost in private memories, spending his days idly flicking a television from channel to channel in hopes of finding something to occupy his time.

I see him as he is, but I remember him as he was.

I remember his strong back as he worked late into the night, weeding or raking or painting, the sweat forming a great, swooping arc down the middle of his spine.

I remember his perfectly ordered workbench in the basement with a hook for each tool and a label on every box.

I remember his outbursts of anger, his halting attempts to talk to me about sex.

I remember his silences and his diligence, his inarticulate efforts to show me through ritual what he could not say in words.

And I remember his unspoken pride as his children grew, graduated, found mates, and went off into life.

He remembers little of this. His memory has begun to fail. The man who would recite me Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from memory can no longer remember the day of the week. His workbench is in shambles and bits of long-forgotten projects sit in dusty piles behind boxes in the corner. The man who in memory towered over me, all shoulders and biceps and strength, seems shriveled and small, cautious in his gestures and tentative in his gait.

I should feel sadness for this, and I do. But it is a sadness mixed with awe. With each passing day I realize more how much he lives within me, and how great a shadow he casts over my life.

It is the same for all men. None of us can escape this shadow of the father, even if that shadow fills us with fear, even if it has no name or face. To be worthy of that man, to prove something to that man, to exorcise the memory of that man from every corner of our life — however it affects us, the shadow of that man cannot be denied.

I am lucky. Though his anger ran deep and his heart was lonely at its core, my father did me no damage. His hand was always on my shoulder when I needed it, and he worked hard not to visit the sins of his father onto the life of his son.

Other men have not been so lucky. Their memories are filled with violence and brutality, the smell of alcohol, moments spent cowering in corners beneath the sound of breaking glass.
Others have only the aching emptiness where the memory of the father ought to be.

But we all labor under the shadow. It makes us who we are and shapes the man we hope to be.
To become a father is to understand the power of that shadow from the other side. You realize that the touches you make upon your son will shape him, for better or for worse, for his entire life.

And who can know which touches have meaning? A word here, a glance there, a time together, a time apart — which will be the moments that will rise up in memory and shape the child who looks without judgment on all that you do and say?

I see an image before me. It is an apartment hallway, bathed in half-light. My father stands there. I am behind him, a frightened ten-year-old, peering tentatively toward a door. We have a bicycle with us. It is a purple “racer,” as we called them, with hand brakes and a gearshift. It is the most beautiful bike I have ever seen. We are returning it to its owner.
My father had found this bike on one of his early-morning walks along a city beach. He had kept it in our garage, covered with a blanket. He wouldn’t let me ride it because, he said, it belonged to someone else. For weeks that bike had stood in our garage as my father advertised in the local papers for its owner. I had secretly dreamed that the owner would never call so I could have that bike for my own.

But the owner did call, and now we are standing at his door prepared to return his bike to him.

My father knocks. The door opens a crack. A man peers out and looks past us both toward the bike. He pulls it in the door and examines it. My father and I stand in the doorway, waiting.
“It has a lot of new scratches on it,” the man says.

My father says nothing.

The man turns the wheels, test the handlebars. He looks at my father accusingly. I want to cry out that there are no new scratches, that it has been under a blanket in our garage. Instead, I look down. The bike glints and shines in the hallway gloom.

The man pulls it further inside and mutters, “I suppose I should give you something.” He pulls out a crumpled bill and tosses it toward my father. My father gives it back.
The man glares at us and goes back to examining the bike.

We turn and walk down the hall. I grab my father’s shirt. “Why were you so nice to that man?” I ask. “He was really mean.”

My father keeps walking. “Maybe he’ll pass it along someday,” he says. I trail behind him through the spare yellow light. We never mention that bike again.

This image fades, recedes, is replaced by another.

It is many years later. I am visiting a local jail on some minor administrative task.
While I sit in the waiting room I notice the name of one of my former students on the prisoners’ list. He has been arrested for some act of public drunkenness and destruction of property. It is not his first arrest.

I have always liked this boy. He has a winning smile and there is a genuine kindness and love of life somewhere deep behind his eyes. He has no family. He has spent his life being shunted from foster home to halfway house. He doesn’t know who his father is and he claims he doesn’t care.

I ask the jailer if I can see him.

The jailer escorts me through a series of steel doors, each one echoing a little hollower as it slams behind me. I am brought to an empty cement room that is bright with the lifeless glare of fluorescent light.

“Wait here,” the jailer says.

He brings my student into the room. “Hi, Chris,” I say. Chris doesn’t answer. His eyes are scared and blinking. “He’s been a little wild,” the guard says, “so he’s been in solitary. It will take him a while to adjust to the light.”

Chris looks at me. His lip is quivering. “Please don’t let them put me back in there,” he says. His eyes are those of a frightened child.

“Please,” he says again. I have never before heard him say please to anybody.
I look at him for a minute. All I can see are his frightened eyes.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it.” His lip quivers once and he breaks into a grin.

I contact the guards and pay Chris’s bail. They bring him his clothes. I sign a few papers and take him out to my car. I buy him a hamburger, then drive him out to a house where he says he can stay. By the time we get there he is chattering away, full of his old bluster and swagger.

As I pull to a stop he jumps out of the car. “See ya,” he says. He never even turns around.
The next day I am telling a friend about Chris. He gets angry and begins to lecture me. “I can’t believe you did that,” he says. “You let him hustle you, just like he hustles everybody. You should have let him rot in that jail. Maybe he would have learned that he can’t talk his way out of everything. Why did you do such a stupid thing, anyway?”
I look down. “Maybe he’ll pass it along someday,” I answer.

My friend shakes his head and goes back to his work.

Somewhere, many miles away, my father stares blankly at a television screen.

A two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, Kent Nerburn is the author of thirteen books on spirituality and Native American themes, including Simple Truths, Neither Wolf nor Dog, and Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce (featured on the History Channel). He lives in Minnesota and his website is

Excerpted from Letters to My Son. Copyright © 1994, 1999, 2014 by Kent Nerburn. Reprinted with permission from New World Library

Father is the First Teacher



by Sara Wiseman

My bathing cap is too tight; it doesn’t hold the cascade of hair that someone’s piled on my head in order to squash it on, pull it tight until it covers my ears. When I take it off later, my hair will be sodden, snarled, and the long strands will catch in the cap, causing me to yelp in pain.

I wear it, because I want to pretend I am immune from the water: that even when I am submerged, my body will be safe from all that scary wetness.

If we wore goggles back then, I’d have put them on, too. But goggles haven’t been invented yet—at least not for child swimmers like me. I squint my eyes tightly against the sun, against the stinging chlorine, against the very large dollop of zinc oxide that has been applied to my nose in precaution against sunburn, and allow myself to descend into the whirling wet that awaits.

It’s summer, I’m at the pool, I’m maybe 4 or 5, and I’m learning to swim. It’s not an easy surrender.

I gasp, my heart pounds, and I catch sign of myself in reflection: I’m a green-capped alien, the water is dangerously blue, every ripple like a flash of light along the pool’s floor, and I’m hanging on to the only safety I know: my father’s arms, my father’s chest, my father's neck, everything sturdy and comforting, covered with blond curling hair.

If he lets go, I’m sure I’ll die.
If I let go, I’m sure I’ll drown.
I’m learning to swim, he thinks.
I’m trying to survive, I’m sure.

My body is rigid with panic, my arms clamped tight around him, and yet we don’t stop. We go deeper: past my knees, past my waist, until I’m up to my neck in water.
And even as we submerge deeper, I hear his voice in my ear: relax, you’re doing fine, it’s okay to let go.

Relax. You’re doing fine. It’s okay to let go.

Which I realize now, many decades later and 12 years after his passing, were the only real lessons I ever needed to learn from him.

The father is also a part of our soul circle; of our primary circle. Many souls are lucky to know our fathers well and long; in this loving relationship, our fathers bestow upon us a trust in the world that cannot be taken away. When our father is here, when our father is in the house, all is right with the world.

Others recall different teachings from their fathers. There may be grave difficulties in the relationship: karmic wounds that are beyond forgiving.

Still others don’t know of their fathers, or their fathers flit in and out of their lives, undependable at best, heart- breaking at worst.

Sinking back into those long time ago memories, I can see other fathers at the pool now, encouraging, berating, training, teaching, ignoring, punishing, present, authentic, cruel, real, loving, gentle.

All those fathers, teaching lessons.

My own father took me continually to deeper depths, letting go of me even as I held on.
Relax. You’re doing fine. It’s okay to let go.

These are the soul lessons I’ve been working on, lately, with nary a swim cap in sight, feet fully on dry land.

You, as daughters and sons of other fathers, will have your own lessons to learn.
We all receive what we need, even on summer day in the pool.

What have you learned, in accepting or rejecting your own father’s teachings? The male energy moves in all of us, whether we are male or female.

It is a part of us, just as everything is a part of us. Take a moment now, and be grateful for what you’ve learned—the lessons your father taught you, and also those lessons he failed to teach. Allow yourself to open your heart to all of it. (Excerpted from Living a Life of Gratitude).

Sara Wiseman is a spiritual teacher, intuitive and author of six insightful books on spirituality and intuition, including Living a Life of Gratitude. She is the founder of Intuition University, hosts the popular radio show Ask Sara, and is a top contributor to DailyOM, InspireMeToday, Aspire and more. Visit her at