Bridging the Father Gap: From False Masculinity to Authentic Power
by Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.
Those of us who have dedicated our lives to working with men have observed that many males, of all ages, carry a secret wound that was inflicted upon them by a father who was heavy handed and went over the top, crushing the boy's spirit, or in some ways worse, by a father who was missing in action and goes down and out of his son's life. This wound commonly does not heal, but rather festers below the surface. Wounded boys are frequently prone to grow up to become "wounding men" acting out the hidden rage that foments as a result of unrequited longing. In my book, The Sacred Path: The Way of the Spiritual Warrior (Journey to Mindful Manhood), I indicate that males often bear unspoken shame and grief from having missed out on a loving and caring relationship with their fathers, a syndrome I refer to as "The Father Gap."
Fathers can also carry wounds that are inflicted by their children, another facet of the father gap. Children manifesting a variety of different forms of conduct disorder including addictive behaviors can suffer undeserved wounds on parents that are quite debilitating. There is also a phenomenon that is increasing these days and I call it the "Parent Estrangement Syndrome" in which a number of generation Xer's who are entering and moving through their 30's are distancing themselves from their parents, cutting off contact, sometimes for years. It's a disturbing form of individuation in which the offspring kick hard as they push off on their own, leaving bruised and beleaguered parents in their wake, as they sever ties and gain momentum to create as much distance as possible.
Essentially, their parent's baby boomer generation had their own revolution which was comprised mostly of experiences with drugs, sex and rock & roll. Many of their children's generation have taken revolt to a new level in which they kick their parents to the curb and join a terrorist organization. I'm only half kidding...
Males who haven't had adequate fathering grow up feeling incomplete and ill equipped to be men. They attempt to fill the gap with a number of substitutes, such as food, alcohol, drugs, work and sex. They stuff as much of each into that empty space as they can. Such placebos provide a momentary illusion of wholeness, but it's a false front, artificially propped up by an inflated and grandiose sense of self. But the hole simply can't be filled from the outside. The hole has to be filled up from within with coats of what I call "Soul-spackle." Then it's only a matter of time before a man feels compelled to search for something real to save him from his despair. The soul searching journey for a man who bridges his own "Father Gap" takes him from the trappings of false masculinity to the liberation that comes from accessing authentic power.
As men grow up and enter the world, they often experience diminishing opportunities to heal their pain through healthy, positive male-male bonds. However, something special happens when men are in the presence of other men, when women aren't around. They benefit from interacting with others who share their wiring. They start to shake loose from their numbness, reconnect with their non-aggressive fierceness, feel again, and recognize what isn't working in their lives. They begin to talk, listen, and learn from each other. And they gain from the insights and attentions from the older men in the group.
In this kind of a setting, like when we're on a men's retreat, a man is able to receive something from another man that he was unable to receive from his own father -- a blessing -- an acknowledgment that he is "man enough." I encourage men to seek such blessings. I have observed how positively younger men respond when they can drink deeply from the well of admiring attention that older men can bestow upon them. Men have a need to be seen and the admiring gaze from someone who is interested and demonstrates sincere concern and caring can make a positive difference.
Typically, men who begin to question their lives prior to their mid-thirties are the exception rather than the rule. As men move closer to mid-life however, they tend to sense an inner churning and longing for something more than the material trappings of the world. There is a spiritual questing, often arising from a personal crisis that prompts men to inspect their lives, ask penetrating questions, and seek meaningful answers.
What is generally missing for us in our society is the safe space that supports our telling our truth at deeper levels. A men's therapeutic support group can provide that opportunity. One-day workshops and longer retreats can be life-changing experiences for men providing a new source of self-expression and engagement with others.
Women benefit from "men's work" too because a man's commitment to a woman can be fostered by the depth and power of his relationship with other conscious and conscientious men. In the company of good men, men also learn to deal with women more effectively. They come to terms with their issues around intimacy, either working to maintain and strengthen their marriages or, if they're single, preparing themselves to be better partners.
When a man becomes aware of his own core wound -- his Father Gap -- he obviously can't ask for a do-over of his childhood. But what he can do is seek to heal the wound by reaching out to other men, thereby indirectly "re-parenting" himself and satisfying some of those lacks in his own life. This not only provides him with some of the self-fathering he craves, but it is also a significant step toward becoming a Spiritual Warrior who gracefully accepts the challenge of attaining conscious masculinity. In turn, he will be better at parenting his children and being the parent his children deserve, and he will be so much better at being able to mentor others.
No matter how old a man is when he falters, he can use it as an opportunity to make a course correction and get back on track. Every problem we face brings with it an opportunity to learn something important about ourselves. In other words, facing adversity does tend to make us stronger and helps us to expand our awareness and to become more awake. For a man past middle age, a course correction might be for him to discontinue being led by the values of his youth -- the pursuit of money, prestige, fame or position -- and begin to reinvest his energies in a different facet of life, such as the spiritual path, or complete the unfinished business he has with people in his life. This quest can catapult him into a whole new dimension of his life purpose or destiny.
When men gather in the company of other men who have discovered what really matters and who are healing, or who have healed, their father gaps, something important begins to happen to the newer men. It's like watering wilting plants; you can clearly see them begin to revive. In the company of men who have resolved their father wounds, the new men find a home, a place to speak about their concerns -- their personal pain and longing. When men sense that there are others who care and want to know them and wish to be of support, their self-esteem begins to change. They have something to strive for in the presence of men who are bridging their own father gaps and who encourage them to reach out and join them on the Sacred Path in search of authentic power. They begin to thrive as they blossom into being Spiritual Warriors.
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Stephen J. Johnson Ph.D., LMFT is founder and executive director of the Men's Center of Los Angeles. He is also the author of "THE SACRED PATH: THE WAY OF THE SPIRITUAL WARRIOR"
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"THE SACRED PATH: THE WAY OF THE SPIRITUAL WARRIOR," an amazing how-to book for men who want to become better men . . . AND for the women who care about them.
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