I spent the last full week of summer with my daughters and their families on Fripp Island, 20 miles from the antebellum charms of Beaufort. We were just in time for the emergence of the deer flies, an annual scourge which explains why the island was virtually deserted.
But even there Life went on, ever mysterious in its service to the truth.
We were at a swimming pool one afternoon, and I saw a man exhibit behavior with his son that had me raging for days. The son was a toddler, barely walking, unsteady out of water and in, and uncomfortable the pool, which was perhaps 18 inches deep.
After slipping inflatable sleeves on the toddler’s arms, the father tried to force the child to lay back in the water and test the flotation. The child resisted, struggling to stay vertical, and began to cry.
"It’s OK, big boy," the father said, still holding him backward. "I’ve got you."
Still the child struggled, and wailed. The father let him up slightly. "It’s OK!" he said, his voice forceful, verging on impatience. "I’ve GOT you!"
He tilted the child back again, and the cries grew louder. Finally the father stopped, his face red with anger and frustration.
Moments later, he picked the child up and put him in a yellow toy inner tube. Again the child wailed. The father tried to get him to walk, but even with the tube around him he floundered and cried.
Then an older man, the grandfather, caught the inner tube and pulled the child to him. He put his arms around the child, congratulated him with a "good boy!" and nudged him back towards the father. The father turned him and sent him back to the grandfather, who praised the child again and towed him gently over to his mother who was watching pensively from the side of the pool.
"Not bad for his first time," the grandfather said to the father. The father’s face brightened. "Yeah, not bad at all!"
It seemed to end well enough, but the scenario came back to me often over the next few days, and it enraged me.
The father’s behavior was a compendium of undesirable male traits: insensitivity, inflexibility, childishness and an almost willful determination to do the wrong thing. But what I detested most was the use of force, the imperial might that generations of fathers have wielded over their children in lieu of awareness, kindness and reason.
I’d been at the blunt end of that kind of treatment myself, and I’m sorry to say I’ve also employed it. So I’ve got no call to criticize anyone. But I did a lot of work to purge myself of that sort of thing, and thought I was in the clear.
But the anger let me know otherwise: There was something in that father’s behavior that was still alive and ticking in my own life. And with a little thought, I knew what it was.
Control. The father was trying to force things, demanding a level of courage in his child that was unreasonable and absurd. His behavior stamped him as a card-carrying member of the old paradigm, a tribe to which most men belong.
But what about me? I’ve been on the path of spirituality and personal growth for years. I’ve stopped periodically along the way to peel away another layer of persona that no longer served me. And yet still there is something holding me back, something that isn’t quite right, and it took that father’s behavior for me to see it in myself.
A few years ago at a men’s retreat led by author Dan Millman, we broke boards with our hands after writing on them what we wanted to break through. I wrote: "Holding back."
Holding back what? Controlling what? Let me count the ways: I’ve got a book I want to write, but haven’t started. I have two TV projects that await my attention. I’ve got friends who seem to enjoy my company and would like to see me, and friends trying to introduce me to women, but I stay home and watch football or the Braves. Even going out on a job feels like an interruption in my carefully controlled existence.
But once you’ve committed to the path, change is like the Eagles’ "Hotel California": you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. The capper came yesterday during a golf lesson. The pro watched me hit balls for awhile, and said I was hitting at the ball rather than executing a true golf swing. His advice: "You’re gonna have to quit trying to control it."
There it is: I ask for help with my golf swing, and a guy who knows nothing about me tells me exactly what I need to know to fix the hitch in my life.