Fatherhood as Withdrawal

by on Friday, 29 February 2008 Comments

My father died at 47. I was then 18, and my younger sister was 10. His own father had died when he was 15 or 15 if I remember well. My mother’s father died when she was 7. It means that, in our family, we have experienced what the loss of a father feels like, and we know what its long-term consequences are, when it comes to family equilibrium and psychological development.

What I want to stress here is that not all consequences are negative. In some respect, a good father remains a father in death, as withdrawal is an inherent part of a father’s role. What it means to be a father evolves with the coming of age of a son or daughter. However, very quickly, a father proves to be truly a “good” one if he is able to withdraw, to give space to the growth of his children – it might be what the Bible tells us when it is said that on the seventh day God rested: the creation was now the playing ground of His children, and He was giving them the space needed for becoming themselves and continue His work.

A father is an authority figure, even if he has to show a loving and compassionate face. He is the one who gives the Law, who teaches the rules that makes it possible to live as a human being in harmony with the rest of the species. The Law is ultimately the setting that allows us to grow as being “one among other people”, with our rights and duties. But he also has to make his children discover that the Law is for growth and freedom, not for enslaving them, not for cloistering them within the age of childhood and irresponsibility. He has to “let it go”, to retreat from the Law he gave them, so that they can interpret it, understand it in their own terms, and ultimately make the Law their own, as they will be able to transmit it to their own children. He is a father because he enables children to become father on their own terms, not according to a ready-to-made model.

As I grow older, I remember more vividly things that my father said and did, I remember his way of reacting to people and situation, his inner joy and his frailties, I make his life experience mine, not that I am repeating it – not in the least -, but rather because it provides me with renewed insights. In the process, I feel as if my own father was growing within me, as if I was becoming responsible of his ultimate destiny. The best of what he lived for, the meaning and essence of his existence, all of this is now entrusted to me, and I have to transmit it in new and inventive ways, so that the common tree that humankind is called to become may continue to grow and to bear fruits.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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