Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
July 2019 - Volume 19, No. 7
A Safe Place
The New Father
Years ago, during my primary clinical training years, I attended a conference by a tall gentle man, a noted therapist from somewhere in our the Southwest. I remember he even wore boots and a ten-gallon hat.My only other memory of him, after these many years, was an anecdote he shared about the birth of his first child, a son. Just after the birth, he walked out the front door of the hospital, and standing on the stairs he exclaimed aloud, as if in his own amazement, “I’ll kill for that kid!”
I wasn’t comfortable with the “kill” word - but I recognized the sudden transformation into a new world of high responsibility
This was before my own children were born. But it forged in my psyche that sudden transformation of responsibility for a new parent, a new father, to provide at all costs a safe place for the upbringing that new precious and wonderful human being.
Behind him, somewhere deep within the hospital building, lay the mother and the child. The new father steps out into the world, to speak aloud the full new sense of his destiny - the protection of the new child and his mother.
I recall how frequently I felt my personal inadequacy in this role. I remember wishing I had taken karate classes. I wish I’d gotten into more fights in school, so I knew better how to stand up for myself. I wish I’d ventured into a more lucrative business environment, become more competitive. Then there were the more ordinary failures, times I wasn’t present, for the kids and their mother. All in all I probably did rather well, but I knew my weaknesses, and I feared the various testings that could at any time emerge unbidden.
My parents were good - I felt safe with them. I was very fortunate. Only in retrospect do I see bits of their sufferings. They are now long gone, and I miss opportunities to know them out from under their safe-making. They knew pretty well how to hold us safely and how piece by piece, struggle by struggle, to let us go out into worlds of our own making.
St. Joseph - Protector of the Holy Family
As my own theological self continues to mature, I pay closer attention to Joseph the carpenter, the father of Jesus. His place was dicey from the beginning. In the ubiquitous ‘manger scenes’ that show up every Christmas, he just stands around, yet quietly holding it all together. Finally a few years ago I read in English translation, the libretto of Hector Berlioz’ oratorio, L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ, 1854).
Every Christmas, for many years now, I find a quiet alone time and let the hour and a half of its music bathe over me. But since it’s all in French, I hadn’t taken time to attend to the actual storyline (in English). It’s based on the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. The Christmas story itself has two parts. The first is Mary’s story, up to and including the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. This, the second part, is Joseph’s story - where he saves the mother and child from the wrath of King Herod by their treacherous escape through the long desert into Egypt. Here Joseph is in the full forefront as he leads the Holy Family to safety as refugees into another hostile land. Later, when Herod has died, Joseph again leads the mother and child to their ancestral home in Nazareth. When Jesus has come of full age, the story and work of Joseph, the faithful earthly father, is finished. Jesus is on his own.
Safety for the Children in our World
Perhaps it’s always been a debatable question. Is the safety of children in our time a right, a privilege or just a dream?
The realistic answers to this question are too complex for this writing. Yet needless to say, even in my own work in a ‘nice’ suburban town, the presence and complexity of people’s psychic pain can be overwhelming. And when it’s our children, we carry a deep sense that something is even more “wrong.” Grownups are supposed to manage and care. Our children are supposed to have safe places where they can explore and still be safe, at least until they are old enough to leave home.
In the news recently, churches are not safe, schools (public and private) are not safe, scouting is not safe, walking in the woods is not safe.Carrying a gun isn’t safe.
Being alive in the world is not safe. Is that what our children learn all too quickly? What percentage of our public and private school children already have rehearsed and memorized “active shooter” protocols.
When I was young, during the depth of the Cold War, we learned how to spot airplanes (potential carriers. of ‘the bomb’), how to head for fallout shelters, how to be afraid of ‘Communists’ in our midst. The difference today is the things our children are taught to be afraid of, actually do kill us, especially kill children. With almost daily regularity! [One memorable exception from my childhood is polio. It did kill children, and does no longer. But then, measles has returned.]
When I consider our Southern border, and refugee borders all over the world, I marvel at how many parents will risk all for their children. And we have our own today-real King Herod who can only fear for the future of his throne, and in his rage, kills children. Not to protect them (as my new cowboy father), but only to protect himself.
The ancient story speaks of protection (even divine) for a child. And parents who give their blessed all for the safety of their child.
It’s always a divine story.
What can we do, even if only a little, to help make the world safe for our children?
In the Bible narrative (Matthew 2:13-18) Herod had killed “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under…” According to tradition, the number was 200. Look at a map to “see” Bethlehem as Herod’s “southern border.” The first part of Berlioz’ narrative elaborates Herod’s paranoia by which this decision was made.
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