As he tells the story of self-respect, fears faced and conquered, boundaries claimed and defended, I notice he seems taller. The timbre of his voice coming deeper. He is absent the anxious energy with which he first walked into my office, months ago.
In moments like this, it’s as if patients forget I’m there. They talk from a place of authenticity and authority that makes me disappear. I feel a bit like I’m eavesdropping. Pausing in a hallway to listen to someone singing in the shower. Still and grateful, like when I’m gazing at a spectacular sunset.
It’s like running behind the bicycle your child is learning to ride. But you’re no longer holding on. You’ve let go. And the child seems unaware that you’ve let go. The child is just pedaling, focused, fearless and competent.
“You look like a proud father,” he interjects, suddenly, with an ironic smile.
He catches me lost in the moment. Exposed. Because, sure enough, that’s exactly what I was feeling: pride. I wanted to get up and dance for this guy. To celebrate him.
Specifically, I was recalling a scene in the movie Parenthood, directed by Ron Howard. Steve Martin plays a father, coaching his son’s little league baseball team. His son, finally, long being the team’s designated dork in right field, catches a fly ball. The father explodes out of the dugout, dancing, sprawling on the grass, his body spasms of badly choreographed grand mal ecstasy. He is insane with joy for his boy’s happiness and accomplishment.
And here I thought I was expertly restraining, containing and masking this very personal reaction. Hmm. Apparently I’m leaking pride the way Niagara Falls leaks water. I’m hiding behind Saran Wrap. My patient reads me like a dime novel.
I blush, then confess: “Uh, they taught me in school to keep these things to myself, but apparently I’m not doing a great job of that. Yes, in this exact moment, I am feeling proud of you.”
More and more these days have I been noticing people noticing The Father in me. Maybe it’s the white hair. Maybe it’s a natural outgrowth of middle-age. Or maybe I wield the father archetype more naturally now. I was 33 when I became a father, and like most new fathers I ‘put on’ the role the way you don a suit and tie. Maybe today, finally, The Father is integrated. That is, fathering is less something I do and more something I am.
I speak of this at length with my clinical supervisor. I tell her my patient was spot on. But this provokes all my favorite, cherished neuroses. I worry that, in indulging pride, I’m being presumptuous. Does my pride turn the spotlight back to me? Does it foster unhealthy dependency? I am in fact not the man’s father. To be truly free, the man must face his own father’s strengths and weaknesses as a father. He cannot replace those losses by transferring those needs to me.
Or, at least that’s what I remember the books saying.
My supervisor’s special genius is that she has an endless repertoire of ways to tell me to relax and get over myself. In this case, she says, “Steven, when your brain has nothing to do, it tends to eat itself.”
She reminds me that significant therapeutic relationships invariably include “re-parenting.” That is, sooner or later a patient must transfer unmet needs to the therapist. When therapy works, it works in large part because the therapist can offer the empathy and the advocacy the patient deserves … and deserved as a child. And the celebrations, too. The basking, nodding, grateful pride.
Children need to be admired.
“The only rule,” my therapist reminds me, “is not to leave them there. In the end, we want them to have the ego-strength to celebrate themselves. To be proud of themselves.”
“What a paradox,” I saying, chuckling and shaking my head. “Because I think I’d be proud of someone who finally learned to be proud of themselves.”
I was raised by a generation of adults who were afraid to shamelessly admire their children. To a man and a women they all seemed to wield the same fierce measure of what it meant to be a good mother or father: Thou Shalt At All Cost Not Raise Children Who Think Too Highly Of Themselves.
I enjoy admiring people. And I am truly happy for people who can admire and celebrate themselves. When it happens, I always imagine the devil wincing in defeat.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal Priest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)