- "Instead of blaming fathers for falling short, we should learn about the obstacles they faced, and their efforts to overcome them." Tweet This
- "People angry with absent fathers tend to think of them as stick figures rather than complex humans, so researching a father's life fleshes him out." Tweet This
- The lesson of this little book for anyone who has a broken relationship with a parent is that it's never too late to connect with your father, and by learning his story, you just might discover more of your own story, too. Tweet This
Our relationships with our parents can, at best, be complicated with unresolved tension, or, at worst, be nonexistent, leaving an empty, gaping wound. Growing up in community where broken families are common and present fathers are scarce, it is easy to assume the worst about men who are not there for their families. And it doesn’t take long to grow bitter about missing or distant dads—to label them as “deadbeats” or “failures.” It can feel almost impossible to forgive them for leaving or for failing to come through for their children in ways they should have. Too many of us reach adulthood without ever connecting with the men who made us. Without this connection, though, we lose more than just a relationship with our father, we also lose half of our family history—half of our own story—and we are left grasping for the threads that connect us to the past and help make us whole.
Despite its sorrowful title, Marvin Olasky’s new book, Lament for a Father: The Journey to Understanding and Forgiveness (P&R Publishing, June 2021), offers a hopeful path forward for those who are haunted by the lack of a relationship with an absent or distant father. Editor-in-chief of World and a professor of journalism and history for 25 years who has written 28 books, Olasky uses his investigative skills to uncover the story of his father, a man who never laughed and rarely spoke to his son. Through the research process, he is finally able to truly see his father—not as the failure he thought he was but as a complex and broken human being who did the best he could. As Olasky explains, his father “came more alive” to him than ever before, paving the way to reconnection and even forgiveness. Therein lies the lesson of this little book for anyone who has a broken relationship with a parent: it is never too late to connect (or reconnect) with your father, and by learning his story, you just might find forgiveness and discover more of your own story, too.
I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Olasky five questions about the lessons he learned in his journey to reconnect with his father, and he shared some thoughts that we should all take with us into Father's Day weekend and beyond.
Alysse ElHage: You open Lament for a Father with a moving story about how your dad never played ball with you except for a brief game of catch that ended in disappointment. You go on to describe a distant relationship with your father, who, as you put it, suffered a “spiritual and psychological death until his physical death in 1984.” Yet all these years later, you dig deep into his history to learn everything you can about him. One thing you learn is that he may have suffered from PTSD due to his experiences in World War II, experiences he hid from his family. Tell us more about what you learned and how these discoveries helped you see him in a new light?
Marvin Olasky: I had absorbed my disappointed mother’s characterization of him as lazy and selfish, but three big facts changed my thinking. I learned that my father had a 72-hour work week in college. Later, he gave up a deferment that allowed him to sit out World War II and enlisted to fight Hitler. After that, he worked to preserve Jewish culture even after he dropped Jewish theology.
Three traumas struck him out. He had changed his beliefs to conform to Harvard anthropology, only to be kicked out of graduate school. He had seen in concentration camps the ground-level effects of Nazi ideology, and learned that his own relatives were among the murdered. He had married in the hope of having a supportive wife, but she viewed support as nagging him to be all that he could be—and that further destroyed his confidence.
ElHage: You dedicate the book, in part, to readers who may have unresolved conflicts with a father, writing, “You deserve more than to go through the rest of your life feeling either guilty or angry.” Reading your story, I imagine you felt both angry and guilty at times about your father. But a big take-away from your book is that the back-story matters: walking in our parents’ shoes can help us better understand their decisions, and that understanding can make it easier—not to excuse the past—but to forgive. How did researching his life help you forgive him and yourself?
Olasky: He was suffering and I, self-absorbed, didn’t realize he was psychologically crippled, as was my mother, as was her father, and we could probably keep going through the generations. Realizing the ravages of original sin stopped my blaming [him], and understanding that Christ died for my sins stopped my sense of guilt. God is much smarter than me, and if He can forgive me, I can forgive myself, and others.
"The road to reconnection [with our fathers] starts by realizing that...we should condemn not, lest we be condemned."
ElHage: At the end of the book, you share a little bit about your conversion from atheism to Christianity. How did your relationship with your father contribute to the religious path you took?
Olasky: I didn’t feel I was rejecting him when I rejected legalistic Jewish theology, because he had already rejected it—but he had not found a good alternative. I saw myself not as leaving the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but reclaiming it: They made all kinds of mistakes and I had done the same, but God was gracious to them, and He has been gracious to me.
ElHage: Your book offers a great deal of hope—not only for those who grew up with emotionally-distant fathers, but also those who lack any relationship with their biological fathers, maybe due to divorce or an out-of-wedlock birth. How might the process of learning as much as we can about our fathers help at least partially connect us to them and begin the healing process?
Olasky: Instead of blaming fathers for falling short, we need to be realistic in two ways. First, we should learn about the obstacles they faced, and their efforts to overcome them. Second, we need to realize that we all fall short. Fathers often aspire to do better for their children than their fathers did for them, often by giving them what they wanted to get and did not—but their children may want different things than the fathers provide. So, the road to reconnection starts by realizing that we’re all sinners, and that we should condemn not, lest we be condemned.
ElHage: Regarding your journey to learn more about your father, you write, “even if it seems too late, it’s not.” What are the benefits of persisting in our attempts to learn more about our fathers—even a father we've never met?
Olasky: Psychiatrist Abraham Twerski said, "Human beings need four things: air, food, drink, and someone to blame." People angry with absent fathers tend to think of them as stick figures rather than complex humans, so researching a father's life fleshes him out. It may knock out the blame game and create opportunity for a good relationship if the father is alive, and more understanding if he's not. Regardless, God commands us to honor our father and mother for their sakes and our own. It's the only commandment that comes with a gift certificate: follow it so you "may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you."