The late summer sun slants through the canopy of trees, but only a few rays make it to the ground. The winding path lay ahead in dancing shadows, as my family and I embark upon our hike. The trail is narrow, so we fall into single file. My wife leads, then the kids, and I bring up the rear.
We barely leave the main road before the mosquitoes descend. Though we’re slathered in bug spray and think we’re prepared for the onslaught, the bugs are hungry and relentless and they begin to find chinks in our armor, especially on our backs.
My nine-year-old son, walking behind his mom, says, “Momma, I’ll watch your back,” as he smacks her between the shoulder blades.
My three-year-old daughter walks behind him, and she says, “Aidan, I’ll watch your back.” And then she looks at the trees. I’m thinking Aidan’s destined for a back full of mosquito bites.
My five-year-old son walks behind her, and he says, “Caitlin, I’ll watch your back.” He never does anything part way, and he begins swatting away at the aggressors like it’s his job. But then he stops and his head turns and he looks at me with concern and he says, “Daddy, who’s going to watch your back?”
I start to respond but I discover my tongue is tied, pulled in two different directions—by my wounded ego and by my vision of myself as a father.
My wounded ego wants to ruin the whole trip.
It sees an opportunity to complain. It wants to get sarcastic and say something like, “Good question, Quinn, who does have my back?” And then it’ll probably answer itself: “I’ll tell you, Quinn, nobody.”
My family will turn to look at me like I’ve lost my mind. And maybe I have lost my mind, but I’ve found my wounded ego, and it feels lonely and it wants to blame everyone else for the hardships of life.
Last autumn, I sat around a campfire with a friend, and we were reflecting upon life and fatherhood. We talked about the other men in our lives—friends and mentors and acquaintances—and we tried to think of even just one of them who has it all together. Just one of them who, when you get to know him, has settled into the final maturity of fatherhood.
We couldn’t think of even one.
My friend looked at me and he said, “Kelly, you know what I think? There are no adults.”
No adults — the idea offered a little bit of freedom for me, a little bit of grace. As fathers, we all carry around a wounded kid within us. We’ve all been disappointed and broken, and we’ve all formed a hard shell of ego around that pain. Sometimes the shell looks glossy and fine. Other times, it cracks and our hurt oozes out.
Sometimes it oozes out on a family hike.
But not this time.
Because pulling my tongue in the other direction is a vision of the father I want to become.
The father I want to become is strong and he uses that strength to sacrifice and to serve—he wants to protect others before thinking about himself.
He delights in the lowly places of service and generosity—his love is big enough to handle a few mosquito bites on the back.
He embraces his role as father-servant and father-protector.
He is so overwhelmed with joy for his beloved family, he counts everything else loss, compared to the gain of being with and being for his wife and children.
And yet, he knows he’s not a Superman. He knows he’s 100% human. Loving and caring and serving and sacrificing, but also cracked and broken and limited. He can give himself the grace to reach out, to confess his weakness and vulnerability. He has the courage to ask for help when the mosquitoes of life set in and begin to bite.
I have a vision of fatherhood in which our hearts come alive and our egos begin to die. A vision in which we trade our disappointing pasts for the men we want to become. A vision in which we bring up the rear, backs exposed, and we receive our role as father-protector like a gift to be cherished. A vision in which we are both strong enough to have everyone else’s back, but also strong enough to admit when we need someone to have our back.
We’re still walking and my son almost trips over a root as he stares backward at me. The look on his face is incredulous, and I can read his thoughts. “Daddy’s losing it—that was not a tough question.”
What finally comes out of my mouth surprises even me.
“I’ll be okay, Quinn, I’ll be okay.”
And I will be okay. We will be okay, Dads. If we can dedicate ourselves to this vision of a fatherly heart, we will be more than okay. We will find freedom from our wounds. We will find a home within our hearts and our humanity. And we will create a home for the ones we have been given to love.
We will be okay, indeed.