Sunday, June 18, 2006
Heroes vs. Villains
Scenes from playgroup, Karen's house:
"No!" cried Nico, snatching a fire truck out of Liko's hands. "Nico! Nico!" he said, clutching the truck to his chest.
Nico's dad Stefano took him into a corner and held him close. For the 10th time that afternoon, Stefano patiently explained the concept of sharing to his toddler.
Nico twisted out of his dad’s arms and ran off. Stefano's shoulders slumped. Nico had been a handful; he was often a handful in playgroup, pushing other kids, throwing things, grabbing toys, requiring constant management. Stefano was plainly worn out and perhaps slightly embarrassed.
Among the parents, there was an uncomfortable moment of silence.
Suddenly Karen spoke: "You're doing a great job, Dad."
It struck me as just the right thing to say. "Yeah," I added. "Stefano, you're a really good dad."
Karen and I both meant it.
Stefano just put his head in hands and sighed heavily.
The next day I was at a restaurant where Liko and I are regulars. Liko made himself at home, trying to get in every corner, touching everything, saying "Hi!" to everybody. It had been like that all day (and the day before, and the day before that...), him going a hundred miles an hour, me trying to keep up.
A professionally dressed middle-aged woman approached me during a respite, when Liko stopped to caress and sniff a row of flowers on the patio.
"I've been watching you two. I just wanted to say that you're doing a really great job."
"Uh, really?" I was taken aback and maybe a little guarded, uncomfortable with the idea that our antics had been so closely regarded.
She noticed my reaction, and tried to explain. "I raised two girls myself, and now they're both in their twenties. I've seen a lot of parents in action, and I wanted to say that you have a really nice touch."
"I can see you know him well and understand him. You have a really good sense of when it's time to let him be and when you have to hold him back."
"Thanks." I tried to make up for reacting like a dolt. "I really appreciate that."
Liko took off into the restaurant and the clanging, steam-filled kitchen. I dashed in and grabbed him; when we returned, the woman was gone.
Afterwards, I thought about her praise and my reaction. I was embarrassed, feeling unworthy, initially thinking, actually, that she was a little strange for watching us, and even patronizing me in going out of her way to deliver the praise.
Then I thought to myself: you are a fuckhead.
She was trying to make me feel good, just as Karen and I had tried to pat Stefano on the back; such acts make a better world. I tried to see myself as the woman might have seen me. I tried on the idea of seeing myself through her eyes, of dropping my guard and just basking in praise from a stranger. Why not?
It's Father's Day, a day of praise for dads. Well, why not have such a day? Why not reflect the best in a dad back to him, so that he can see himself in some more exalted context than the diaper-changing, food-throwing, toddler-chasing reality in which he lives?
Is it just a greeting-card cliché to say that every dad is a hero? Maybe not. In parenthood, there's an element of evolutionary self-interest: animals that we are, we seek reproductive success. But as anyone who grew up reading comic books knows, heroes become heroes by ultimately transcending self-interest. It is always the villain who acts purely on self-interest, however deranged. The figure we call a hero acts on behalf of something greater than himself: an ideal, a tribe, a family.
Like Rilke's Apollo, the hero asks us to change our lives. The quest to become that hero is what we call commitment. Commitment - political and personal - creates an image that we chase all our lives and never reach, and yet there's something heroic in acts like caring for a child or marching against war, which defy distance and death.
We not just admit that to ourselves? Why not strive to be heroes, instead of the bunch of losers that we might feel ourselves to be? We need ideals. We need praise. "Our strongest weapons are our stories, the stories we tell our children, the ones we whisper to each other in beds of our own making, the myths that fill our imaginations," says Dialectical Daddy Tom in his June 17 post. "It is those weapons we must employ over and over to create the world we want."
It's Father's Day. Praise to my father!
I won't share with the reader his many fine personal qualities - I don't expect you to care - but I will say that my dad modeled for me the kind of thoughtful heroism that I'm trying (and possibly failing) to describe.
No, he's not perfect. Of course not; I’m not even sure what “perfect” means. But he taught me through his actions how to take care of other people; even now he asks me to change my life. For that I'm grateful.