woman staring
Photo: Fredrik Broden
I was six years old when I found out the guy on the dime wasn't my father. (Turned out it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, whoever the hell he was.) I knew he couldn't be as impressive as my dad, who was so big (5'7", 130 pounds soaking wet), so smart (he did have an off-the-charts IQ, but he also frequently lost the family car), and so rich (a college professor with eight kids, he never stopped worrying about money).  

I'm hardly the only person to put my dad on a pedestal. Culture, psychology, and perhaps even biology give fathers special powers in their children's eyes. Even if you never knew your male parent, he—or his absence—probably occupies a central place in your identity. The icon of Father that you developed in childhood may be exactly what you need to inspire you to live your best life. Or maybe it's an "anti-icon," a father whose vices, rather than virtues, fill the universe.  

Most fathers—perhaps even yours—are simply human: They have strengths and weaknesses, admirable and awful moments. Realizing this is part of growing up. It requires a willingness to tear down the psychological myth of the all-powerful father. Because our dads occupy such an important place in our hearts, minds, and lives, this is immensely freeing. It allows us to emulate our fathers' best qualities while using even their worst errors to create a positive difference in our lives and the world.

The God-Father

Sociobiologists hypothesize that the intense link between fathers and children makes evolutionary sense: Fathers who claim, protect, and provide for their offspring are more likely to have surviving heirs, so nature "selects for" paternal attachment. If you don't like cold evolutionary logic, you might prefer a religious approach. Christianity, the world's most widespread religious tradition, calls God the father; other religions and cultural traditions, from Judaism to Islam to Confucianism, support social systems that are heavily patriarchal.

This is true not only in the macrocosm of culture but in the microcosm of the mind. Children of good men often start out with an almost naive sense of a just universe. Those fathered by bad men may live in a world ruled by evil, where they can never feel safe. Absent, deceased, or unknown dads become huge question marks, bequeathing to their children a lifetime of wondering and imagining.

Our fathers give us half our DNA but more than half of many identifying characteristics—things as basic as a surname or as complex as social status. Despite a half-century of skyrocketing single parenthood (a trend that has only just started to reverse) and increasing gender equality, many of us lived in homes where fathers—or at least father figures—made the rules. Fathers usually have supreme power to permit and forbid, meaning they not only dominate but create our reality. They establish the way things are, or in other words father rules.

Father Rules

Many father rules are explicitly stated: Clean your room; be respectful; don't do drugs. But fathers also set rules by example. We are likely to allow ourselves to do what Dad did, and to keep ourselves from doing what Dad didn't.

In the spaces below, write some ways you feel enabled or disabled because of your father's instructions and example.

(If you never knew your dad, list the things you've felt free to do because he was absent and the things you've felt you couldn't do because he wasn't there.)
  • Because of my father's rules and example, I feel I can...
  • Because of my father's rules and example, I feel I can't...
This is a rough sketch of the way you probably operate in day-to-day life (even if you consciously pattern your behavior after your mother, most cultures give disproportionate power to fathers). So what do you think of your father rules? Do you agree with them? Always? Do any of them hold you back or propel you to make bad decisions?

If you customarily follow father rules that cause pain or problems, you're serving an intact icon, an image that has never been examined and probably doesn't exactly match your right life. The same is true if you're obsessed with breaking your father's rules, no matter what the consequences. Choosing to defy or to deify Papa puts him squarely at the center of your universe.

Cracking the Icon

Father icons become problematic only when we worship them as unexamined, monolithic images, lumping together qualities that feel right with others that feel wrong. The solution is to disassemble the icon and create a new image, a mosaic designed to match his characteristics to your unique character and destiny.

Try this: Write down what your dad might say about money, romantic relationships, or career. Picture your father, then "listen" to him comment on each topic. Continue this exercise with any topic that feels juicy to you—anything. Then examine each father rule. Do you agree with it? Does it inspire or discourage you? Most important, does it work? Did it help your father attain happiness? Is it helping you realize your full potential? Does it give you energy or sap your strength? These questions begin breaking up the icon image of the father, shattering it so that you can sort and reassemble the pieces.

Creating the Mosaic

Whatever your father rules may be, treasure them. Don't try to act as though they don't exist. You won't succeed—the psychology of fatherhood is too deeply rooted—and you'll be tossing out something you can use to illuminate, motivate, and inspire your right life.

First, if pieces of your father icon are working brilliantly for you, leave them as they are. Other elements of your father's character may be painful, untrue, or destructive. These you'll need to turn upside down. In their new orientation, these patterns will still have the supersaturated vibrancy of father power.

If your father always supported you, embody his virtue by supporting others. If he habitually attacked small animals, become a protector of the weak, borrowing passion from your revulsion at his cruelty. If he was absent, learn to be present. There is no part of your father icon that isn't useful, once it is examined.

If you develop the habit of continuously noticing when you are worshipping your father icon, examining the rules you learned from your dad, deciding which ones work for you, and repositioning the others, you'll find something better than the worship of idols: the love of equals. You'll stop bridling at your father's flaws or needing him to remain the eternal omnipotent Daddy. You'll begin learning from everything about the man who begot you, rather than railing at a god who exists only in your mind. The beauty you create from the shards of your father's icon is the way to truly honor him.

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