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Verily the Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son. – John 14:10.
Be the son of thy father and be the fruit of that tree. Be a son that hath been born of his soul and heart and not only of water and clay. A real son is such a one as hath branched from the spiritual part of man. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 140.
When I was growing up, my father did not create an atmosphere of pervasive dread or tension in our home. But he had his rules, and our job was to follow them: do as you are told, never question or talk back, be polite, do your chores, and keep the apartment clean and orderly.
I never challenged him until I was a junior in college, when I disagreed with his interpretation of a news item. I calmly said, “Dad, I disagree.” He jumped up from his chair, a propelled cannonball meant to crush me for daring to violate universal laws.
After years of silence, I had decided to take a stand. But suddenly he was in my face, his chest pushed out, his eyes bulging, his fists ready to pound me. I protested, yelling loudly about my right to speak, and pushed out my chest, too, like a caged animal ready for a fight. My five-foot mother got between her two large men and somehow prevented us from coming to blows.
I stepped back, still furious but thankful she had stopped the incomprehensible: the son hitting his father. I resolved then never to challenge him again. I was too exhausted, and my own rage scared me.
Nonetheless, I gained my father’s respect. When I became a Baha’i in college, he defended my decision, telling my skeptical mother that I had a right to choose what I wanted to believe about religion. When I was drafted and went into the Army as a conscientious objector, he observed, “You’re serious about this Baha’i business, aren’t you?” When I came to him to ask permission to marry, as required by Baha’i law, he initially refused to give it, saying that I was old enough to make my own decision and didn’t need his approval. When I told him I would not marry anyone without his permission, he again acknowledged my commitment, and signed the consent letter.
I inherited my father’s work ethic, his commitment to marriage and family, his desire for order, his love of music, and his sense of style. But I also inherited many of his negative traits and characteristics. When I became a parent, I found myself reflecting the very same qualities I had silently railed against: harsh, judgmental, withholding, critical, quick to offense, proud, obstinate, and explosive.
I once took a class on how to support my wife during labor, but I took no classes about fatherhood, instead relying on memories of the only standard I knew. I insisted on my prerogatives, and by their teenage years, my first two children were in open rebellion. The fear of permanent estrangement, and the coming of a third child, forced me to confront myself. I needed to change.
A licensed therapist helped me explore my unresolved anger about my father’s treatment. As a child I was bookish, awkward, and graceless, a poor athlete with no interest in sports. My father mocked and taunted me, as if his contempt could stir me to like baseball and basketball and stop playing with dolls, my props for characters in the plays I created. He forced me into Little League and the Boy Scouts. I hated them.
Then one Sunday morning, he summoned the entire family into the living room and ordered me to put on my sister’s blue Sunday church dress. I cried and begged him to not make me do it, but he was implacable, convinced that humiliation could exorcise all traces of effeminacy.
Decades later my therapist convinced me to talk to my father about my childhood; and when I did this with considerable trepidation, even as a man in my late thirties, he listened without interruptions or questions. Then he apologized, saying only, “I’m sorry for what I did, but I don’t remember the blue dress.” That was all, but it was enough.
Shortly before he died, he told me about the death of his mother, whom I never met. She had fallen ill and was taken to the nearest hospital, the “white only” hospital. She was turned away, and by the time the family had reached the “colored” hospital she was dead at twenty-four. Horrified, I asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me about his before?” His answer was simple and offered without elaboration: “I didn’t want you growing up hating.”
A product of segregation, he could have told me many harrowing tales of bigotry, discrimination, hatred and injustice—but he didn’t. I didn’t encounter racial intolerance until I was fourteen, traveling through Texas to our new home in California. I reacted incredulously when we were denied service in a restaurant, certain that our informal clothes justified that refusal. When he patiently explained the real cause to me, I felt an enormous sense of outrage.
I didn’t realize it then, and I realize it now, that my father’s silence about discrimination turned out to be a priceless gift. In his own way, he had prepared me to receive and accept the Baha’i Faith’s message about the oneness of humanity and the elimination of hatred and prejudice:
My hope is that through the zeal and ardour of the pure of heart, the darkness of hatred and difference will be entirely abolished, and the light of love and unity shall shine; this world shall become a new world; things material shall become the mirror of the divine; human hearts shall meet and embrace each other; the whole world become as a man’s native country and the different races be counted as one race. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 38.
My father’s truth had become my truth, and for this I will always be grateful.