When Fathers Despair, We All Despair

10 October 2019


This picture of a father in tears at London’s recent Extinction Rebellion demonstration left me troubled.

"I’m just a father of two children that’s frightened of their future!"

On the one hand, I was drawn by the heartfelt measures he was prepared to take to protect the future of his children: joining a group of protesters causing disruption in the city to such an extent they were getting arrested. Would I lie on the tarmac to prevent cars passing through if it meant the government would allay the fears over my children’s future?

On the other hand, I was disturbed by his shaking, emotional outburst while cowering on the floor. It was an image of despair and helplessness; defeat and suppression underscored by his cheek pressed against the asphalt. Would I want my children to see me in this state? I have a feeling that would make them fear more for their immediate future than the possibility of environmental collapse.

For a long period of their young lives, most children are able to look up to their fathers as bastions of strength and immutability, regardless of the circumstances. When my car broke down on the highway at two o’clock in the morning, on our way to a six o’clock ferry at the start of a holiday, my children were understandably fearful and in tears. I was panicking inside, especially when I found out that my breakdown cover hadn’t renewed and, being the end of the month, I had few assets left in my current account. But it was my job to reassure the kids that everything would be okay, that steps would be taken to resolve the matter and that we’d soon be on our way. And, of course, that turned out to be true (and they didn’t need to know how much it cost me).

Several years later, my children remember the occasion as one where catastrophe was systematically averted by daddy calming everyone down and going through the steps of getting us rescued, repaired and back on the road for a later ferry. We then had a fantastic holiday. For one of my sons in particular, it was a valuable lesson in bringing his fears under control.

I have no idea whether we are on the verge of extinction or not but, even if we are, I’m not sure I’d lie on the floor and cry.

As a parent, a teacher and a leader I’m well aware that my despair or my resolve, my hopelessness or my courage, my depression or my optimism quickly rubs off on those in my charge. Then everyone becomes either desperate or resolute, despondent or courageous, depressed or optimistic. As a father, it's my job to use my masculine attributes to alleviate immediate problems for my family to the best of my capacity. Where the problem is greater than my ability to solve it, I look for help and demonstrate a resilience for my children to emulate. If every father, every man, took that line, we might just find ourselves in a very different set of circumstances.

Perhaps that was the motive that drove our Extinction Rebellion father out onto the streets? However, what troubled me about the image of him crying on the floor was that, by that stage, he had so surrendered to his own fears he was bereft of any capacity to safeguard his children’s future.

Maybe I'm being unfair! After the picture was taken, he might have jumped straight back up, dusted himself off and vigorously rejoined the demonstration. However, if the abiding image we have, as children, is one of our father’s impotency, if we see that our own fathers have broken down in the face of adversity – those strong, immutable men – what message of hope does that leave us?

In contrast, the Catholic man is obliged to present a very different image. Even if we are on the verge of extinction, we have hope! We know there is more to life, more after life, than the material world we inhabit. That’s not to excuse any negligence in looking after our planet; on the contrary, we should shoulder our responsibilities as stewards of creation. However, we shouldn’t be mawkish about the state of the world around us but instead, as St Paul exhorts, “…  boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”.

And, because the Lord God helps us, we will not be disgraced. We will set our faces like flint, for we know we will not be put to shame. If ever we find ourselves in a momentous or catastrophic situation, what abiding image will the world have of us? As I write here, our task as Catholic men is not to give up, but to get a grip!

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