Monday, June 21, 2010

5th Commandment Gold-Medalist

“Honor thy father and thy mother”
— Ex. 20:12a
I thought I was a 5th commandment gold medalist.  I though that I excelled in being respectful and loving, always grateful as I strove to be the daughter I imagined he wanted.  I thought I had this one down, as I brought home straight A’s, nodded with automatic agreement and censored my differences in efforts to please. I laughed at his jokes no matter what and adopted his life rules as my own, checking off items on my “Good Daughter” packing list.

Rather than mastering the 5th commandment, I shattered it. Along with “You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me” and “You Shall Not Steal” (Exodus 20:1-17) Instead of honoring my father, I made him my Higher Power.  I elevated him to heights that doomed him to failure and then blamed him when his humanness poked through.  I read his tractates and prayed for his favor, leaving no room for hectic mornings, crabby comments or inattention born from exhaustion. I stole his humanness from him, erasing his rights to make mistakes and learn his lessons.  I stole his space to be irritable or frustrated, adopting any hint of anger as my fault, because at least then I could fix it, be better, and replace the smile on his lips.  I stole the necessary growth that accompanies fatherhood, supplying the answers I thought would please him most and omitting life shards to avoid disapproval. I created my own heartache, disappointment fueled by my deity dressed as dad.  No parent can provide constant approval, praise, love and affection.  And yet, I kept bowing at his feet, confident that this time I had learned how to be the daughter he wanted that would be rewarded with unconditional praise.

My good intentions paved our rocky road as I locked myself into a perfectionist prison with self-destruction as my cellmate. I tried for most of my thirty years to be this fictitious “Good Daughter” and I failed.  I wrapped my honor with love and tied the respectful bow.  I sent cards stuffed with accomplishments and pictures tinged with gratitude.  But all the while, I slapped him from behind with anguish and worry, teetering on the edge of life, killing myself with my worship.  And every time I heard his anger that masked his fear, I stepped up my efforts to achieve my goals: Make Dad proud.  Make Dad happy. Be the perfect daughter.  And so the merry-go-round went: each choice I made for him, each step I took to please, brought scarring side effects edged by desecration of myself.

It seemed like a choice between distasteful options, between being a good daughter and being healthy.  I thought that choosing life meant losing my father’s love, disappointing him, and hurting him further.  I thought that I just needed to try harder to honor him, and it didn’t occur to me to change my definition or return my father to a mortal state until recent years.

The truth is that I underestimated my father while suffocating my self.  The truth is that he hung the “Good Daughter” medal around my neck at birth, which came without accomplishment requirements or submissive prerequisites.  The truth is that all I had to do to merit his love was to choose life.

My ‘Good Daughter’ criteria and my goals aimed for his approval were not only superfluous but was actually damaging.  It wasn’t a two-dimensional child that he desired, but a daughter to hug, debate with, learn from and advise. 

It took me too long to understand that disagreement can spark connection, and mutual respect flourishes amidst individual strength. I earn more smiles with individuality than mindless agreement, more approval when I stand my ground and follow my heart. I honor my father when I speak out and respect my father by painting my own dreams and splashing them with vivid efforts.  I obey the 5th commandment when I pick myself up after falling, and learn lessons from failure. I still appreciate my father’s wisdom and seek his counsel often.  I still cherish his engaging spirit and find comfort in his arms.  He offers me stable support and a resting spot, but has learned that, despite his best efforts, he can’t provide a shelter from life’s storms.  As I lower my dad from his precarious pedestal, I discover that it’s in his humanness that I find the father I was missing, the father worthy of endless honor. I learn how to obey the 1st commandment as well as the 5th, with new definitions and a path to wider faith.

I still turn toward his smile and cherish his hand to hold. I still revel in his approval, but am able to breathe without it. I have learned that I am a good daughter just as he is a good father:  simply by loving each other and reaching out for connection.

It turns out I am a 5th commandment gold-medalist every day that I choose life, practice kindness, speak my soul, and live with joy. I honor my father with a human lens, and delight in the blessings of family. It turns out that I don’t have to choose between honoring my father and honoring myself.  I am lucky. I have a father who allows for differences while offering hugs and who understands that disappointment and love aren’t mutually exclusive, that anger can coincide with love.

 I count my blessings as I fulfill the 5th commandment, lucky that I have a father worthy of honor.

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