As the economic, occupational and societal conundrums of the modern age increase, I find myself searching for “old wisdom”: words written or spoken by fathers or men of renown, of sturdy faith and resilient belief in something more, something better.
This search brought me to Henri Nouwen, a man I consider to be a classic author in spiritual matters. In truth, my stumbling upon The Genesee Diary was meant to answer a more global question: what has society become? Instead, I’ve happened upon a treasure trove of insight into my own insecurities, my own doubts, angers, and fears. It is this discovery that led me to a new question: What is my purpose in this global community? And this led me to another, more weighted question: What is my son’s purpose?
How does a father answer such a profound, intimate question? Nouwen refers to an outdated, near forgotten practice known as nepsis. He states, “Nepsis means mental sobriety … watchfulness in keeping the bad thoughts away, and creating free space …” Like any curious man, I searched for a more thorough definition. The search yielded an awareness of men of generations past and how they practiced disciplines of solitude, environmental fasting, and escaping from the daily pace and noise of life for the purpose of centering themselves.
Now, I can’t tell my son, Samuel, at two and a half years of age that he needs to “center himself.” But I can demonstrate it. I can clear away the cobwebs of the day, the hazy moments and try to find some clarity. I can review the moments filled with anger and frustration on both our parts and look deeper into the “why” of it. I can recall points where he excelled and incidents where he failed and strive to strengthen him in the future, give him the tools to become a better man.
In the heat of those emotion-riddled moments, I need to search outside myself to have clear and open perspective on how to teach him, train him. “Creating a free place” is like clearing away the clutter on a desk or kitchen counter or workbench. It allows for the writer, the chef, the artist to see the pieces clearly, individually and yet gives way to imagining them conformed together in the finished product. The same can be true for a father. To step back from the moments of chaos that permeate the life of a toddler, and thus his stay-at-home dad, and look at the real issue.
Yet, as I etch out these nepsis moments in my daily or weekly life, I find that some of these moments aren’t what I thought they were–like an antique found in the attic that is really nothing more than a cheap replica. The thought, the desire for the thing to have value is why I want to keep it even though it’s junk.
Sometimes Samuel’s successes are celebrated while failures dismissed. Other times I respond harshly to him or make remarks that send him into a whirlwind of misbehavior. Is it that he’s simply being rebellious or that through my own example I’ve given him leeway to be disruptive?
As I pull away, like when he’s napping, I find nepsis moments to be encounters with a self I rarely see. When I should be offering him a healthy environment to foster his desire to understand the world, I snap because his curiosity is inconvenient. I discipline, perhaps too harshly, because of the wild excitement with which he treats his little sister, rather than offering alternatives to expend so much toddler energy.
It goes deeper. The more I “create space” for all these thoughts, the more I find that I myself may not be able to foster the types of experiences I want for my son. While my father encouraged creativity, it was fettered in a particular area. An area in which he was well-versed. How much more could I have learned in character and education if he had been willing to step out of his own box to stretch the limits of mine?
These are all questions that may never be answered for myself. But, as I take times to quiet the ramblings, the pedantic ideas of life, I become more in tune with what Samuel needs as a growing boy. What he will need as he becomes a man. It is there, in those restive moments that I can see the doors of learning opening for him, experiences he can and will have that will give him the character and mark of an exceptional man.
And this is where I strive to set the example, to be more than mere words of wisdom, but the embodiment of it. I can be the greatest father he’s ever known and I won’t need a novelty T-shirt to prove it.
Image by: Bobbi Dombrowski, SXC