Fatherhood is an experience that doesn’t end. Once you become a father your identity is forever changed.
“To love our child deeply, we have to make a long-term commitment and help him or her through the journey of life as long as we are alive.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1992)
As a father, one of our most amazing realizations is the understanding that once we are committed, there is no way out. As a father, one of the most daunting commitments we will ever make is to raise a child, and as we do so 10,000 times, we soon come to realize once a father, always a father.
Up to the point of becoming a father, I, like many men I suspect, always had an exit strategy. We could help a friend move because it wasn’t going to take more than an afternoon. We could commit to our girlfriend because “who knows how long it will last.” We could undertake a job because it was certainly not going to be forever. Decisions in life landed on a ground that was heavily fertilized with denial and ignorance, so what ever we told ourselves was likely to be believable. We lived in a world of choice and change, and we were most likely at the center of this world. Even marriage and a committed relationship came with a back door. Not so with a child.
So what does it mean to make this long-term commitment? In Buddhist thought, we hear about Long Enduring Mind. This is a mind that while tethered to the moment, consistently and completely focuses on the horizon of our experience. It can be challenging when we realize that the journey into fatherhood points us in the direction of a horizon that is beyond our ability to obtain. We see it, we move toward it, but it is always just outside of our reach. Being present helps us to determine where we are but also provides the understanding that we are never sure of where we are going.
Long Enduring Mind suggests a commitment to something that we cannot control or even understand. It moves beyond being present and in the moment. It means that we have come to terms with the finiteness of our self-generated desires, needs and wants, and in the process, we learn to surrender. We bow to that which is just beyond our reach. We take a defeat, we make the sacrifice to be here now, and now, and now, for as many moments that are ours to possess. Or should I say, in the case of fatherhood, be possessed by.
This is a very challenging proposition, and I think for most men, given our training and our unconscious mandate to win, to succeed at all costs, it may initially be a way of thinking that can leave us conflicted – even confused.
“I’ve worked all my life to get to where I am, and now I am going to give into somebody: a partner, a child, a family, a life that changes how I think about who I am?” Well, I hear you. But, the other side of this sustained commitment, to place the life of another before our own, brings with it rewards that simply are not available unless we let go of thinking that if things get tough, there is a way out. We must live into the realization that, as long as I am alive, I am determined to father my children.
As fathers, the best news is that we are never alone. Besides our partner, we have a guide who is never lost, knows what has to happen next and in what direction to head. That guide is our child; our children know the way. It is a way of relatedness, mutuality, engagement, connectedness, play, curiosity, wonder, delight, intense desire, surprise and so much more. All we have to do is follow their lead and bow down to their intrinsic wisdom of what it means to be fully human. We must surrender to the deep impulses for life, and if blessed, we remember those very same impulses once stirred within – driving us to this very moment. Long-Term Commitment, Long Enduring Mind happens now, in this moment, and for as long as we are alive.