I simultaneously dream of and dread working with men and boys. It is absolutely, unquestionably, one of my deepest desires. I want to let men and boys know that it is okay to be wounded. I want to encourage them to touch their brokenness rather than hide it, as hiding it makes men dangerous to themselves and to the world. Yet I also hate this work and I hold back, actively, because it demands that I be in touch with my wounds, with my own inner turmoil. I need to know myself so I can show up naked, unguarded and vulnerable but still able to provide space and attention for others. Doing so allows me to serve, whether I’m noticed or not.
After decades of inner work I am still so broken that I usually don’t show up very much at all, and when I do, I tend to bulldoze over others. I’ve been hiding backstage for half a lifetime and, if I take the stage at all, I want applause! Now is the time that my captive audience should be in awe. And when I am not sure that they are, I secretly armor up, puff up, lose touch with what I feel, and simply talk my head off. The bitter result is that people are at best half-heartedly connected and impressed. Even if they congratulate and praise me, I know I was a fraud once again.
Being of service demands that I hide nothing, yet push nothing either. The first decades of my life I specialized in hiding, while in the most recent decade I have trained in pushing. I know it is possible to drop both at once, and I know that it feels fresh and good when you accidentally “just do it.” After moments when I don’t second-guess myself, I often think, “Ooh, that was spot on—actually quite nice.” Yet from where I stand today it just feels freakishly scary. Why? Because it is scary. There’s no guarantee that I’ll click with a group of young people when I show up to do a workshop with no agenda, or even an opening line. I’m by no means as cool as they are, or have learned to look like. It’s safe to assume that they’re just as scared and sweet inside as I am, but merely that knowledge doesn’t create miracles.
Believe me, I tried it on my two kids and failed. By “it” I mean being completely vulnerable—so totally real and spot-on that everybody loves and admires you. I tried and failed and ended up violating and scarring our children. And that brings me to one of my primary wounds, inflicted by my deep and sincere desire to be there for my children as an awake and vulnerable but brave father—the father I missed.
I know! Teenagers are learning to put on masks and armor that I’ve been trying to peel off for decades! They’re not waiting to see their daddy’s tears—least in front of their peers. I should have sensed and respected that, and yet I also needed to rumble, stumble, and try to do the work. If I ever wanted to be real, I had to let go of the wish of being the tough strong daddy most teenagers dream of. I had to experiment and accept looking awkward; one day being too strict, another too loose.
A big opportunity arose when, after my wife and I divorced, our two children came to live with me. I wanted to be there for them, and, if asked, share my part of the story of our divorce, without embellishment or excuse. I wanted to be there with presence, love, insight, humility and honesty—all qualities I had needed from my father. But rather than being more attuned, I was more forceful than he was. Rather than leaving more space for interpretation and disagreement, I overwhelmed my kids with my intensity. It’s puzzling; I see how daunting and intrusive my attempts were, even as I also recognize how honorable my intentions were.
Early on in our marriage, I had to acknowledge I was not the dream hubby and daddy I wanted to be—and, to be honest, expected myself to be. I could be moody and fickle, slow to set boundaries, sometimes resentful or suddenly strict. I would drive too fast and ignore the signs of discomfort on my children’s faces (as well as their gentle attempts to slow me down). I could miss their needs at home as my mind was stressed with work or had escaped into meditation. Sometimes seeing fear, confusion, dismay, hurt and resignation in my family’s eyes, I was forced to admit that passing on karmic shit did not end with me.
When we were just married, my ex and I committed to not go to sleep until we had restored true peace between us. It was a brave and beautiful goal. But over time peace-before-sleep became a long-ago dream, even though it is still my ideal.
A major source of pain in our marriage was my lack of commitment, including my infatuation with other women, which my wife sensed perfectly, though my diversions were mostly only with words and dreams. However, with one person I did have an affair. I was not crystal clear even to myself about what I wanted and did, or how I felt about it morally (in fact it felt good and right, but I did not have the guts to say so out loud). I was fearful and evasive in what I told my wife, leaving her the dirty and uncomfortable job of guessing, or pressing on. Focused on not lying in the literal sense, I discounted how I twisted the overall picture, trying to look like a “normal monogamous man” with innocent, fringe flirtations. To the children, I kept silent, not wanting to burden them with adult issues, but I later realized that the unspoken realities may have confused and burdened them more than if I had spoken to them honestly. (My wife told me that one of the children noticed that the guest room had been used, and wondered if she knew.)
Fundamentally, I trust that the four of us deeply and genuinely love each other, but at this point our connections are tentative and fragile. Just as I did decades earlier, the children may be wondering what to make of the man who left them by leaving their mother. I have violated and scarred them with my own struggle. Could I help make life a little lighter for them, or at least for somebody else?
My current job as a father, I believe, is to bear witness—to accept and support that our children develop their own understanding and opinions. I must transform my own distress and resentment, and genuinely respect my ex and her choices, whether we are on speaking terms or not. At this point our children are close to her and my contact with them is clean but limited. (For some teenagers having a dad is a slightly embarrassing given—and I seem to be that kind of dad.)
Some friends say, “You should reach out more!” Others say, “They’ll return to you!” I reject the view that I should do more—chances are too big that I would slip back into overbearing- daddy-mode. As for the meant-to-be reassuring message, “They’ll return,” I think, “Why would they?” Many people die with unresolved parent-child issues. What would make me so lucky or deserving? Let me just do my job—bearing witness—and leave the rest to the universe.
Of course my relation with my own dad comes to mind, which is somewhat comfortable and friendly. I share issues close to my heart and seek his understanding, such as with my struggle with love, lust and monogamy. Growing up he was fickle; I couldn’t count on him for support. I am guarded; I still seem to follow a childlike, “Diedi will do it alone” and an adolescent, “You never truly understand me anyway.” We meet up, but don’t die for each other’s blessing. Slightly sad, but again I try to bear witness rather than push myself to a level of heroism that isn’t genuine.
The last months before my son and daughter left home to join an international traveling school (how cool and crazy is that—a traveling school!) were super intense. At the beginning of the previous school year they moved from where they were living with their mom to live with me in the Netherlands. I believed I would have a couple of years with them, whether they “ignored or explored” me. Through simply serving dinner, I trusted they would come to trust my dependability and care. I thought: We’ll take it slowly; for the first time since the divorce they’re living with me. I pledged to not impose myself with jokes and forced intimacy. Let them sniff around and figure out what they make of their old man. Even if they conclude that I’m an ass, at least they’ll see that I’m a warm and present ass.
So I had a hard time when, six months later, they were admitted to the traveling school (with such a good scholarship offer that I couldn’t say no). I knew then they’d be leaving the nest for good in a couple of months and I wanted to show up for them now. I did not just want to let them drift away, but offer them—at this crucial time—a patch of solid ground in their traveling existence.
How did I do that? In the wrong way, of course! Way too forced, as several friends kept telling me. I did see the bloody problem with my forced “Friday night, game night” and especially with my “Sunday morning, family meeting.” What I did not see was another alternative to the “absent father” in which I would conveniently disappear. Today, I see how troubling my intensity must have been, and yet I also feel good that I did not resign; did not just slip away.
For the record, I did some things right. For example, I signed the children up at gym. My ex had suggested, “If you want a bond with them, join them in something they like.” My first thought: “Yeah, but the gym?” Luckily, I picked up on her message in spite of my arrogance. And I have come to love workouts—muscle pain is one of the best ways to feel alive and human. And our children, not always inspired when it came to homework, turned out to have incredible discipline and persistence.
In 2014, I did a grief exercise—mourning my divorce—with a friend playing the role of my ex. I talked to him as if he were her, and he responded from the “wisdom field” we created. (Whether you believe in such shit or not, it works.)
First, I shared that my ex and I had only known each other for three months when she got pregnant. I shared my anger, embarrassment and shame. I shared that I felt that I hadn’t been acknowledged for honorably marrying her. I shared that I felt tentative and tender about my resentment, so I hid those feelings. I also shared how I did not have the guts to really consider abortion. How I did not feel my ex’s statement “I can have an abortion, but then I can’t live another day” was blackmail, but her truth. I also shared that I have no anger or regret about the choice we made and the path we traveled. Still, I bleed.
Then I stopped talking. I placed my ex (represented by a pillow) in front of me, and my anger and despair behind me. I placed my resentment out of sight, hiding it out of shame and fear. But it was better when I took my bitter anger in my arms—the pillow—so I did that. Hugging it gave me strength and peace. Later, my friend took my ex’s place. It was a powerful, emotionally wrenching piece of inner work. I reflected how my ex had wanted the certainty that I would keep holding her even when she pushed me away. That was our deal when we first married: “Stay, even as I push you away.” I had done that, but had wanted the same mirrored back to me, and never felt I’d had it—until I’d done this exercise.
It is in my brokenness that I long to reach and serve others. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point? Do I need to repeat that I know that if I am merely seeking an audience I am not a healer? I know that, and I know that I have that tendency, and yet I die to move forward! It’s about time, isn’t it?! I want to affirm for a boy who almost knows that lust and love are really, really okay. I want to help a pervert or perpetrator see that he can experience so much deeper fulfillment in life—an antidote to loneliness—than he could ever get from taking advantage of a woman’s body. I want to stand with men who scarred their kids and lovers, and still refuse to give up on themselves. I want to let the tears flow, knowing that we wanted it differently, and will do it differently, but first we have to take ourselves as we are: broken and heartbreaking.