If you have read To Kill a Mocking Bird you are familiar with the beloved character, Atticus Finch. My father has always been my Atticus, strong, fair minded, intelligent, and supportive. If you have read the recently published Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee you are now familiar with how Atticus’s character lets down not only his daughter, who narrates the story, but all of America by not living up to the impossible ideal we set for him. I am not proud of this but I will admit there have been times in my life that I have felt let down by my father as well.
It is for the same reason Scout’s character felt let down in the second book. When we are children we idolize certain adults and as we age we start to realize that these adults are human beings not super heroes, and they are flawed like the rest of us. Reconciling these flaws when they reveal themselves is difficult, suddenly this person is not exactly who or what you thought they were and in that moment you feel like everything has been tipped upside down. A girlfriend recently explained how she experienced this on more than one occasion growing up when she discovered things about her mother’s former life.
When I talk about the former life of our parents I mean who they were before we came along and demanded their sole identity be Mom or Dad to us. For me this occurred for the first time when I learned that before my parents had my brother my father used to smoke cigarettes. Now other members of my family smoke so this is no great taboo, I even smoked briefly when I was in my late teens, but my father, never. I perceived this as a flaw and my father, my very own Atticus could have no flaws. I laughed it off with him when I found out, it came up in a light conversation but I was surprised and if I am being honest it shifted my view of him ever so slightly.
As time went on and I aged from teen to young adult to full blown grown up I began to see my father more as the man he is rather than just my Atticus. And although our relationship has changed now that I see my father as a human being with flaws and vulnerabilities I know this place is better, it is more real, and it allows me to love him more wholly than I ever had before. I am reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly right now and when she discusses the shame experience of men one man expresses that the women in his life, his wife and daughters, would rather see him die on his white horse than catch him as he falls off. That statement hit me like a punch to the gut. How many men feel this way? Probably more than I want to know. And why? Because of the messages society and the ones they love send them. I would much rather see my father as the man he actually is and love him in that place than hold him to an impossible standard and watch him crumple under the weight of my expectations.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I shift each night between reading Go Set a Watchman and Daring Greatly. I read about the shame Scout and Atticus experience in the novel and understand it more fully as I read Brene Brown’s research surrounding vulnerability and shame. I am able to apply all of this to my own life and understand on a deeper level the pressure put upon men in our society. Pressure to never show a weakness, pressure to provide, to be successful, to be strong and never show emotion. I know growing up I put this pressure on my father. The first time he showed true vulnerable emotion to me I was scared by it just as Brene Brown says women usually are. Her research is helping me to not only better understand my own shame and struggle with vulnerability but the struggle those around me might be facing as well. Her research helps me to approach my own struggles as well as the struggles of others with a deeper level of awareness and empathy.
My father is still my Atticus but no longer Atticus the ideal from the first book, Atticus the human being with flaws from the second and I think I am able to love him better now because I understand this.