We all know – at least, we all think we know – what Fathers’ Day is. It’s that day in June that kids and mothers give all the good fathers out there a new barbecue set, razor, or some other shiny replacement for a shabby accoutrement that the guy can’t part with – and besides, works perfectly well. It’s a day for cards, songs, and tributes for good men working hard to support a family and raise their children.
But Fathers’ Day is becoming something more. Legal and social upheavals have dismantled the vocation of fatherhood and put its whole worth and meaning in question. More than a day to acknowledge this or that paterfamilias, Fathers’ Day has become an invitation to face the paternal itself. What is it? And does it even matter?
In 2013 – a year before my own initiation into the joy of fatherhood – I left a movie theater with startling answers to these questions swirling in my mind:
The Place Beyond the Pines is a quasi-Biblical story of identity, legacy, and a cross-generational crisis of fatherhood. In the first act, a bank robber and a local cop, both circling their lives in quiet desperation, cross paths in a fated act of violence. Honor falls on one man and death on the other, but both men vanish from their families, passing on to their sons hard-coded patterns of aimlessness and angst. The sons cross paths in the second act, becoming friends and eventually antagonists, playing out – with an air of fatalistic dread – decisions that were already made for them years ago.
It’s a work of stark realism. With 24 million children in America – one in three – growing up without their biological father, The Place Beyond the Pines shines a floodlight on just how profoundly destructive this trend can be.
Like his father before him, the bank robber vanishes from his son’s life. The boy is lucky enough to grow up with a positive male presence in the home who is loving and protective. But that man is not his “real dad.” Jason is consumed by a desire to learn more about the man his mother refuses to discuss, the man who begot him – who he was, what kind of life he lived, and what it all means for his own life.
The answers he gets are far from happy and propel him toward his own decisive act of violence. Still, understanding his true father emerges from the center of his being as a kind of primal quest. Jason’s father is in his DNA; he needs to see, love, or at least know who this person was. In this, the whole arc of Jason’s story mirrors Pearl Jam’s “Release,” which also revolves around one son’s search to reconcile himself with a biological father he never knew:
But in art as in life, this crisis of fatherhood isn’t just limited to physical absence. Any man can father a child; but as the cop’s son discovers, a dad who shields their child from toxic moral hazards, takes an interest in developing their character, and provides a daily example of self-sacrifice – that’s something more. A.J.’s father, following in the footsteps of his own politically-minded father, becomes entangled in a web of corruption and careerism, separating from his wife and distancing himself from his son. To fill the void, A.J. rebels and turns to drugs and is eventually arrested for felony drug possession, with Jason by his side.
Pope Francis recently lamented this lack of engaged fatherhood in a General Audience in January:
“The problem of our days does not seem to be so much the invasive presence of fathers, but rather their absence, their hiding. Fathers sometimes are so concentrated on themselves and on their work, and at times on their own individual fulfillment, that they even forget the family. And they leave the little ones and young people alone…we must be more attentive: the absence of the paternal figure in the life of little ones and young people produces gaps and wounds which can also be very grave. And, in fact, the deviances of children and of adolescents can in good part be traced to this absence, to the lack of examples and of authoritative guides in their daily life – to the lack of closeness, to the lack of love on the part of fathers. The sense of orphan-hood that so many young people live is deeper than we think.”
On Fathers’ Day, I’ll think of my own father’s example of diligence, integrity, and faith, and know that whatever gifts I have to give my daughter started with him.
But for all the joy this day brings, it also bears the mark of these social lacunae. More and more, a simple hat-tip to this taken-for-granted facet of family life has the unintended gravity of a fight to protect something precious. It’s a call to arms to both present and future fathers to tear up orphanhood at its roots by promoting fatherhood in its fullest sense: not only procreation, but presence; and not only presence, but leadership.
This is what fatherhood is – and it matters for everyone.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.