By John Lim
We are seated at the dining table. My father is tapping away at his keyboard. I heave an audible sigh. My father looks up. He knows this is a sign that I want attention. That I want to be listened to.
I complain about my boss, how he’s treated me, and how unfair it all is. as we are discussing, my father suddenly snaps,
“Who do you think you are?”
I stay silent. I walk away from the table.
And I stay silent for the next 5 months. The Cold War has begun. Growing up in my household, praise was never forthcoming. No matter how hard I worked, how well I scored, or how many scholarships I was offered, I never heard, “Well done” from my dad. Even when I eventually got offered an overseas scholarship, the ‘epitome’ of student achievement, I heard nothing. Crickets.
I don’t say this to boast. But I say this to share the context I grew up in.
I always wondered to myself,
“Do I have what I takes?”
Time and time again, the person I looked to for an affirmation of my value – my dad, repeated,
No, not yet.
You haven’t done enough. You must do more.
Who do you think you are?
Wounds like these cut deeply into a boy’s heart, and end up festering into rotting scabs as the boy grows into a man.
Playing the silent war is not an easy game. After a while, it gets awkward when you sit at the same table, and refuse to talk. When you pass a dish to each other, you pass it through someone else. When you are supposed to share a meal, but end up sharing scowls at each other. Where sisters and mother are caught in the crossfire, and are unsure of who to side.
Then it happened.
I was put on a Performance Improvement Plan. If you are not sure what a Performance Improvement Plan is, it’s a get better or gets sacked plan.
Then I was subject to an investigation. I was shouted at and scolded at work.
It got too much.
Not knowing where to turn, I turned back to Dad. It was an awkward moment.
He was in the toilet, washing the mop after cleaning the puddles of urine my dog had graciously left behind.
Can I talk to you?
I laughed nervously, hoping it would break the ice.
What?! I’m not free now.
His voice boomed.
Okay never mind, take your time, I will wait.
I slipped quietly outside, lifting weights as I waited for him to be done. That night, as we walked in the humid night, I apologised.
Sorry. I felt very disappointed that you said, “Who do you think you are?” I felt like I was a nobody. Sorry for ignoring you after that.
As I shared about my difficulties at work, he walked and listened.
As a father, I wish my children never had to go through what I went through. But it seems like it’s happening. Learn from this experience, John.
I stood, slightly stunned by his response. He hadn’t blamed me, nor called me a fool for geting into a fight with my manager. He had accepted as I was.
From my father, that was the first lesson.
Accept as you are
To accept each person for their goodness, but also their flaws. To accept them not in spite of their flaws, but because of their flaws. Because it’s easy to love a great person, but not so easy to love a broken person that hurts you time and time again. Whilst I’m no father, I know that I’ve hurt my dad on multiple occasions. But he has never held it against me.
Each time, he’s always held out his hands, wide open, accepting me time and time again.
The 3 kinds of dads
We are seated at the dining table again. It’s 8AM on a Saturday morning. Our family is up early, even on weekends.
There are three kinds of dads…
My father, the philosopher king, has started again.
The first are men. They stand far off, stoic, and strong.
The second are dads. They earn money.
The last are fathers. They show love.
Fathers show love. Love sounds like this mushy, squishy, and soft thing.
Men can’t show love! You’re a man!
Somehow, as children grow up, the nuzzling and playfulness switches to something more age-appropriate. We also delete this word – love, from our vocabulary. There’s no shame in telling your son you love him, over and over again, however old he is.
It’s only shy if you think it is.
How can you say that of your own son?
I glare at my dad, hurt at what he’s said.
Moments ago, we discussed about life partners. He said,
Just don’t get married for the sex.
As I glared at him, he said,
Sorry, I take that back.
Sorry. The 5-letter word that’s never easy to say, but that repairs relationships like a soothing balm.
As we grew up, there were times when our dad would scold us so badly that we would bawl, run to our rooms, and hide under our pillows. But he would always come by and say,
John, daddy is very sorry for scolding you just now. Would you forgive me?
He modelled what great fatherhood looked like. Saying sorry and meaning it.
It was no platitude for him. It was from his heart. I know because each time, he would linger around the room for moments, as if plucking the courage to mutter the apologies. It pained him to put down his pride and apologise. But his children, mattered more than his face.
5 years ago, I found myself in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). I did poorly for my A-Levels. My dreams of being a doctor were ruthlessly crushed. I ended up wanting to end my life.
As we walked down the hospital that night, it was quiet. It was 2AM. There were no cars in sight. My mother raced ahead to find a taxi. As my father walked with me, he wrapped his arm around me.
John, whether you have 10A-s or no A-s, you’re still my son.
In the beginning of this, my dad, out of anger, asked,
Who do you think you are?
But with his acceptance, love and desire to reconcile, he reminded me of who I was.
I was his son. And he was my father.
Great dads accept, regardless of what happened, and what will happen. They show love, ignoring the feelings of looking ‘weak and womanly’. They say sorry, because the relationship matters more than the face.
They walk together with their children, for life, for no other reason than the fact that you’re my child, and I love you.
John helps young people to find meaningful work in their early career at liveyoungandwell.com.