Malcolm Gladwell asked: “What is a child’s obligation to his parent?" He's introducing a new episode of his podcast, Revisionist History. He goes on, answering his own question:
I took my father’s presence for granted for as long as he was alive, and when he died, the first shocking realization was that I had to find a way to keep him alive in my heart, to honor his memory.
How do we do that? Not by honoring our parents’ beliefs. We are different people than they are, born in different eras, shaped by different forces. What we are obliged to honor in our parents is their principles. The rules by which they lived their lives.”
I don’t necessarily consider John Mayer the prophet of our time but he spoke prophetically when he said, “Belief is a beautiful armor but makes for the heaviest sword.”
It’s the truth. Shield yourself with an armor of a firm faith and you’ll always be protected, always be comforted. Use your beliefs to attack others and your beliefs will begin to weigh heavy on you, you’ll fail to wield them with any might, your arguments will fall flat, you’ll open yourself to counter-attack. It’s a brilliant metaphor, really.
Did you ever watch those Deadliest Warrior shows on the History Channel? They’d bring in experts in different fighting styles, with different historical weapons, and run computer simulations to determine who would win in a contest between two historical classes of warrior.
They had the viking versus samurai, the Spartan versus ninja, the pirate versus knight… and they would demonstrate each group's weaknesses. Like how a long, labored swing of the broadsword opens its wielder’s chest to swift incisions by a katana.
“Belief is a beautiful armor, but makes for the heaviest sword.” A long, labored swing of belief opens the chest to the swift and well-aimed blows of life.
Is this not a trope by now? The terrorist who destroys his own body in the name of his god. The street preacher who loses his marriage to his anger and self-righteousness. Protesters turning violent—they’d rather have chaos in the streets of their own cities than change hearts and minds by engaging in rational discourse.
What will they leave their children? Burning cars, broken glass, a fatherless home when dad goes to prison, a polarized nation, an economy of hate… They don’t see that the use of belief to cut down and to attack leaves them open to counter-attack, leads to the destruction of the things that should matter most to them, their homes and their families.
Think of all of the radical dictators you learned about in history class. Now consider their families. The record of violence, murder, divorce, abandonment, suicides—it’s staggering. These guys that pursue dominion and power at the detriment of their children and destruction of their homes… you know?
Like, think of all of the cult leaders you’ve ever heard about, think about their lives and their families. David Koresh’s kids: raped and ritualistically murdered. Shoko Asahara’s kids: massively messed up in the head and sharing their father’s criminal record. L Ron Hubbard’s kids: lived without a father, grew up to renounce everything about him.
You might think I’m generalizing. I may have touched a nerve. You might criticize me for grouping all these men together. But I’m arguing that they share a common trait. These men share a common trait.
The Kim Jong Uns of the world, the Fidel Castros, Saddam Husseins, Adolf Hitlers, the Josef Stalins, the Maos, all the whacked out cult leaders, the radical terrorists, they have something in common.
Each of these men wield belief as a weapon to the detriment of their families and communities. It’s like they are so blinded by belief that they’ll light their own home ablaze to burn down their neighbor’s.
My father is wholly unlike these men. He's unlike them in every single way. My father holds strong beliefs and yes, my father’s beliefs include the damnation of those who refuse to accept the freely given forgiveness of a loving God in this life. But my father swings no swords.
My father is humble. He is kind. He loves everyone. He works hard to keep the peace in our home. He works hard to right wrongs, to admit faults, to ask forgiveness, to institute change. He works hard to help the needy, the orphaned, the widowed, the anxious, ill, and oppressed. He works hard to make those around him feel special, feel heard, and loved.
He answers every phone call—I love that about him. He rushes in the middle of the night to sit bedside by a dying man, to pray with the children left behind, to be a comfort in their time of distress. He’s a protector. He’s a gentle guide.
My dad was Superman to me growing up. When other dads coached baseball and fixed cars and took their boys on fishing trips, my dad woke early to study and came home late from hospital visits, and I never resented that—my dad had a mission. I saw that fire in his eyes, I wanted that same strength and resolve and faith.
My dad is always joyful, always hopeful, always optimistic, always learning and growing, always patient, always eager to work. My dad is the wisest man I know. And he’s the most intellectual man I know—but it’s an interesting sort of intellect—he balances knowledge with mercy.
This is why the Malcolm Gladwell quote above struck me so deeply. When I heard it, casually listening as I folded laundry, I was so moved that I nearly cried.
“What is a child’s obligation to his parent? I took my father’s presence for granted for as long as he was alive, and when he died, the first shocking realization was that I had to find a way to keep him alive in my heart, to honor his memory."
My father is not a young man. I never want to have to look back and admit that I took his presence for granted. But one of the great struggles of my adult life has been, how do I honor him if I don’t accept everything he believes?
Don’t get me wrong, we agree on a great many things. But I consistently fail to believe with the same fervor as my father. Just a few weeks ago we had a long talk about Donald Trump, North Korea, and God’s plan for all of this madness. He comforted me. “It’ll all work out, and here’s why.”
I was just so struck by the peace he had, the firmness of his faith. I said, “Dad, I can never be as sure of things as you are.” His belief dwarfs my anxiety, and my anxiety rules me. How can that be? I actually cried with him that night. I will never be able to shake my doubt.
How do I honor my dad if I don’t accept everything he believes, or can't believe with the same confidence? Malcolm Gladwell’s quote has given me hope. I’ll honor his principles, the way he lives his life, the way he conducts himself, the great care with which he interacts with people.
I’ll share his optimism, his light-heartedness, his hopefulness about the world. I’ll be my father to my world. I’ll inject a little bit of his humor and kindness into every interaction I have.
I’ll try to stand firm in my faith like he does so well. Not by wielding my beliefs to attack others, rather, I’ll let belief be a shield from the cruelties and pain of this world. I’ll let belief be my beautiful armor, not my heavy sword.