We had just come home from a long trip. It was late evening, maybe 9:00 or so. I was 9 or 10 years old. After we got all of our stuff into the house, I walked into the kitchen looking for some food, which was a long shot since we’d been gone for a couple of weeks. Lo and behold, there was a perfect banana on the counter! We must have packed it along and it was still good! I grabbed it and started enjoying it. As I was finishing it, I ran into my dad who had come to the kitchen in search of food, too. He quickly realized that there was nothing to be found and that I was consuming the only thing edible in the house. He took a look at me and said with a harsh tone, “Do you really think you need that?” In all likelihood I had been snacking the entire trip for two weeks straight at every opportunity. But at that moment I couldn’t appreciate that. All I heard was my father scolding me, and in my ears, with an insult about my weight (I was “husky” in those days). I was crushed, and had no idea what was set in motion that night. Like every son, I looked up to my dad, wanting his approval and praise, assuming that he was the model of what I was to shoot for. Like many boys, he was larger than life, even god-like.
On the inside of the United States Capital’s dome is a painting called The Apotheosis of Washington. It depicts our country’s first president ascending into the heavens, becoming deity, surrounded by angels. I’m not much of an artist, but I painted that picture with my dad in it a thousand ways. I think a lot of kids do that. We can’t think poorly of our dad-heroes. On the other side of the continuum, however, is debasement. Some kids have been so deeply wounded by their fathers (and mothers, too) that they can’t think anything good of them. They are dirt-bags as far as they are concerned. The desire in these kids is to write off the influence of their father completely. The interesting thing is that both extremes – apotheosis and debasement – are onto a reality that is true for us all. A beautiful lift out from the most primitive of the two creation stories in Genesis portrays God creating humanity out of dirt. But the human doesn’t come to life until God breathes into his nostrils. The Jewish tradition was stating that we are a combination of dust and divinity. Divinely dusty. Dusty yet divine. When we only see our dads as divine – apotheosis – we miss the truth of the dust. When we only see dirt – debasement – we miss the power of divinity.
My apotheosis held up pretty good until Bananagate (as it’s known the world over) came into my consciousness ten years later. Due to a range of circumstances in my life, I became acutely aware that my father wasn’t a god after all! I became very aware of the way some dust had made itself known. No longer did I see myself as a little kid who deserved judgment for eating a banana that I should have intuited belonged to my hungry father. Nope. Now I saw my dad’s reaction to me as hurtful. I interpreted it as an act of unlove, which caused me to look at lots of other moments of dusty humanity on his part. I was crushed, feeling unloved and duped at the same time. And yet, seeing reality began a process that, though painful at times, would prove to be incredibly important. As Richard Rohr recently noted in his daily meditation, “As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge. What you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control from within, festering and destroying you and those around you. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus teaches, ‘If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you’ (logion 70).” There is great truth in those words. To leave the dust unacknowledged would invite future suffering. Same goes for divinity.
There is an epic story about the beginnings of the Jewish people in the book of Genesis. It involves the two sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau (Genesis 27 ff). Long story short, Isaac had some serious “Daddy issues” (try getting over your father trying to kill you as a way to honor God), had twins with his wife, Rebekah, and clearly favored Esau (the manly man) over Jacob (the CPA). With the family fortune on the line, Rebecca helped Jacob to secure the President and CEO slot right out from under Esau who was heir apparent. Esau was livid, and was surely ready and willing to kill Jacob for his deceit. Jacob ran away to his trickster Uncle Laban’s homestead where he married his distant cousins (this is where Arkansas got the idea), had a bunch of kids and made a fortune. But he couldn’t stand Laban, and he longed to go home even though Esau would be there waiting for him. So, after 20 years and with dramatic flair, Jacob gathered his family and flock and took off. Assuming Esau would still want to kill him, he did everything he could to butter him up and show that he wanted peace with his brother. The night before they were to finally meet, he wrestled through the night with an angel – a test of his resolve – who did he really want to become? He survived the nght still wanting to reconcile his past. God gave him a new name – Israel – which means struggles with God, which, of course, would be the proper name of the entire nation to come. He awoke and made his way to the meeting only to find that Esau was ready to make peace as well. Could be a Hallmark movie except for the weird marrying your cousins and weird animal husbandry tactics and an off-color trick capitalizing on menstruation cycles. Their reconciliation reminds me of another quote from Richard Rohr:
“Only mutual apology, healing, and forgiveness offer a sustainable future for humanity. Otherwise, we are controlled by the past, individually and corporately. We all need to apologize, and we all need to forgive or this human project will surely self-destruct. No wonder that almost two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness. Otherwise, history devolves into taking sides, bitterness, holding grudges, and the violence that inevitably follows. As others have said, ‘Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different past.’ Reality is what it is, and such acceptance leads to great freedom, as long as there is also both accountability and healing forgiveness.”
Note the wisdom of our Jewish ancestors in sharing this story from generation to generation. We are a people who struggle, who find ourselves in messes we in part helped create, and we are then faced with a choice to continue in our misery or risk changing course. In this case, both boys-become-men had to face the change offered them related to their father issues. Time alone doesn’t guarantee healing, even though it often softens us as we mature into a wider perspective on life that experience can bring. Both men likely came to a point when the pain of their reality was worse than the future they imagined. They couldn’t live with the pain any longer, and chose to risk change. We usually don’t do important interior work unless we must, simply because we like to be comfortable. We don’t like change, really. We enjoy the comfort of the status quo even if it kills us. Change is a threat. We know little about Esau’s life while Jacob was away. We know plenty about Jacob’s. He was successful and miserable all at the same time. The pressure mounted and Jacob couldn’t take it anymore – the pain of his present reality was worse than his projected future (facing his vengeful brother). Going home meant facing the past honestly and openly, taking a serious look at what was and how it served to create what is.
Two decades after Bananagate, after a lot of time for my brain to slowly process stuff, I came to a new way of seeing that moment. I had interpreted the event as personal attack on my character and a jab at my physical appearance. The face-value reality, however, was much simpler than that, and did not require me to vilify my own father: Dad was hangry. He was simply pissed that I beat him to the punch. We all act a little grumpy when we’re hungry, and even though I wish he would have censored himself, I got the raw reaction. I don’t think I could have come to that realization until I was a father myself, tired and hungry and grumpy and faced with normal everyday stress that parenting brings. I likely reacted similarly to my own kids as my father acted toward me! All of a sudden, I realized that there was a new way of seeing things that simply allowed some room for the dusty-divinity reality some expression in my father. This new insight lead me to a fork in the road. It served as an invitation to come home, in a sense, to leave behind an incomplete paradigm in favor of one that was more humane, more embracing and graceful toward my dad as a person dancing with the tension between our dustiness and divinity. No more perfectionism allowed. He was a real human being (and still is). But that choice to see him that way was a significant change that was years in the making. It was hard even though it was good. Even though it was a step toward healing, it was still difficult. And still a choice.
This reminds me of a healing story involving Jesus and a man who was paralyzed (John 5:1-15). Apparently, there was a pool in Jerusalem that, on occasion, provided miraculous healing (signaled by the water stirring presumably by the Holy Spirit). This man had been sitting there for 38 years, and somehow never got to the pool in time to get healed (which seems fishy). Jesus straight up asked him, “Would you like to get well?” I wonder if God is always asking us this question while we sit in misery for 38 years, always available to help us move forward in our healing. Always nudging us toward becoming more whole, which is change, which is uncomfortable and sometimes terrifying. Always circling us back to moments in our own story to take us deeper than we were before, to help us see in new ways, to give us legs to walk where before we were paralyzed, helping us realize that even the ugliest parts of stories are deeply important, and provide fodder for more healing throughout our lives. In this sense, Richard Rohr is right when we says that everything belongs. To avoid our ugly chapters is to deny the opportunity for healing and growth. When we accept reality as it is, that it’s a part of us and needs to be mined for the gems it holds, we find healing and help from God.
Or we could do what one man did and does. He told his wife to stop thinking about her awful past because it was behind her. He just lived in “today” and was fine. Except he was the only one who thought he was fine. His short temper and anger issues had damaged his relationships and employment for years. Anger that stemmed from unresolved issues that represented the challenge of change, the choice to become well.
On a trip down to Fresno last week I listened to a best-selling book entitled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. Something in his book triggered a recent memory that reminded me that I still have work to do. I still have some stuff to uncover. But it’s no longer a thing to keep bringing up to my dad. It’s my internal work. And Bananagate (what it represents) will likely be fodder for personal growth for the rest of my life. And that’s actually a good thing because the invitation of God which was the invitation Jesus gave the lame guy and the invitation heard by both Jacob and Esau was to become more whole. Change for the good for me and for everyone around me. So, while I may be initially annoyed by the invitation, it represents something beautiful if I’ll choose it. My responsibility. I have my Bananagate, and you have yours. Healing. Change worth pursuing even though terrifying. The invitation is before us everyday: Do you wish to be well?
1. What makes the list of the Top Five Changes you’ve experienced in your life? What role did fear play in each? How were they similar and different from each other? How many of the changes were proactive, intentional, and planned, and how many were thrust upon you? How did that affect the process?
2. What changes do you think Jacob went through in his 20’ish years between leaving and returning to home? How were the challenges and changes similar or different from one another? What do you suppose compelled him to return home?
3. Physical changes are challenging enough (moving, job change, etc.), and loss is also a very difficult change to manage (death, divorce, etc.). Sometimes paradigms are so emotionally charged that they are nearly impossible to change – the way we see the world, the way we view others (especially those who have significantly affected us in some way). What paradigms have you changed? How was that process similar or different than other types of change?
4. What changes are you facing now or will face soon? What steps can you take to manage the change well?