What’s left of the Father Figure?
One of the questions we can’t afford to ignore is what remains of fathers in today’s society. The father figure is disappearing little by little from our social, cultural, and perhaps even anthropological universe.
Fathers today seem to flee from the centrality of their original mission: to serve as guides for their children, for a long-term life plan.
This was the central theme of a recent debate in Milan, which saw the participation of a pyscoanalyst, Massimo Recalcati, a university professor, Franco Nembrini, and a comedian, Giacomo Poretti (from the trio, Aldo, Giovanni and Giacomo). The title, How Difficult it is to be a Father (Come è difficile essere padri), highlighted the marginality, and the fragility, of the paternal figure in today’s society. Renowned Italian psychoanalyst, Massimo Recalcati, emphatically declared that “we are in the era of an irreversible decline of the father”. He tried to identify the keys to such a loss in an open dialogue with the other speakers.
But what does it even mean to be a father? What relationship should there be between a father and his children? The discussion brought forth the idea that to be a father means first and foremost to be an educator, a healthy bearer of values and ethics. But he must also be an example and a witness to the goodness of life.
Reduced to an Income Source
One of the most interesting points that emerged from the debate was the argument that today’s fathers may have lost their original identity. The value of a father within the family and economy of modern society is tied exclusively to his professional success. How much money does he bring home? What can he buy for the children? Can he afford their tuition at a prestigious university? This is how role models and reference points shift for the children: they look no longer to their father, but to their friends. The horizon upon which a young person looks in order to grow and absorb a model of behavior and values becomes less and less vertical, and more horizontal. In other words, they look to a peer, a best friend, a classmate.
And thus the inevitable drift tied exclusively to the satisfaction of the interests and needs of the moment, wiping out every tie with transcendence, symbols, prayers, rites. The ancient Greek heroes, as Homer recounts, take their children in their arms and elevate them towards heaven, as a gesture to ask the gods to make them stronger and more just. This gesture, symbolic yet quite common for the time, underscored the true paternal identity and his sacred mission: to raise his child and elevate him/her to heaven, outlining the right path to life by his own example.
The Importance of Rediscovering Paternal Identity
Now what do we do? Is there a recipe to recover what has been lost already? Such a delicate issue cannot be treated by a simple nostalgic look at the pater familias. There are no ready-made solutions. The speakers at the conference were clear on this, and made another very strong point: he who doesn’t know how to be a father halts the passing on of generations and flees from his original mission. He doesn’t generate growth, he does not educate, he does not bear values or sacredness. In other words, he is not a witness. Our children, however, have an absolute need of a father they can trust; someone who can show them, through a concrete example, that you must have and pursue a life plan. Fatherhood is the place par excellence of the law, of a long-term project that teaches the value in sacrificing an attachment to the immediate for a distant goal that forges life, giving it substance and consistency.
Children look at us and ask us to give credible witness to a life plan capable of rising above the world. Today, however, fathers try to be friends to their children, instead of trustworthy guides and examples. They play with their children on PlayStation, and in the best case scenarios, they communicate via WhatsApp. The tablet now is the master of the table. The greatest part of the relationship is built on watching a soccer game together, or going to play catch on Sunday morning. Their anthropological- as well as educational and social- dismay is reflected in the development of their children, who in turn are broken and lost, without a compass to guide them.
Fatherhood, the conference concluded, is the primordial place for articulating a lasting project of optimism towards the future, the good, and a vertical gaze towards God and heaven. This is what our children build their future upon. Let us not lose our mission.