As we hover over the keyboard contemplating what observations we might offer about fathers and Father's Day, a haunting passage from "The Bonfire of the Vanities" comes relentlessly to mind.
Author Tom Wolfe broke many accepted rules of prose in his endlessly complex sentence, and yet, beautifully, he summed up fatherhood with a deft precision we unworthy wordsmiths can only envy and admire.
"Sherman," Wolfe wrote, "made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later, that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps love, adopted a role called Being a Father so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life."
Fatherhood, of course, is much more than that. Any parent's fundamental responsibility is to provide unconditional love and guidance.
A father, like a mother, is a teacher by both words and behavior, and good ones teach both self-love and selflessness.
What attributes do we want our children to possess? A good father is deliberate in striving to instill those values. Tolerance, responsibility, sacrifice, balance, commitment, self-confidence, joy in discovery, a spiritual base. It is a father's job to preach and model on behalf of all of that and more.
And yet, that does not happen automatically.
As Wolfe accurately suggests, all men, or at least most of them, maintain at their core the little boys of their childhood with all the simple complexities of youth -- playful, curious, impulsive, afraid but unwilling to show their fears. Who among us has not seen an 80-year-old with a mischievous gleam?
Nature, our evolutionary biology, instills the father's impulse to protect. That dates back to prehistoric times. It is as innate as breathing or swallowing or opening your eyes. A father doesn't have to think about protecting his child. It's instinct, a part of his DNA.
But these other things -- the role of father as nurturer -- they are not inbred. They, for the most part, are learned.
All men make their way in the world as best they can. Some are, in effect, fatherless, abandoned by reasons of death, irresponsibility or circumstance. Some are afflicted with bad fathers. Some are blessed with good ones.
But on this Father's Day, it is worth remembering that no matter the history of his own childhood, a good father embraces his responsibility as a parent with the wisdom and commitment and loving grace of a man.
And no matter how well he was parented, a good father sets out as one of life's priorities the goal of being a better parent than his dad.
Any good father would want that.