Even the Wounded Can Help to Heal Others
About the Guest
Donald Miller, a best-selling author and director of the online magazine The Burnside Writers Collective, talks openly about growing up fatherless. Hear how his "lack of an earthly father" marked him growing up, and still affects him today.
Donald MillerDonald is the founder of Storyline, an organization that helps people live better stories. He is the author of several books including multiple New York Times Best Sellers. Donald lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.
Donald Miller talks openly about how his “lack of an earthly father” marked him growing up, and still affects him today.
Even the Wounded Can Help to Heal Others
Bob: There is a longing, deep in the heart of a boy, for his father’s approval. Here’s Donald Miller.
Don: Being a writer, there are times you’re really alone. You’re five chapters into a book—nobody else has read it—all the voices are saying, “You’ve gone down the wrong trail,” “It’s not working out,” “It’s not going to be good.”
I remember writing this book. It was late one night—shut down the computer. I wanted my dad to walk through the door, right then, and say it was going to be okay, and say that I was good at this, and that I needed to keep working on it—and realized, very deep, emotionally, “This will never, ever happen,”—that he wasn't going to.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, April 12th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. What do you do, as a young man, when you grew up, never having heard your father say, “Well done, son”? We’ll find out today.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, you can’t just point to two things happening at the same time and say, “Well, one caused the other”; right?—
Bob: —but you do have to look at kind of our social pathologies, as a nation today, and the fact that there are a lot of absent dads in homes today. Then, you have to look at Malachi, Chapter 4, where God says, “The hearts of the fathers are going to be turned back to their sons; lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” It leaves you scratching your head and saying, “Are we reaping the bitter fruit of dads who have left their assignment, left their post, and this is what we’ve got?”
Dennis: Bob, I was in a briefing at the White House—I don't know, it’s been a couple of years ago now. I had some of those same thoughts as I listened to why government has put together, and all of the things government is trying to patch, and prevent, and protect, and keep wired together all because of the family breakdown—and a good part of them because dads are not dads and fathers to their children.
We ran across a book and invited the author of that book, Don Miller, to join us. I want to welcome you back, Don.
Don: It’s good to be back!
Dennis: Don, you grew up in a home without a father. To supplement that, or to try to fit together the pieces that were missing in your life, you connected with a handful of mentors over your adult life. One of the families was the McMurray family—John McMurray co-authored this book with you—and you spent about four years with them. You write a paragraph—and I want you to answer this question, though, that you write about in your book.
You said, “The McMurray family dynamics allowed me to picture what should have existed in my own life. It’s not that I wanted John to pick me up and set me on his lap, but it did make me wonder why God would allow me to grow up without a father saying he loved me or was glad I was around.”
I want to ask you, Don—you’ve now written a book. You’ve now spent a couple of years, reflecting on your lack of a relationship with your father. What’s your answer to that question? Why did God allow that?
Don: Well, that’s one of the toughest questions that we deal with. I can only tell you what comforted me, in my not getting an answer to that question. It was a year ago, Father’s Day. It was a very, very difficult time for me. I was wrapping up this book—had spent a year thinking about all the stuff that I didn’t know because I grew up without a dad—and the ways I was trying to deal with that—and offering hope to people, and—
Dennis: Let’s say, at this point, your father stepped out of your life, when you were about two—
Don: —when I was about two. So, it had been a long time.
I was reading a book—now, remember, I’m having a difficult time. You know, just before Father’s Day—and I was reading a book by Antjie Krog called Country of My Skull. The book was about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Bishop Tutu was asked by the government, “Who should be on this Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” (the commission that was going to reconcile the government, post-Apartheid).
These people, who had been oppressed, many of them murdered, horrible things had taken place—and Bishop Tutu said—he said, “The people who should be on this commission should be victims, legitimate victims, who have had their lives ripped apart by the atrocities of Apartheid—but not arrogant victims, instead, wounded healers.”
The difference between an arrogant victim and a wounded healer is what has happened to them spiritually. A wounded healer has a deeply-buttressed spiritual life, and I was done at that point because the book sets up pages and pages of descriptions of these awful things that—the atrocities that had happened to these people. Here is Bishop Tutu—and he comes in, and he says, “Do not be an arrogant victim. I’m going to call you out of that. God does not want you to stay there. You offend God if you stay a victim. He is giving you hope, and you slap Him in the face if you don’t take that hope.”
While there is a reality of having grown up without a father—and this is not to be compared to the atrocities that were faced in the Apartheid regime but—I'm sitting here, going, “Boy, I can’t believe I’m sitting here, feeling like a victim, having grown up without a dad, when God offers me mentors, He offers me relationships, He offers me wisdom through the church, He offers me wisdom in Scripture, He offers me His own Fatherhood, His own guidance.”
All of this hope is offered to me by God. “Why God would let this happen?” I still don’t have an answer to that. Of course, it goes into free will and some pretty deep theological ideas. However, the question becomes less pointed to me in the face of the hope in the answers that He offers. Does that make sense?
Don: I think I hit that point, and the question wasn’t as important. I mean, there was so much goodness being offered by God that I just said, “Man, I’m taking advantage of that.”
Dennis: It’s all about the Gospel—that the Gospel came for broken people—
Dennis: —and we’re all broken at certain levels, some more visible than others. It’s just more public that you grew up in a home where your father wasn’t there, and you suffered certain wounds as a result of that.
Dennis: Frankly, I love the illustration you just made because I believe that’s what the Gospel calls us out of. He calls us out of our arrogance and calls us to submit to Him.
Don: Who would have thought that sitting there and saying, “I grew up without a dad, and this is awful,” was arrogance? But as soon as you embrace the hope that God offers you, you look back and you go, “Man! That was arrogance. That was a form of pride.” You wouldn't think of it, in the moment; but it was to me.
Dennis: If you think of us, as a nation, that has, at many points, become a nation of victims, there is a degree of—and you hate to say this because—
Bob: —because people have been wounded deeply.
Dennis: Well, they have. The things that have occurred to them are not right—
Dennis: —but to hold onto that and to not forgive is ultimately to be a prisoner; isn’t it?
Dennis: You actually wrote about that in a chapter in your book—how you had to forgive.
Don: Yes, you can’t—I just saw a billboard, past a church, the other day, right by my house—the billboard simply said, “Hatred is too heavy a burden to carry.” I thought, “That’s so very true of so many things;” but ultimately, yes, I had to forgive. I had to let go. I had to move on.
Then, what I loved about what Tutu said was, “He gave me dignity in the pain.” I mean, he said, “There are two camps here. One is arrogant victim; the other is wounded healer. Choose. Choose which one you're going to become.” I just said, “I don’t want to be an arrogant victim. I don’t want to sit around and say, ‘I grew up without a dad; so, I’m going to go mess up my life.’”
I want to be the wounded healer, which means a couple of things. It means—one: that I deal with reality. “This actually happened to me. There’s stuff that I’m missing. I need to figure out what I'm missing. I’m going to be very intentional and aggressive about doing so.” Then, also, “I need to turn around, and I need to help somebody who is dealing with this same thing. As people have helped me, I need to turn around and help other people.” That’s what a wounded healer does.
The wonderful thing that Tutu said was, “These people have an education toward empathy. They are the only people who actually understand the pain”—of Apartheid, he's talking about. Then, I thought, “Boy, what a beautiful thing that God would say, ‘Don, I'm going to give you an education about what it feels like, means’”—the whole bit—“‘of growing up without a father so that I can raise you up in the wisdom of the church and wisdom of mentors’”—not that I'm perfect, I’m about ten years behind, usually—“‘but then, turn around, and you’re going to be able to give, from a position of authority, wisdom, and counsel to those who are in that same situation.”
Bob: Second Corinthians, Chapter 1, talks about how we are to comfort one another with the comfort that we’ve received from God.
Bob: That’s what you’re talking about here.
Don: That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
Dennis: As you were sharing that story, I couldn’t help but think back to the question, “Why would God allow it?” We can’t always answer all the “why” questions; but Romans 8:28—and I don’t want to apply, and slap this verse, and laminate it, as many Christians can—almost like a trite Christian saying—but it does say, “All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”
I’m thinking of your life, Don, after reading of the pain and of the loss, and I can’t even—I have to tell you—I can’t even imagine 22 years of silence.
Bob: You’ve already said that your dad left when you were two. You last saw him when you were 12. There were just a few encounters between two and 12. Now, when he left at two, you didn’t know he’d been around. I mean, you—
Don: No, I have no memory of him in the house.
Bob: What happened in those few encounters? Who were you meeting with? What did you know about this guy? That last encounter, when you were 12 years old, how were you processing that, as a young man? What was going on?
Don: Well, there was a big difference between the last encounter and the previous encounters. I really adored my dad, early on. I mean, I loved the fact that he had this really rough beard; and he would buy us the best Christmas presents. Of course, he was never around for rest of the year, but you don’t process that as a kid. You just process this great guy who comes in.
Not the greatest figure—I have a memory of being in a bar. My sister and I, only six and seven years old, sitting in a bar, while my dad was drinking—I have that memory. I have a memory of sitting on his lap, steering his car. If you were steering the car, you got to drink from his beer, driving down the road. These are memories that I have of my father. I think, getting older, there were only two or three visits. Those were the memories from those visits.
Then, the last visit, when I was in junior high. I’m getting a little older. I’m realizing there’s not a lot of safety and security here. I just remember driving out to this restaurant, my sister and I, to have lunch with my dad—and the whole time, kind of looking out the window for the nearest pay phone or for an escape route if something—if he were to try to kidnap me or something like that.
He brought us home, and it was fine. We never heard from him again after that. Part of me thinks that one of the reasons I never heard from him again was because of that moment—this sense of, “My kids are actually old enough to realize that this isn’t good or normal,” and that, maybe, “I’m not a good guy.” We just never heard from him again.
Bob: He didn’t say, “I'm moving. I’m going to”—
Don: No, nothing, not to my mom, not to anybody.
Bob: That was just the last lunch?
Don: That was it. That was the last—I never saw him again.
Bob: Did you ever think, at 13 or 14, “I wonder why Dad hasn’t called?”
Don: Not at 13 or 14, more like 24 or 25. It was a long—again, it’s hard for people to understand that only having hours—I mean two/three days with my father my whole life—you don’t—you miss him—but you miss him more in biochemical ways, in the elephant sense of not figuring—not knowing how to do—but you don’t connect that to the fact that you grew up without a dad.
It wasn’t until—again, I was in my mid-20s and moved in with John that I realized my father wasn’t there. That’s when I began processing and wondering, “I wonder where he is, and I wonder why he never called? Well, if he doesn’t want anything to do with me, I don’t want anything to do with him.” Those sorts of ideas occurred to me later.
Dennis: There are a lot of our listeners who have heard you describe this and you kind of touch on this, Don; but I want to ask you to go to the very core, if you can. What do you miss most about not having a dad, growing up? I’m not talking about writing the checkbook.
Dennis: You know what I mean?
Dennis: I’m talking about in the soul.
Don: It hit home writing this book in a very deep, pretty painful way. It was the week before Father’s Day. I’m working on a book about growing up without a dad. You know, being a writer, it’s a great life. I don’t want any other life, but there are times you’re really alone. You’re five chapters into a book—nobody else has read it—all the voices are saying, “You’ve gone down the wrong trail,” “It’s not working out,” “It’s not going to be good.”
I remember writing this book about growing up without a dad. It was late one night—shut down the computer. I’m not a big weep-guy—you know, maybe once every few years or something—and realized, very deep, emotionally, that I wanted my dad to walk through the door, right then, and say that it was going to be okay, and say that I was good at this, and that I needed to keep working on it. It was a realization that he wasn’t going to.
I mean, that was it. This will never, ever happen. That struck pretty deep. I laid on my bed, and put my head on my pillow, and I just wept. I probably wept for an hour—an hour-and-a-half.
Dennis: A true cry of anguish?
Dennis: Of loss?
Don: Yes, I mean, beyond—it’s beyond self-pity. It was this sense of, “You will live with this for all eternity,” kind of a feeling, you know—I mean, a very hopeless place. I think God had to bring me there in order for me to read the words of Bishop Tutu to say, “Don, now, that you realize what you’re without, you have a choice. You can be an arrogant victim or a wounded healer. What do you choose?”
Bob: You’ve had people say to you that the deficit in a relationship with an earthly father—which all of us have had—nobody had a perfect earthly father—but that God is the One Who is our perfect Heavenly Father. The deficit of the earthly father is compensated for—it’s made up for—by the Heavenly Father. Do you think that’s right?
Don: No, I don’t think it’s right—anymore than, I think, that the deficit of a marriage relationship for us men—a marriage relationship with a woman is made up for by God. It isn’t. Neither is the relationship you can have with a dog, or the relationship you can have with a piece of turkey, you know, or something. (Laughter) It just isn’t.
God has created these things. One of the metaphors we can use to understand God, as He has instructed us in Scripture, is the metaphor of a father. God says, “I will father you. I am fathering you.” “Our Father, Who art in heaven,” Jesus tells us to pray.
What happens is my earthly dad becomes a metaphor for me to understand who God is—as does, my wife, if I am married. Then, I look at this and say, “Well, this helps me understand this relationship that I have with Jesus—this whole relationship with the Trinity. Our sons, our daughters, become ways that we understand from God’s perspective about how He feels about us. There are all of these living metaphors that take place, but you can’t replace an earthly father. You can’t do it.
I think that there’s a lot of hope in Scripture—God fathering us. There’s a lot of hope in mentoring relationships; but ultimately, there will always be that wound there. If the wound isn’t there, then, fathers really aren’t that important in the first place; are they?
Dennis: As I listen to you talk, I reflect back on just what you said a few moments ago about—that you’ll never, ever hear the words of affirmation—that, “It’s going to be okay,” from your dad. It’s interesting that the first words heard about Jesus Christ from His Heavenly Father occurred when He was being baptized by John the Baptist, “This is My Beloved Son”—
Don: —“in whom I am well pleased.”
Dennis: —“in whom I am well pleased.”
Dennis: Words of affirmation. You know, you don’t think of Jesus needing to hear that from His Father; but His Heavenly Father did say it. Didn’t He?
Don: He did. It’s interesting that we would say, “We don’t think of Jesus needing to hear that,” because the assumption is that if Jesus needs affirmation from God, then, He’s not perfect—because perfect is independence; but God doesn’t live in independence. He lives in community.
God’s idea of perfection is—“No, no, no. Perfection is not isolation and independence”—
Dennis: There you go.
Don: —“Perfection is marriage and relational dynamics.” You know, for the guys who are growing up without dads, who grew up without dads, who are listening to this—I think that the thing I want to say to you is, “Independence and, ‘I can make it on my own, and I’m not going to trust authority’ is not perfect. It’s not a good system.”
We have to realize that we missed something when we grew up without a dad. We have to take responsibility and do something about that so that we don’t do this to our own children. Because if it is modeled for me—that what happens in a marriage—“When it gets tough, is you leave”—then, “When I get into a marriage and it gets tough, I’m going to leave.” That’s what was modeled.
Don: I have to be very intentional about breaking that cycle.
Dennis: One of the greatest risks a man ever takes is relationships. No doubt about it, but the greater risk—even greater than a relationship—is living alone. I’m telling you, “Isolation for any man”—whether single or married, whether he is married and has no children, or he is married and has children—“the greater risk is to go alone and to cut your heart off from your children.” Instead, you need to take a simpler risk.
It’s still a risk. It involves great fear and great challenge. For many men, I’m convinced terror; but they need to risk a relationship with their sons and their daughters because their children need those words of affirmation, like you longed to hear from your earthly father.
Bob: Typically, when a writer is working on a book like this, he has somebody in mind that he’s writing to or for. Were you writing this in hopes that other guys who grew up without a father could say, “Yes, somebody understands;” or were you writing this so that fathers could understand the impact they can have—that your father didn’t have in your life?
Don: I’m amazed at how much response I’ve received from fathers telling me that they have learned something from the book or learned the importance of their role in their kids’ life. I’m blessed by that.
I wrote the book, however, to young men, growing up without dads. In fact, specifically, kind of a neat story—I had read this statistic that 85 percent of the guys in prison grow up without dads. I wrote the book for guys in prison. I mean, I sat down and said, “Okay, if I’m in a jail cell, and I’ve got nothing to do for the next 20 years, ‘What do I need to hear?’”
I wrote the book for those guys. Interestingly enough, I went into this relationship with NAV Press® saying, “Hey, if there is anything that we can do to get many, many copies of these books into prison for free, let’s do it.” Of course, there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in that.
Well, we went—I e-mailed the book to the publisher. We went to press and printed 45,000 copies of the book, with the wrong last chapter. The publisher decided, “It’s important enough that we throw these books away”—45,000 books—“and reprint and get it right.”
John and I, the co-author, were able to call them and say, “Hey, you know, these 45,000 books? I mean, it’s just a couple of pages, but there’s some stuff in there that we wanted to cut out for efficiency’s sake. What if we were able to give those to prisons?”
The publisher, you know, a light bulb went off and said, “That’s exactly what we’ll do.” They boxed them up and were able to distribute the book for free. Before anybody else could get their hands on it, prisoners got their hands on it.
The whole time I’m writing, I’m praying, “God, get this into the hands of prisoners.” You know, it’s great that people are going to be able to walk into a bookstore and get it. I’m very glad, but what about these guys who just—they are not going to be able to do that. “Can we get this book into their hands?”
Bob: I don’t want to stretch the metaphor, but there’s a sense in which a lot of guys, who didn’t grow up with a dad—they may not be behind bars, but they may still be prisoners to some of the emotions that they have wrestled with. You’ve addressed it in a new book, as well. You wrote a book called Father Fiction that is now available, and we’ve got it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on the book that Don has written. Again, it’s called Father Fiction. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information.
I should also mention that the book that you are probably best-known for, Blue Like Jazz, has just been made into a major motion picture that is releasing in theaters this weekend. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I’ll be anxious to see what the response to that movie is. Again, if folks want more information on your book, Father Fiction, go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or give us a call toll-free at 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
I was thinking about the subject we’ve been talking about today and the subject of your book. Dennis, I was thinking about the devotional guide that your wife Barbara just finished writing, called Growing Together in Forgiveness. The reality is all of us are going to have to deal with the issue of forgiveness in our lifetime. There are going to be people who wrong us, and we’re going to have to forgive them because that’s what the Bible calls us to.
Barbara has put together a devotional so that families can read seven very compelling stories about the subject of forgiveness and see what it looks like and understand the nobility of forgiving someone else. Barbara’s devotional guide is our gift to you this week when you help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation. We are listener-supported. We appreciate your financial support of FamilyLife Today.
You can make a donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the button that says, “I Care”. When you make an online donation, we’ll automatically send you a copy of Barbara’s new devotional book; or call us toll-free at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone; and be sure to request a copy of the book, Growing Together in Forgiveness, when you get in touch with us. Let me say, “Thanks,” in advance for your support. We really do appreciate your partnership with us, here in the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
We want to encourage you to be back with us again tomorrow. We are going to talk with Donald Miller about how, when a young boy grows up without a dad helping to point him in the right direction, he can wind up being confused about what it means to be a man. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. Hope you can tune in.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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