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Together, father and son find their voices

November 23, 2016

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 23, 2016

Speaking our truth can be difficult, especially when we are hurting. So my 7-year-old son, Adam, recently reminded me.

Adam, along with a gaggle of neighborhood friends, had been playing a pick-up game of soccer in our front yard. As is sometimes the case — especially Thursday afternoons, when fatigue from the school week has frayed bodies and nerves — conflict emerged. Disagreement over rules — someone feeling slighted, someone else feeling blamed — is a predictable outcome of competitive contests, in our neighborhood and in general.

This time Adam felt blamed, unjustly in his mind. I watched the scene unfold, and giving him space to work through the conflict, I observed both sides of the issue. Each had merit. Finally, Adam and I made eye contact, and I offered a gentle head nod and hand gesture, letting him know I was available.

As we sat on the edge of a lawn chair, beyond the view of the crowd, Adam buried his face in my chest. Sobbing, he said: “I don’t know why they are being mean to me.”

“That must feel icky,” I replied.

“Yeah,” Adam murmured.

But it’s what Adam said next that melted my heart.

“I can’t find my words. I don’t know what to say to them.”

For years, my wife, Lori, and I have been instilling in Adam, and big sister, Zoe, that using our words, rather than hitting, screaming or being mean to each other, is the appropriate way to work through our differences.

So, Adam’s reminder was timely and beautiful; I too was hurting and struggling to find my words, like many, in the wake of the recent presidential election.

In that moment, I recognized that before either Adam or I would be able to find those words, we needed to be more grounded. We moved to the back yard, to be alone, where we briefly played. Inside Adam enjoyed some quiet time in his room, while I took a work call. Then, together, we prepared a supper that included two of his favorite foods – corn bread and mashed potatoes.

Later at bedtime, he was still feeling tender and wanting closeness. So, in the protective shell of his lower bunk, snuggled under the blankets, we revisited the soccer conflict. Talking through the details of his experience, we quickly identified words he could use next time he faced a similar situation. His sense of relief was instantly visible.

And then, as Adam slept, I found a quiet room where I began to write.

I reminded myself that when I listen to, and am present with, someone who is hurting, it is empowering for both of us.

I acknowledged that the vitriol of the recent presidential campaign profoundly demonstrated people — in families and communities throughout the country — are hurting; that as a nation there is a great need to listen to each other.

I resigned myself to the fact that Donald Trump had won the electoral authority to be president, but observed that he has not demonstrated the moral authority to lead our country.

I redoubled my commitment to call out and denounce words and acts of hate and division, however subtle or extreme.

And — as a father and community member — I recommitted myself to finding and using my voice in ways that uplift all that is kind, compassionate and just, so that together we can nurture our children to be the parents, community members and presidents of tomorrow.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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