“Turning the Heart of a Father,” Ensign, May 1971, 28
Having experienced the feelings of pride and tender love that come with the arrival of a new son, and the feelings of anguish and sorrow from watching life slip away from another son, I have often wondered why it is that conflict develops between father and son. Yet this paradox of love and discord is a common pitfall. Today we call it the generation gap.
Two ideas related to this problem stand out:
First, some families seem to have a heritage of happy association passed from father to son with each generation. There exists a sort of paternal art learned and practiced by each new father, consisting of gentleness, love, and friendship that binds. This chain that binds the family from generation to generation may be broken unwittingly by the preoccupation of a father who gives priority to other interests. In so doing he risks losing his sons, and even worse, it may be generations (perhaps seven, according to scriptures) before the family may recover this lost heritage.
The second aspect of the father-son relationship is its resemblance to animal behavior, akin to aggression. In a band of wild horses, the stallion tolerates his sons only until early maturity; then conflict develops in the family. At first there is annoyance, with mild rebuff. Eventually, in a furious rage, the herd sire drives his son out of the family. This type of aggression serves a purpose in the animal kingdom, but when men exhibit this behavior, its ugliness is at variance with the godly nature of man.
In the scriptures, the animal traits that are part of man’s nature are called the natural man. The irritations and antagonisms that gradually creep between father and son reflect man’s carnal tendencies. A father must recognize that he has a worldly nature that has to be brought under subjection to the Spirit of God. In so doing he can refine his conduct to the extent the natural man becomes godly; he becomes a patriarch to his family rather than just a sire.
I had been a bishop for several years when I had an experience that gave me insight to myself and the father-son relationship. In addition to the demanding duties of bishop, I was just getting established in a new profession, and priorities were jumbled. A son was being neglected. As the symptoms of this condition became clear to me, I had the following experience.
One cold, dark morning my son and I started up the trail to Erickson Basin in the high Uinta Mountains. We were traveling light, and the going was smooth and easy. We hiked in silence in the predawn for over an hour. Then, as the sunlight splashed the west canyon wall with its warm, enlivening glow, a beautiful red buck leaped out in full view. He stood in a small meadow surrounded by somber spruce and white quaking aspens. We stopped, both of us caught in the beauty of nature. I became completely oblivious to the purpose of our trip.
For days and weeks I had been praying and seeking for some way to get close to my son. A growing antagonism between us gnawed at my conscience. I had planned this trip to get away from the complicated life that seemed to frustrate my efforts to reach him. The night before, I had pled with God that somehow this trip would give us the closeness I so earnestly wanted. In this moment of thrill my purpose was forgotten; old pleasures engulfed me.
The buck bounded away and we resumed our hiking, but now the trail began to be more narrow and steep. I fell into my old stride; the urge to stretch my legs sent me on up the trail. I soon found the boy lagging behind, and irritated by having to wait while he caught up with me, I almost started to chide him. Forgetful of my purpose, I was falling back into the old habit I so detested. We hiked on up the trail, which to the boy must have seemed endless.
We passed two lakes that were small and shallow, the fish winter-killed. Without considering my son’s fatigue, I decided to go over the divide to the Big Elk Reservoir on the Provo drainage. As we climbed higher, we passed great slabs of glacier-scoured bedrock. Water was shooting down over the rock, striking obstacles that threw it in high, looping sprays. Once again the grandeur of the occasion drove the purpose of our trip from my mind; the lure of the wild country averted my attention from my boy.
We struggled over the ridge that separates the waters of the Provo and the Weber rivers. On either side were the broad expanses of an uninhabited wilderness. There below, beneath a two-hundred-foot cliff, lay a beautiful blue lake. Impulsively I plunged down a narrow defile in the precipice, forgetful of my son’s inexperience. I became engrossed in the fish I saw swimming about in the lake. I had made my first cast before I realized my son was not with me.
A sudden fear seized me. I had read of boys becoming lost in this wilderness area. Scanning the jagged rocks and surrounding forest, I could not see the boy. Gripped with the sickening realization of my folly and the possible danger to him, I dropped my pole and scrambled up the cliff. There was no sign of him. Off in the distance, across the lake, I saw someone in a jacket the color of his; I raced toward him, but halfway there I could tell it was not my boy. I ran back, shouting with all my might, but heard no answer. In desperation I lunged back down to the lake below the cliff. He was not there. My fear heightened to near hysteria. Had he fallen over the cliff? Was he lost in the wilderness of trees and rocks? The beauty of the mountain I had enjoyed so recently was gone; now the mountain was a frightening, sinister foe.
Then faith and hope came into my heart. I knelt and prayed: “Father, please help me find my boy. If you will give him back to me, I promise I will always stay close to him.”
As I look back now, I wonder at the propriety of bargaining with God; nevertheless, there was the beginning of repentance in what I was doing.
I rose to my feet and climbed back up the narrow defile. As I arrived at the top of the cliff, there stood my son, unharmed. I crushed him to me and unashamedly wept great sobs of joy. I poured out my soul to him, telling him how much he meant to me. I sensed his spirit stir and accept mine. A bond of understanding was formed between us that I believe will never be broken.
The boy had fallen into a deep snowdrift and had been held just long enough, struggling to get free, that he missed seeing my descent to the lake. When he regained the trail, I was out of sight under the cliff. In searching for me he had gone out of earshot. Finally he had returned to where he had seen me last. There we were reunited.
I had not anticipated such a response to my prayer, but I accepted it. The incident had shaken me hard. It all happened in a very few minutes. Fishing now seemed unimportant; the purpose of our trip was accomplished. We started down the trail for home, my arm around his shoulder.
Years have passed. The normal father-and-son problems have come and gone without serious trouble. There have been other trips when we have done what he wanted to do. When friction and antagonism threaten, an understanding that we care for each other overrules the moments of unreasonableness.