The Influence of Fathers

Orlando and Fathers

Last week, the big news was the Brock Turner rape. This week it’s Orlando, where Omar Mateen killed 49 men and women in a gay nightclub on Hispanic night. At the Pulse, people who felt condemned, berated, and threatened could be themselves and still feel safe. That sense of safety was shattered.

This week also includes Father’s Day, so I thought I’d take a quick look at the impact of fathers on young men who grow up to love or hate, create or destroy.

The classic father is wise and caring, yet can enforce rules with gentle firmness. A good father loves and protects us, he always knows best, and he certainly knows what to do. Of course, this classic image is hard to live up to. Most fathers are both wise and foolish; loving and angry. Those of us in recovery may have grown up in chaotic families, with abusive and violent fathers.

A small child's hand grips a man's finger - Fathers are important - image by COSV

Why Do We Hurt One Another?

What kind of father did Omar Mateen have? Did the young man kill all those people because his father failed him?

None of the articles I’ve read about the Orlando incident give us any indication of that. Mostly they talk about Seddique Mir Mateen’s regret and confusion. Indeed, to blame the elder Mateen, even if he were some kind of villain, would be too simplistic.

The reasons we do horrible things are complex, and when we’re doing them, we usually don’t think they’re horrible. We justify our actions, whether we murder in a jealous rage or drop bombs on entire cities. We claim to have acted in self defense or by the will of God, or maybe we feel such deep shame and self loathing that we turn that rage onto others.

Additionally, we are influence by our culture’s popular stories. The classic media hero is strong, silent, revengeful. He responds to injustice with force, destroying the “bad guys” so they can never harm us again. When we watch shows in which good wins out against evil, dopamine and serotonin surge through our veins, making us feel strong, successful, satisfied. We get caught up in the fantasy that some people are so evil they deserve to be murdered. Because we identify with the main character, we believe we’re the good guys, that we’re pure, so we can kill our “enemies” without staining our souls.

Who Is Evil?

Maybe there are times when society as a whole agrees that a particular human being embodies pure evil. Is Omar Mateen such a person? Maybe. Yet did he reach that point of destruction in a vacuum? What influenced him? What hurt him so badly he could stand no more? Did schools or medical systems fail him? Was he touched by poverty or racism? Did he struggle with a neurological, chemical, or physical imbalance that skewed his vision of the world? Did he feel entitled to status or riches or to doing exactly as he pleased without consequence? Was he bullied or brainwashed?

What causes us to label another human being as infidel, unclean, abhorrent?

Regardless of what pushed Mateen to perform this act, he probably believed he was the good guy destroying the bad. In fist fights, brawls, wars, and shouting matches, we convince ourselves, at least for the moment, that we are right and our adversary is wrong.

The Influence of Fathers

But this is Father’s Day. Celebrations of fathers started in 1908, but only in 1966 did President Johnson finally make the holiday official in this country. Now, once a year we buy cards, and maybe presents, for the men in our lives who raised us, if we are fortunate enough to have them around, and fortunate enough to have had dads who were “good enough.”

Fathers are important to our emotional and spiritual health. Do our fathers sometimes fail us? Of course. As I said before, I’m not trying to lay blame for Mateen’s actions on his father, yet certainly, if we have loving, attentive fathers, ones who guide us and teach us values with care and compassion, we are probably going to do okay in life. If our fathers are absent, whether in body or spirit, or if they are violent, we will probably struggle. Although we can experience severe abuse and grow up caring and compassionate, and although we can overcome adversity, our fathers influence us.


At the hospital where I work, I talked with a father who had a terminal illness. He was going to die soon, but he felt ready. He was also estranged from his two daughters.

“Do you want to reconcile with them before you die?” I asked him.

No, he didn’t. Because they didn’t like his rules, his girls emancipated themselves at sixteen. As far as he was concerned, if they wanted to be emancipated, they could stay that way. To prove his point, he shared how once he’d returned home from work to find one of his daughters on his porch. When she saw him, she came toward him. He walked right past her, “as if she wasn’t there,” and disappeared in his house. When the doorbell rang, he refused to answer it. That’s how much he didn’t want to reconcile.

Another father, more involved and open to change, shared how much he worried about his daughter, whose three children had three different fathers. “I keep telling her she’s picking the wrong men,” he said. He wanted her to listen to him, to follow his advice, even though he admitted he had never listened when his father told him what to do. What really confused him was that she kept coming to him with her problems.

“What do you think she wants from you?” I asked.

Shaking his head, he admitted that he didn’t know.

Parenting is hard. The first father I described was trapped by his own hurt. The other one couldn’t get past his need to fix his daughter’s life. It’s so hard to let go, to forgive, to love without expectations, to love in the face of our children’s mistakes. Our fathers mess up time and time again. Yet we don’t all turn out to be mass murderers. In fact, most of us are pretty nice people overall.

Finding Redemption

Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke write that “no child can redeem the lives of his or her parents.” It’s not a child’s job. Sometimes, though, we can redeem our own past by becoming parents. “[T]he birth of a child augurs a new beginning and the possibility that past pain can be healed,” say Greene and Sharman-Burke.1 Most of us parent little bit better than our own parents did. By doing so, we can find healing, meaning, and hope. We can find redemption.

It’s not just fathers, or mothers, who need forgiveness and reconciliation. Rapists and murderers need that, as well. Whose job is it to redeem them? Maybe it’s God’s. It’s probably not yours or mine, but it may be society’s job, which means you and me and others, to find a way to redeem, transform, and reconcile even the most evil among us. Yet to be redeemed, we must accept responsibility, show remorse, and seek reconciliation. Some, like Mateen, who was killed at the scene by a police officer, never have the opportunity to try. Others live a long time without ever showing any desire to reconcile.

Finally, victims need redemption. When sullied and harmed, we need our brokenness healed, our wounds salved with love.

The media hero may try to convince us that violence is redemptive. It is not. Violence doesn’t protect society; it doesn’t protect our children. It stains our souls, sullies our relationships, and breeds more aggression. Fathers have the opportunity to teach their children a different kind of enforcement, a different kind of redemption, one based on acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness. Society has the responsibility of supporting these fathers in their redemptive work.

In faith and fondness,


  1. Greene, Liz and Juliet Sharman-Burke, The Mythic Journey: The Meaning of Myth as a Guide for Life, New York: Fireside, 2000, 29.

Photo Credit: “Kenya90-Murang’a-progetto Aids-COSV” by COSV. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons