“Look at that! The poor little boy has to walk while his father rides the donkey.’ This time, Nasruddin climbed onto the donkey behind his son. Soon they met another group, who said, ‘Look at that poor donkey! He has to carry the weight of two people.'
Nasruddin then told his son. “The best thing is for us to walk and lead the donkey. Then no one can complain.” So, they continued their journey on foot. Again, they met some others who said: “Just take a look at those fools. Both of them are walking under this hot sun and neither of them is riding the donkey.” In exasperation, Nasruddin lifted the donkey onto his shoulders and said, “Come on, if we don’t do this, it will be impossible to make people stop talking.”
I was visiting in a noisy bar with a fellow father and friend over some beers this evening. We talked about business and other trivia that is less interesting for its content than as a means of connecting man to man. But eventually I felt compelled to ask him, “So, what is meaningful in your life right now?”
“Good question,” he said. After thinking for a moment, he said, “Really it’s my family—my wife and son. I mean I could use more money, a bigger house, a better job, but all those things ultimately seem small in comparison to them.”
I was struck by how his experience mirrors my own. Though I have sought insight in many ways, the persistent pull of family and children has produced the most effective arena for fulfilling my love of meaning.
Once a different friend recounted his conversation with his spiritual teacher, to whom he had confessed his desire to marry and have children. “It’s the most mechanical thing a person can do,” she commented. My friend was disheartened by her response, as he didn’t aspire to be a machine, though it didn’t stop him from marrying and having children. But when I heard him recount the conversation I knew what his teacher told him is true.
Reproduction is one of the biological imperatives. It is so hardwired that the moment the right cocktail of hormones starts flowing we begin assessing our fellow humans almost strictly as competitors or mates. We place this reproductive urge within all kinds of romantic window dressing, but at the end of the day most of what we do is driven by the body’s inherent interest in the continuance of its genetic material.
But like everything else that is mechanically impelled, family can become an arena for conscious action. We can wake up within it, and make use of it not only for enjoyment, but for our being. The fact that attraction and conception are a product of the ingenious machine of nature does not obviate the possibility for a real and intended result. This consequence follows the awesome force of need exerted by a baby and children.
The utter helplessness of the child makes her a powerful center of gravity. The parents become like planets orbiting a newly formed sun. They are required to respond, and unless something is horribly wrong, they do, and perhaps learn the meaning of real commitment and service in the process.
Though the force of need exerted by a child is mechanical, one can enter into the service of the child mindfully, the true engagement of one’s essential nature with life through living, responsive service.
The first time my son named me—“da”—it took my breath away, and the impact of being called daddy only deepens. It simultaneously feels like an awesome responsibility and the opening of a current of love. There is something so unexpected in the depth of love and appreciation that fatherhood draws, that it feels miraculous.
It is no coincidence that priests are called father. In Aramaic the word for father and teacher are the same—“Abba.” A real father is the source of a particular type of nourishment; to be a provider of sustenance at every level—care for the body, granting affection and love, and the meta-nutriment of knowledge and experience digested into insight.
My young son—he just turned three—and I were riding in the car. “Hey!” I yelled, as a car pulled out in front of us. After a long pause he spoke from the back seat. “Daddy, when you say hay, that is what donkeys eat.” I laughed out loud. “What, daddy?” he asked. “You are right,” I said. “Hay is what donkeys eat.”