Updated: Feb 22
If you'd told 16-year-old me, in the midst of an uphill battle with hormones and teen-angst, that I would eventually become my father, I would have LOL'd at you from my Nokia flip phone.
(555-666-555'd for you 90s babies who remember the struggle.)
Truth be told, dad and I built our relationship from two ends of a broad spectrum that matured as we did: power tools and video games, to woodworking and computers, to home remodeling and emerging technologies.
Coupling our mutual interests in the digital world and, more or less, the lumber aisle of Home Depot made for a solid paternal bond. At least superficially.
Below the crust of gypsum and sawdust, there was a very palpable struggle within me to regulate emotion the way that my father did. You see, Johnson men, in addition to an unhealthy obsession with the Craftsman brand, are genetically predisposed to hide pain and fear.
Well...it's not all genetics. Both nature and nurture played their respective parts.
In my thirty years of life, I've only seen my father cry on three occasions (once per decade, I guess). Twice were in response to the passing of my Papaw, his father. And speaking of Pap, I never saw that man cry.
For reference, if A League of Their Own had been written by my grandfather, that classic line would have been amended to say, "There's no crying in baseball! Or any sport! Or in any other fathomable scenario in life!"
Strong positive emotions received a brow raise too. Elation, awe, even love - while these feelings weren't openly deemed wrong, they were routinely muffled to the point where they felt almost taboo.
These were the metaphysical boundaries that were staked in my heart and mind as a child, the parameters in which I was raised. My father, my grandfather, my great grandfather - legends and heroes in my mind - they inhabited a sphere of existence unaffected by fear or deep sadness or overwhelming joy.
My bloodline was like a jar of river water added to through the years. Each of us carefully poured, never to disturb the jar lest we stir up any sediment.
Layer after layer. Generation after generation.
We are to settle quickly, cleanly at the bottom.
Enter, stage right: Bills. Depression. Relationships. ADHD. Sex. Religion. Life.
See also: Things that create some really frickin' strong emotions in a guy.
Just imagine this kid with big feelings trying to suppress those while embodying the classic stoicism of his grandfather and the relentless willpower of his father. This was in the midst of moving out, getting married, finishing college - you get the picture.
It wasn't pretty...
...that was until I started having honest conversations with my dad. (A novel concept, truly.)
Of course, healthy communication wasn't something we stumbled into. There were plenty of awkward silences, abrupt subject changes - we both became adept at verbally dancing around each other. But as I slowly pulled back the curtain of my childhood, the reality of my father as a human really hit me.
This was a man who struggled to financially provide because of his limited education, who was looked down on, passed over for promotions and accolades because he didn't have an MBA or MD next to his name.
This was a man who grappled with chronic back pain and a gastrointestinal disease for the majority of his adult life, physical pain that would later manifest waves of crippling mental illness.
This was a man who put in 10 to 12 hour days and, with exhaustion rooted to the marrow of his bones, would fabricate a smile before he walked through the door.
Three decades of life and I'm only just now, for the first time, meeting the man who raised me.
This is where it comes full circle. Because in his willingness to share those struggles, I actually felt encouraged. I felt as if, just maybe, those impossible standards I was striving for never existed in the first place.
And the kicker: it vastly improved our relationship. Neither of us felt diminished in the other’s presence simply because we admitted to being human.
Seriously, being able to ask my dad how to navigate failure, to recover from rejection, or tell him I love him without feeling like Terry Crews is waiting in the shadows to snatch my man card away with his pecs? You can't put a price tag on that.
Admittedly, despite knowing what I know now, I still catch myself every. single. day. swallowing my emotions to uphold an undocumented standard trapped in my gray matter. Remember that bit about turning into my father?
Don't get me wrong, there is a level of "sheltering" that I engage in for the sake of my family. There are healthy ways to protect your kids from certain elements of life until they're of age.
If I've learned anything through this journey though, it's that there is something so powerful, something so special about dropping your guard and being vulnerable with the ones you love.
Also, full disclosure, I realize there are social implications to being a guy who doesn't shy away from expressing emotion, even among friends and family. I think the TikTok generation calls it "being extra" or something.
But the reality is, we've held our jar for other people for so long that many of us started buying into the lie. We started believing that our water inside is actually clear. I say, it's time to shake it.
Be real with your kids, with your loved ones. We weren't built to struggle alone.
Let the clay and algae and sediment swirl up and cloud the glass because, as crazy as it sounds, that is when we can finally start seeing each other clearly.