How Wounded People Have Shaped Culture

fatherlessness and atheism

Have you ever wondered about the personal histories of people who have influenced the world in negative ways, philosophically or politically? I have. I’ve harbored a long-held suspicion that influential people who have shaped the world for the worse have generally done so from a position of personal woundedness.

The point of the question is not to establish a reason to judge people or to create division. But I think it’s an interesting and significant question. If anything, establishing such a connection may help foster understanding.

It may also shed light on issues that we may assume to be intellectual issues but which may in fact originate with psychological issues rooted in personal history.

In my opinion it also underscores the importance of marriage, loving family, and the meeting of the relational needs of our fellow human beings.

I’ve finally gotten around to doing a little research, and what I’ve learned is fascinating. We know the names and contributions of world-shapers, but what is less known is that, almost without exception, the stories of those who’ve made a negative impact are often deeply tragic.

Who is to Say What is “Negative”?
This is a fair question. Let me hasten to add a caveat here. I am unapologetically biased in my opinion about what constitutes a “negative influence” in the world. Justifying my opinion is probably a topic for a separate post. I recognize that some of you may consider what I see as a negative contribution to be a positive one. I also recognize that the contribution of many the folks mentioned below is mixed.

However, I don’t believe it matters. Regardless of what you think about a person’s contribution to the world, the facts of their personal history remain, and, I believe, shaped the course of their lives.

Following is a list of people who have shaped the world in the modern era; especially in the world of academia. There is overlap in these categories as most of these people are/were atheists.

Atheist thinkers
In a recent movie review I mentioned the connection between well known atheists and the “father wound.” Psychologist Paul Vitz has written a book on this connection entitled, “Faith of the Fatherless,” which I recommend. Here are arguably the most notable atheist names in history:

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Popularly known for his pronouncement, “God is dead.” Nietzsche’s father, to whom he was very attached, died just before his fifth birthday. After his father’s death he lived in a religious household consisting of his mother, sister, paternal grandmother, and two paternal aunts, until he went away to school at age 14.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Prominent British atheist philosopher and author, notably published a collection of essays entitled, Why I Am Not a Christian. From an aristocratic family, Russell’s mother died when he was two years old. His father died two years later. Russell was then raised by his paternal grandparents, Lord John Russell and Lady Russell. However, his grandfather died when he was six years old, leaving him to be raised by his puritanical grandmother and a succession of nannies.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Influential 20th century French atheist philosopher, playwright, and novelist. Sartre’s father died when he was 15 months old. He grew up very close and emotionally invested with his mother. When his mother remarried in Sartre’s 12th year, she moved into an apartment with her new husband, and Sartre stayed with his grandparents with whom he was not close.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)
French atheist philosopher, author, and journalist. His father died in battle during World War 1 when Camus was 1 year old. Camus was raised by his mother, who was illiterate and cleaned houses for a living, and subsequently grew up in an economically depressed environment. In 1937 Camus was denounced as a Trotskyite and expelled from the French Communist Party, at which time he joined the French anarchist movement.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995)
Perhaps America’s best-known atheist before her death, she led the lawsuit to successfully ban prayer in public schools during the 1960s. According to her son, Madalyn hated her father and unsuccessfully attempted to kill him on at least one occasion. The reason for this intense hatred is not known

Richard Dawkins (1941- )
British “New Atheist,” evolutionary biologist, and author. A critic of all religion and especially Christianity, Dawkins is on record stating that the teaching of Christian doctrine to children is child abuse. He attended a religious boarding school at age 9 and experienced sexual abuse at the hands of his Latin master while separated from his parents.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
British “New Atheist,” journalist, and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens grew up in an intact family and also went off the boarding school at age 8. His father was a naval officer and Hitchens claims to have “few clear memories of him,” referring to him as “the Commander.” He was close with his mother, who eventually had an affair with a former Anglican priest. The two lovers subsequently ended their lives together in a suicide pact.

Daniel Dennett (1942- )
American “New Atheist” philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist. Dennett’s father worked as a counter-intelligence agent for the US government. The family moved to Lebanon during World War 2. His father died in an unexplained plane crash while away on a Middle East mission when Dennett was 5 years old.

Political leaders
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)
Leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and architect of the Soviet state. Third of six children in a happy family, when Lenin was 16 his father died of a brain hemorrhage. He renounced his belief in God soon thereafter. 5 months later his elder brother was hanged for his part in conspiring against the Tsar.

Joseph Stalin (1879-1953)
Soviet dictator, orchestrator of the Great Purge against political rivals, and perpetrator of the worst man-made famine in human history. The precise number is unknown, but by some estimates Stalin presided over the deaths of 20 million people. Originally trained for the priesthood, in his 30s Stalin rejected his family name (Djugashvili) and changed it to the Russian word for “man of steel.” Stalin had a very harsh upbringing. His father was an alcoholic and often severely beat him and his mother.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976)
Communist leader and father of the People’s Republic of China. Mao presided over the Great Leap Forward of 1958 (the ensuing famine of which caused the deaths of some 30 million peasants,) and the Cultural Revolution of 1966 (which resulted in some million and a half deaths and destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage.) Mao reportedly hated his father, who was a tyrant and regularly and severely beat him and his three siblings.

Adolph Hitler (1889-1945)
Leader of the Nazi Party, Chancellor and fuehrer of Germany, and initiator of World War 2. Hitler presided over the Nazi Holocaust during which 6 million Jews were executed – nearly two thirds of Continental Europe’s Jewish citizenry. Additional victims included communists, the mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals, blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political opponents. As a boy, Hitler’s father severely and regularly beat him; “every day” according to his sister. He was one of 6 children, 3 of whom died in infancy. As an 11 year old boy Hitler was deeply affected by the death of his younger brother, Edmund. Hitler’s antagonistic relationship with his father ended 3 years later when his father died unexpectedly. There was no father figure in his life after this.

Opinion shapers
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. While his father was not abusive, apparently Freud considered him to be a weak man and a disappointment; lacking in courage and unable to provide for his family. Furthermore, according to Paul Vitz, in two letters as an adult Freud writes that his father, Jacob, was “a sexual pervert and that Jacob’s own children suffered as a result.”

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
British naturalist and author of the vastly influential On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The pure naturalism of microbes-to-man evolutionary theory made materialism (atheism) an intellectually respectable option. Darwin’s mother died when he was 8. He was raised by his sisters until he went off to school at age 9. His relationship with his imposing father was ambivalent. He once wrote, “To my deep mortification my father once said to me, ‘you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family’.”

Feminist leaders
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
American birth control activist, sex educator, author, nurse, and racist eugenics proponent. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the US and founded the American Birth Control League, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger grew up in an impoverished home headed by an alcoholic father. She was the 6th of 11 children. Her mother went through 18 pregnancies in 22 years, (including 7 miscarriages,) before dying at the age of 40.

Gloria Steinem (1934- )
American feminist, political activist, and journalist. Steinem was a leading figurehead for the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s and co-founder of Ms. Magazine. Perhaps her best known quote is, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” When Steinem was 10 years old her parents divorced and her father left, leaving her to care for her mentally ill mother.

Bella Abzug (1920-1998)
American feminist, lawyer, congressional representative, and social activist. Abzug was also a leading activist during the 60s and 70s. In her later life she became an influential leader at the United nations working to support womens’ equality around the world. Abzug’s father died when she was 13. She went to the synagogue every morning for a year to recite the traditional mourner’s prayer. This was in defiance of the orthodox synagogue’s tradition that only sons recite the prayer.

Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012)
American feminist thinker and author. Firestone is less well known than the others listed here but she was a central figure in the early development of radical feminism. Her book, The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, has continued to be influential in feminist thought, and is also considered to be an early “post-genderist” work. In the book she argues that it is the biological role of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing that keeps women oppressed. She envisioned the abolition of the nuclear family with its oppressive parent-child relationship, and doing away with the maternal instinct. She envisioned artificial wombs, and collective child-rearing. Not surprisingly, Firestone’s relationship with her controlling, orthodox Jewish father was wildly antagonistic.

Summary
One would be justified in asking if fatherlessness was typical in past centuries, or if the family dynamic was dysfunctional for most people. Author Paul Vitz answers this question by providing a contrasting list of theistic thinkers and influencers. In virtually every case these theists were raised in nurturing, loving environments. When a parent was lost at an early age, relatives or friends stepped up as affirming father figures. Examples Vitz gives include Blaise Pascal, Edmund Burke, William Paley, William Wilberforce, Soren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It would be wrong to assume that all atheists today grew up with a dysfunctional parent relationship. Atheism has now become mainstream and academically respectable. However, I remain convinced that children have a God-ordained right to be nurtured by their married biological parents whenever possible. If you are a parent I hope these stories will strengthen your resolve to stay a loving course in your marriage and parenting.

Happy Father’s day to all the dads reading this! May you be a blessing to your children!

Dad Notes: You Are Having An Impact on Your Kids. Make It Count!

nuclear family 1967

Dad, me (center,) the sibs, and a stylish lamp – 1967

As a young man I never really dreamed of having kids, or even of getting married for that matter. I had been paying attention, and I rarely saw a marriage that looked like an enviable situation to me. I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea, it’s just that I had a lot of other things that I wanted to do. Things that probably wouldn’t provide a reliable means to support a family. Things like being an artist.

Wow, how things changed. Mollie and I will celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary this fall, and our youngest of 5 children graduated high school 2 years ago. I now consider my relationship with my wife and kids to be far and away the best investment of my time, energy, and life that I could have made. I’m so glad we had 5 kids. I really could not have guessed how deeply fulfilling being a dad would be.

When my first son was born, literally when I first laid eyes on him, it was as though a switch got flipped. I embraced fatherhood with a passion. Building a solid marriage and family is hard work, but looking back on my own upbringing I could see that it was as important as any work there is.

Did I do things perfectly? Of course we all know the answer to that…

A bad dad story
Not that I need to prove I’m not perfect, but there was this one day when I took our (then) four kids with me to the grocery store to give mom a break.

We got out of the mini-van, and there was a stray shopping cart right next to the van. I strapped the baby in to the built in car seat, and told my kids I would give them a ride to the store entrance! I told my daughter to stand on the end of the cart and told her to hold on tight. I positioned a boy on either side of the cart and told them to hold on tight.

I told them to hold on tight, not because anything bad was going to happen, but because I was such an awesome and responsible dad.

I started pushing the shopping cart, now loaded down with small children. I remember being a little surprised at how heavy the cart was, and thinking that we were possibly going slightly too fast. But all of my kids were laughing and holding on tightly, and I could tell they were all thinking, “YAY! We have a FUN dad!!!” Plus I couldn’t really slow the cart down anyway. I noticed several people in the parking lot looking at me like I was an idiot, but I didn’t care because I was being awesome and they weren’t.

To my relief, we actually approached the store entrance without hitting any old people or getting backed into by a car. Unfortunately, just as we were slowing down and nearly out of danger, one of the boys decided to hop off the cart. This upset the delicate balance I had created and the cart began to tip. I was not strong enough to hold back the weight of the remaining 3 kids, and the shopping cart tipped completely over, right in front of the supermarket entrance.

There I was, red-faced on the ground with 3 screaming kids, including a baby who was (fortunately) strapped in, upside down in the shopping cart.

I remember being really glad my wife wasn’t there.

Embracing the fatherhood role
My dad was apparently smarter than me. I had a great dad and a very secure, I would even say uneventful, upbringing. No abuse, no feelings of non-acceptance, not even any big hurtful words or moments that I can remember. I took this for granted at the time. It simply fit with the way I thought a dad who claimed to follow Jesus should raise his kids. The love of my parents made the world make sense to me. I have now come to see how unusual my upbringing was.

It almost seems unfair just how much fathers impact the lives of their children. My adult children now lament that, even among their Christian friends, great dads seem to be rare. Many kids grow up warped by dads who were physically and/or emotionally absent, or abusive, or habitually angry, or control freaks, or unaccepting, or too proud to admit when they were wrong.

But there is an upside to how much impact a dad will inevitably have on his kids. The upside is that we can consciously choose to influence our kids for good. We can ask God the Father to give us the heart of a father – the kind of heart that He had in mind when He created the fatherhood role.

As a young parent, my dad’s example was always in the back of my mind, like a north star that I could navigate by when I was unsure of what to do. I think it gave me an added measure of confidence and peace in my parenting as well. But even if your upbringing was troubled, you can still learn from your parents’ mistakes, as our own kids will certainly learn from ours.

May this day inspire you to renew your mind and renew your commitment to be a great father to your children. No one else can do this as well as you.

“…For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8-10.)

A Fun Craft Idea That You & Your Kids Can Make For Your Spouse

arts crafts gift ideas for children

Tiny items on these frames include small erasers, buttons, fake pearls, sea shells, Barbie shoes, beads,  hair barrettes, various game pieces, and a couple of pictures cut out of cereal boxes…

I’m sending this out early enough so that you and your kids can get this done before Mothers’ Day. Or Fathers’ Day. It’s a simple idea, easy to do, and yet the final result is something that will bring a smile to your spouse’s face for years to come.

The end result is a functional picture frame that reflects your child’s unique personality.

When my kids and I made the frames pictured here, my grand scheme was to make a frame with a different kid each year. Their frames still hang in our bedroom. The idea was inspired by looking at a lot of “found object” artwork while I was working as an artist at Hallmark Cards Inc. years ago.

The idea is to completely encrust a bare frame with small found objects of your child’s choosing. I did not disallow created objects, but the overall effect was to end up with a found object piece. One of my kids created a tiny drawing to put on her frame. Some combined objects. One cut up tiny pieces of felt to fill in so that no white spaces showed through on his frame

Your child’s personality will come through in the objects they choose. My oldest son was big into nature, so his frame reflects this, including turquoise-colored aquarium rocks, acorns, and a rubber insect. (Fittingly, his photo features him with his butterfly net.) His younger brother was more into playing with the process and finding things on the street, (which we washed.) My oldest daughter was a girly-girl and wanted lots of pink items and cute things. Even with the differences though, the frames still all look great on the wall together because they all share a similar aesthetic.

There is not much to say about the process. We used Elmer’s glue to attach the items to the frames. I cut my frames out of Foam Core board, but you could use a simple purchased frame. With my last 2 kids I switched from white Foam Core to black Foam Core (below,) since the black isn’t as distracting if the board shows through. My plan was to clear coat the finished encrusted frame to protect the items and to help keep them from falling off over time, (which I will still probably do, perhaps when I retire.) I mounted black and white photos in our frames because the frames themselves were so colorful, I thought black and white photos would stand out better, but that’s just me.

Craft and gift ideas for kids to create

Tiny items on these frames include small toys, pieces from a broken Mouse Trap game, a reflector from a bicycle pedal, costume jewelry, old computer key pad buttons, and Grandpa Walker’s campaign button (which would have otherwise disappeared into oblivion) These two siblings obviously influenced each other…

Below are the dimensions I used for my frames. Of course, you can make yours larger, but if you make a two foot long frame it may take the rest of your kid’s childhood to cover it with small objects!

Found object frame schematic

If you and your spouse share this email and you decide you want to do this, you might want to ask him or her not to read this so as not to spoil the surprise. If you decide to make frames with your kids, I’d love to see the result! Send me a photo of your finished product and I’ll post it on my Big Picture Publishing Facebook page.

Have fun, and happy crafting!

For Father’s Day: My Favorite Dad Story

Recent near-death experiences and other delays have put me behind schedule for releasing the June storybook. So in a good faith effort to post something here, while not taking too much time away from the work that still needs to be done, I’m re-posting my favorite Dad story. This was originally posted last year on my Art & Life Notes blog:

Today I share my all time favorite super-hero-dad story – a true story about my dad. Over 30 years later, I still smile every time I think about it. I hope it makes you smile as well.

First, I must describe my dad because it’s an integral part of the story. Growing up I saw my dad as a pretty impressive figure. More than any other man I knew, his physique most closely resembled the Marvel Comic super-heroes that I followed. My dad was a blue-collar, union guy, working in construction as an iron-worker foreman until the day he retired. This alone impressed me. I knew he spent his days several stories above ground, welding, and carrying heavy bundles of iron across the skeletal I-beams of tall buildings. His job was physically demanding, dangerous, and cool, and I heard him say more than once how much he loved it.

Years of working high up next to the sun had turned his skin dark brown. My sister’s friend once mistook him for a black guy while sitting behind him in church. Viewed from the front, he had blue eyes, and not a hint of the usual construction-worker’s beer gut. In fact, even though my dad was a “man’s man,” I never once heard him swear, or saw him take a drink, or smoke anything. Now that I think of it, I guess I don’t even remember hearing him belch. He was generally soft-spoken, and rarely raised his voice with my mom or us kids. Nobody’s perfect, but my dad at least never gave us reason to think that he doubted his Southern Baptist beliefs.

DAD-blogI think it took my dad a while to grow into being a great dad. I think initially he saw his role as simply being a great provider. My early memories of him are of a large, dark, mostly silent figure either reading the paper, or working around the house. Always on a project and mostly speaking in monosyllables. Or, at the dinner table I would watch in awe, looking up at him as he silently downed vast amounts of food and poured quart sized glasses of white milk down his brown throat. He wasn’t a jerk; he was just mysterious. But mystery is way overrated.

Sometime during my early teenage years, I realized he had undergone a transformation.

He had become totally engaged. He played Saturday morning tennis and Tuesday night volleyball with my siblings and me. He coached my sister’s softball team. But more importantly he began talking and joking around with us. He could be pretty funny. He became a warmer and closer human being.  I could relate to him in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of before.

For example, he was impossible to buy gifts for. What do you buy for a guy like this? Nails? Knives? Ammo? A spittoon? Lava soap? A heavy-duty razor? Meat? Well, unless he was at church he always wore a baseball cap, so one year for Father’s Day I bought him a dark blue hat with bright red plush wings on the side. Like something the Greek god Hermes might wear. I got it as a joke, assuming he would never wear it in public. But, indicative of his astounding midlife personality transformation, he did wear it. And this is also part of my story.

DAD hat blgOne summer, my dad, my brother, and I were all playing on the church softball team together. (Slow-pitch softball would be a sacrament in the Southern Baptist Church, if the SBC had sacraments.) We had a big, night game at a large, lit-up field surrounded by woods. My dad was one of the team’s best players, but on this particular night he was out of uniform, sitting in the stands because he had injured his hamstrings at work. He was wearing the blue hat with the red wings.

It so happened that our team was a couple of guys short that night. The coach went into the stands to try to persuade my dad to play, because otherwise we would have to forfeit the game. But my dad could hardly walk. He agreed though. The plan was to have a pinch-runner for him, and to put him in the bottom of the batting order, so we could at least play the game out.

Eventually it came time for my dad to bat. As he hobbled out to the plate, I heard the crowd murmuring, and I saw someone pointing at dad’s legs. My dad was wearing mid-thigh-length shorts. (This was the 1980’s, after all.) He didn’t realize this, but everyone could clearly see large black and blue bruises on the back of his legs. I have already mentioned how dark my dad was, but I failed to mention that this only applied to his upper body. His legs were as white as the wind-driven snow. He must’ve been in his early 50’s at this point. He was wearing a button down plaid shirt. I’ll just say that with his dark brown arms, plaid shirt, shorts and white bruised legs, and that dorky hat, this was probably not Dad’s most intimidating look.

The manly, uniformed pitcher turned to the outfield and waved the outfielders to move in closer. The manly, uniformed outfielders all moved in closer. I thought to myself, “Hmmm.” My dad took the first pitch. Strike one. On the second pitch my dad beat the snot out of the ball, sending it over the center fielder’s head and into the freaking woods. The whole place erupted. The other team was so hacked, throwing their hats down in the dirt and walking around in little circles with their hands on their hips. Our team was all shouting and cracking up, and the coach, laughing, just waved at my dad to walk the bases himself, since a ball hit into the woods is considered an automatic homer.

I will never forget the sight of my dad literally baby-step-hobbling around the bases, taking F-O-R…E-V-E-RRRRR, which just prolonged the opposing team’s agony. And all with that goofy winged hat on, unintentionally mocking them. As this cartoonish base-rounding formality dragged on, people in the stands were whooping it up and shouting out comments to my dad, it was all so endearingly pathetic. It was like watching a hurried, plaid penguin making its way across dry land.

Then, suddenly, just as we all thought the utter goofiness had reached its climax, the opposing team erupted again, crazily shouting, “THROW IT! THROW IT!!!” The dazed center fielder had emerged from the woods holding the ball. Waking, as if from a dream, eventually he realized that my dad still hadn’t made it around the bases! In fact he had just rounded third. These young bucks were actually going to try to throw the cripple out at home!

The center fielder sprang into action and hit the cut-off man. The cut-off man threw to home, (a bit high.) My dad and the ball arrived at home plate at the same time. But Dad had one more little trick up his plaid sleeve. He executed a perfect hook slide into home, falling away from the catcher as only his toe crossed the plate. The catcher missed the tag. The umpire cried, “SAFE!” Utter pandemonium broke loose. But at this point, even the other team had to start laughing and shaking their heads, and shaking my dad’s hand.

Sometimes you just have to submit to awesomeness.

Happy Father’s Day to my awesome dad!

father and son

My dad and me.