One time when I was six years old, my dad shut the car door on my hand. He didn’t see what he had done until the teeth of the clasp had already closed on my fingers and it was too late. But for some reason, I just froze up and didn’t cry at all.
Dad quickly opened the door and made sure I was okay; and then he looked at my hand and said, “I just want you to know I’m so proud of you for not crying about that. You’re a strong little boy.”
At six years old, I believed him.
When I was eight years old, my dad took my brother and me on a hike around our small town in south Mississippi. At one point, we crossed the Leaf River bridge; and for the rest of that scorching summer afternoon, we hiked along the river until my brother and I were too tired to enjoy ourselves anymore. Unfortunately, by that point, the only bridge we could cross without hiking a couple more miles was the bridge used by the train. So my dad made the incredibly foolish decision to cross it with us.
We crossed the railroad bridge one extremely slow step at a time, because in between the railroad ties there was nothing but air. And about 50 feet below the tracks, there was the Leaf River, just waiting for us to slip through the railroad ties and plunge in. My brother and I were rightfully terrified that a train would come, but Dad – ever the survivalist wild man – told us that if that happened, we would all jump in together and he would swim us to the bank of the river.
We prayed desperate prayers for mercy as we crept over the bridge, and when we finally made it to the other side, we cheered for Jesus and ourselves. “You did it, boys,” Dad said, and somehow I knew I could do anything with a little courage and God’s help.
When I was seven, a kid on our block beat me up, and after I pulled myself together, Dad took me into the back room of our apartment to teach me how to fight. He explained how to defend myself, and then he impersonated a bully and started pushing me. I knew what he was trying to do, but somehow it pricked a tender part of me, and I just started sobbing.
He took me into his big arms and said, “It’s okay, son. We don’t have to do this right now. Don’t feel bad. We can figure out how to fight another time.”
And as Dad held me and let me cry, the shame of being beaten up lifted. It was okay for me to cry, it was okay for me to be weak. One day, I would be stronger – and I knew that was true because he said so.
I have not outgrown my father’s affirmations. I recall these stories at age 35 and I feel as strong as I did when he closed that car door on my fingers, as brave as I did when we crossed those train tracks, and proud to be a man who isn’t afraid to cry.
In about thirty minutes, two little girls will wake up, climb out of their bunk beds and come down to see me. I’ll close the laptop, cuddle on the couch with them, and we’ll begin talking. And today, I’ll be especially conscious of the ways I verbally affirm them, knowing that 30 years from now, when they’re all grown up and loving their own children, there’s a good chance they’ll still be hearing my voice.