July 13, 2024

By Jake Geis

“My heroes have always been cowboys,” says the old Willie Nelson song. American culture is fascinated with this figure, even if those of us that “cowboy” today know the greatest danger isn’t bandits but an angry momma cow. And for most men today, that handsome figure of the lone cowboy, risking life to bring good to a difficult time, seems distant. Very little feels dashing about fixing a leaky water tank, punching eight hours on the time clock or changing diapers. Our heated homes with soft mattresses are a far cry from crawling into a bedroll under the prairie sky.

But for many of the men reading this column, we rank above this celebrated figure to a handful of small people. Ask any little child who’s the toughest man alive, and I’ll bet you they’ll respond with, “My dad!” They’ve watched him loosen a bolt they thought was stuck, experienced zero gravity as he flung them into the air, and felt the safety of his embrace as he caught them on the way down. In a child’s mind, daddy is unstoppable.

We might look at this hero worship as a cute nuance of childhood and nothing more. But exploring deeper should give us pause. Do we deserve this elevation?

Most likely not. Actually living as a hero father is a radical departure from self-absorbed modern Western culture. It requires us to put our wife and kids first, and our wants second. 

For a heroic alternative, consider St. Joseph as the model. Wedding the pregnant Mary was not his ideal situation. Hiding in Egypt to protect Jesus was no cakewalk either. And despite his immense responsibility and privilege of being the earthly father to the Messiah, he never boasts of it; he lives a quiet life. His actions show his priorities—God, family and then himself.

If we are serious about being the kind of father our kids think we are, our actions should show it as well. Our own words can be our report card. If someone asks how involved you are in your children’s life, can you list specific examples of what you do every day with your children, or is parenting an occasional activity? Saying, “I try to help my wife with the kids” is a lame statement. It implies she does the lion’s share of the work of parenting and you are just the backup quarterback. What is keeping you from doing this important job?

For some men, it’s an idle diversion. Put a screen-time app on your phone and see how many hours per day you are absorbed in it. Ask yourself which you know better—the Twins starting lineup or your kids’ teachers?

Work itself is good, but it shouldn’t be a god to us. If you’re the guy working 12-hour days to stave off the wolf at the door, this doesn’t apply to you; you are sacrificing greatly just to keep your family above water. But if skipping overtime won’t lead to an eviction notice, take a hard look in the mirror. Why are you working 80-hour weeks or taking on that next quarter-section to farm? The world is awash in successful businessmen, but it is desperately short of good fathers.

An additional hurdle is the culture that views fatherhood as unglamorous. Going to your kid’s concert is a chore, working until midnight gets you a pat on the back. The dad is the punchline of every sitcom. Fathers’ Day is considered a joke, supposedly celebrated with a dorky tie.

But what should we expect from a world that is filled with cynicism and ugliness? The irreverent and outrageous are hip, pleasure trumps joy and self-sacrifice is for losers. No wonder depression is at an all-time high.

Yet, Christian fatherhood offers us a door to something better. St. Joseph missed out on many pleasures of this life, but he gained decades with his ever-gracious wife and his precious son. By practicing the self-giving love of a good father, you, too, can see true beauty in the ordinary life. The giggles of your children during playtime are the balm that heals countless scars on our heart.

Jake Geis is a freelance writer and parishioner at Holy Spirit in Mitchell. He is a husband and father who has taught religious education and led youth groups over the years.

The hero cowboy in Willie’s song is a wretched figure. The hero dad is beloved, remembered for generations. If you ditch the self-absorption of today’s culture and embrace the self-sacrifice of a fatherhood like St. Joseph’s, you will find beauty, peace and joy in the eyes of your children that will surpass any pleasure this fickle world offers.