Jewish World Review March 7, 2006 / 7 Adar 5766
Lessons on fatherhood
It's not often, but every once in a while I read a book that makes me laugh, and cry, and everything in between, even in public, so that I have to look around and squeamishly wonder who might be watching.
So it was when I opened just the first few pages of the just-released "To Own a Dragon: Reflections on Growing Up Without a Father," by Donald Miller and John MacMurray .
Most unsolicited books I receive for review head straight for the donation bin if I can't track down the UPS man fast enough to give them back. But this one, this one caught my eye, almost certainly because I'm raising four kids on my own, and wondering every day if I can really have any idea what they are going through. I'm convinced that "To Own a Dragon" gave me a glimpse into their world, and especially the world of my son.
There is so much psychobabble out there about broken families and divorce. Put those aside. While directed at young men without dads and those who are helping to mentor them, there are lessons in "To Own a Dragon" for all of us.
Miller, also the author of the best-selling "Blue Like Jazz" and other books, talks about his journey in looking for male role models. Some were not so great, like the "pothead" landlord's son who got dragooned by Miller's mom into taking him on a father/son campout. And some were terrific, like the youth minister at church who got him interested in writing. One was lifesaving: John MacMurray, whose family he lived with as a young man, where he finally learned that playing "your music as loud as you want and coming home drunk aren't real life. Real life, it turns out, is diapers and lawnmowers, decks that need painting, a wife who needs to be listened to, kids who need to be taught right from wrong, a checkbook, an oil change, laughter at the kitchen table."
Miller's book is sort of a "what a dad, my dad, should have taught me, but what I was finally able to grasp from good male mentors" about responsibility, work, love, relationships, authority, what it means to be a man, and coming to believe that every one of us really matters. He describes reading a book in which Dwight Eisenhower said his mother and father made an assumption that set the course of the general's life: "That the world could be fixed of its problems if every child understood the necessity of their existence."
This proposition, radical to Miller at the time, so different from what he had sensed as a child, set him on a course toward healing and to coming to believe that in a very real way his Heavenly Father was and is "fathering" him.
Miller is a Christian, but writes in a way that is so non-preachy some Christians give him a hard time about it. There's no whining or self-indulgence in the book. Instead, Miller strikes an amazing balance — he rips himself open, sharing extraordinary and often painful insights, and yet never once appears as a candidate for the "Jerry Springer Show."
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At no point did I find myself thinking "too much information." Instead, I found myself believing that he was giving a voice — a hopeful voice — to what my own children and so many other children must be experiencing in navigating a life without their dad.
Miller says the title came from, in a sense, not knowing what he had missed in growing up without a father anymore than he would know what he had missed in not, well, owning a dragon. And yet every page reveals that he does know. He recognizes the tragedy of it, while beautifully reaching for redemption in its midst. That's a rare combination in any discussion of broken families today.
Miller closes by explaining that his hope for writer and reader alike is that they can both be "wounded healers," and so touch others.
Surely for Miller, it's "mission accomplished."
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