I’m certain we could learn a lot from silverback gorillas. Not about grooming habits, but about the way they care for their young.
The movie Instinct stars Anthony Hopkins as an anthropologist who lives among a community of gorillas for two years. He starts out as a detached observer, but it isn’t long before they win over his heart. He admires and adores these powerful yet gentle creatures and is especially touched by their undying devotion to their young.
Gradually, he is accepted as one of them.
One day, sitting among the gorillas as they groom themselves and nibble away at leaves, he becomes aware of a constant, attentive gaze that embraces them all. The gaze was coming from the “silverback,” the name given to the chief male—the elder or overseer—of the gorilla clan. His job is to protect and maintain order.
“It’s an amazing experience—the feeling of being watched over,” the anthropologist observed.
The gravity of that simple statement struck me. I wonder . . . do our children feel “watched over” by their fathers . . . and in this manner?
I think a lot of kids feel “watched,” but not “watched over.” To me there’s a huge difference. To be “watched” implies a suspicious, critical eye. “Watching over” combines guidance with compassion.
Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly, has this to say:
In the quiet hours of the night when I add up the accomplishments of my life, those things that rank first, in terms of true success, have to do with my children. To the degree I have loved, nurtured, and enjoyed them, I honor myself. To the degree I have injured them by my obsessive preoccupations with myself, with my profession, I have failed as a father and a man. The health, vitality, and happiness of the family is the yardstick by which a man, a woman, a society should measure success.
To the dismay of many men and their children, that lesson is typically learned in hindsight. One such father put it this way: “Men fall into the trap of believing what their family needs most is a secure financial foundation. This isn’t so. The foundation comes from the heart, not the wallet.”
Turning again to Keen: “We learn to trust in a world that contains evil when we come crying with a skinned knee and are held, hurting, in arms; and the voice that is forever assuring us, ‘Everything is going to be all right.’”
Boys learn how to use their masculinity—in both positive and negative ways—by watching their fathers. Keen says, “A boy naturally learns how to be a man by observing how his father treats women, how he deals with illness, failure, and success, whether he shares in the household chores, whether he cuddles and plays.”
Keen mentions how his priorities as a father have gradually changed. “First time round as a father I had truckloads of rules, oughts, ideals, and explanations—all of which kept me at arm’s length from my children . . . . Lately I have come to believe that the best thing I can give my children is an honest account of what I feel, think, and experience, to invite them into my inner world.”
We frequently hear the term “the absent father.” This doesn’t necessarily refer to the actual physical absence of a father. It can also refer to emotional absence. Children need to feel that there’s a special place in their dad’s heart reserved just for them. They need to see a certain delight in his eyes when they talk to him about their day or when they share their dreams and achievements with him. They hunger for his full attention—chunks of time in which he’s not distracted by schedules or electronic devices.
They need to see their father as powerful, but not “powerful” as in domination or through tough displays of fierceness or force. A father of young children once told me that good fathers are good leaders and that being a good leader requires a delicate balancing act. He said, “I must maintain an air of authority, but I have to be the right type of authority. I’m learning that the best leaders lead without squashing the spirit.”
So, good fathering is about a warm and receptive heart. It’s about being involved and interested. It’s attentive to needs and distresses. It nourishes self-worth. It protects, guides and maintains order. It’s about cherishing and listening. It models strength, self-restraint and kindness. It comforts when there are tears. It accepts when there are mistakes and failures.
Being watched over is an amazing experience! The world needs more “silverback” fathers, wouldn’t you say?
© 2020 Salee Reese