I read in Dr. James P. Gills' Rx for Worry that the human brain "can function at 10 thousand trillion computations per second," and that had better be true because otherwise it would be impossible to pick a Father's Day card.
The moral decision-making begins before you get to the store. Should I even do this thing---pay a faceless hack to write words he doesn't mean to a person he doesn't know? Weren't we appalled when Christian passed off Cyrano's poems to Roxane as his own? Didn't we find it incredible in the gospels that they had paid mourners at that little girl's funeral? But here we are doing virtually the same thing and everybody's OK with this?
I remember the time before God set a fire under Glenn Beck and he would just fool around for three hours on the radio while I made sandwiches at the café. He used to have a show just before Valentine's Day where desperate and terrified men who had forgotten to get their wives a gift would call in. Beck had a form letter for them to hastily fill in the blanks, at his gentle if wry coaching. Example: "The first time I laid eyes on you, ________." In typical mannish fashion, the whole business was disposed of in five minutes, and then sent off to the little lady with a bouquet.
If you made it to the CVS, you are not out of the woods yet. The card aisle has responded to the vicissitudes of culture more reliably than a Barna survey team. You will find cards for blended family dads, men who are "like a dad," and sweethearts who are dads by other women they have known. I just wanted one for my pre-cultural revolution dad.
The aim is to honor. The aim is to encourage. But if the card is a boldfaced lie, it would embarrass the two of you. I jotted down a few texts that would not be appropriate for every relationship:
"I'm thinking of your kindness, your patience, and your wisdom---those qualities of yours that helped shape the person I am today."
"You have always put your family first and done whatever you could to give us comfort and security."
"Dad, whether you were cheering in the stands or coaching from the sidelines, you've always been there---urging me to do my best and to keep on trying no matter what."
One artful dodge from the awkward truth between the two of you is to go to the funny section:
"You know why Father's Day is in June? Because about a month after Mother's Day somebody went, 'Hey, wait a minute.'"
"Thought you'd appreciate some cheap gas on Father's Day" (This is accompanied by a sketch of a pyramid of cans of beans.)
Or, you can go the self-referential route and avoid the subject of parenting altogether, as in a card that had a dramatic before-and-after sketch of dear old dad on the front, and inside:
"Wasn't I worth it?"
I was pretty happy with the Mother's Day card my daughter got me last month till this morning's card-shopping expedition, where I observed all these careful choices. That's when I thought back about what my card said and what it didn't. I have to hand it to her: She found a selection that said the most positive thing she could about me without incurring the charge of false testimony. What a bind my mothering transgressions put the poor child in.
My daughter is a counselor by profession. And isn't this what counseling is about, after all---the art of encouraging while not dissembling. My son calls it giving a "compliment sandwich," a criticism tucked between two commendations for something. When you think of it, there are an infinite number of possibilities of things that can be said. Many are true but not helpful. Many seem nice but are fool's gold. Oh for more wisdom to know how to read between the lines. And for righteous lives so that we won't have to dread the holidays.
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