Friday night was the Daddy-Daughter Dance, sponsored by our Parks and Recreation Department. I had a speaking engagement this time last year, which I discovered isn’t a good enough reason to miss such an event when judged by the mind of your daughter. Abby, my 10-year-old, cried the freshest stream of tears when I told her. Between body quakes she managed to sputter out “I understand,” which wasn’t true. She didn’t understand, and her false statement didn’t stop her deep heaving sobs, the kind you see opera singers make while clutching the skull of their dead husband while lying in a puddle of despair with a heavy spotlight on them. Then to make it worse, she gave me a huge hug, which sealed in a year’s worth of fatherly shame and self-reproach.
So you can understand my Marine-like determination not to miss it this year.
She picked my clothing for me in order to ensure that “we match,” something my sons have never worried about. She chose my black suit, pink shirt, and silver tie. “I haven’t worn a tie in about three years, Baby,” I said. I meant this as a deterrent, as in Dad doesn’t want to wear a tie, Sweetie. But she took it as a compliment. Dad hasn’t worn a tie in a long time, but he’s wearing one for me, said her little thought bubble.
About 150 father-daughter couples filled the large dining room with a dance floor in the middle. As I said it’s Friday night, which ensures that most every man hear put in a full week of work. You see it on our faces. We’re tired: blue collar, white collar, we’re all beat. We seem to set new records in exhaustion with each passing year. But we suck it up, an ability usually handed down from involved fathers to their sons. Or we suck it up because our father’s didn’t give us the attention we thought we deserved, so we’re determined to give our children what we didn’t get. Love is giving someone your undivided attention, and tonight we planned to give it.
They played about five songs before dinner. We danced the Twist, Chicken Dance, Hokey Pokey, and a proven crowd pleaser, the Macarena. Most every girl moved like a budding gymnast from Romania. We fathers looked arthritic, like we carried rough-cut wooden beams across our shoulders. If we knew how to dance, we lost that gifting years ago. Some stomp their feet like horses in a stall. I did my best to mortify Abby by doing what my children call The Stupid Dance. It’s a cross between break dancing and how those hippies moved at Woodstock. I am both rigid and uninhibited at the same time—a marketable form of epilepsy. There were times when Abby looked like she saw a ghost.
“I used to know how to dance,” a friend told me during dinner. “I don’t know what happened.”
“These are the productive years,” I said. “We don’t get paid to be spontaneous. We get paid to be efficient. There’s something very wrong with how we spend most of our day.”
After dinner, the girls melded and danced among themselves, pushing us fathers slowly to the edges of the wooden dance floor. I watched them bounce and sing along to lyrics I don’t know. The tiny glitter on their red faces grabbed even more light as their sweat began to flow, causing the curls in their hair to relax, creating a more natural appearance. They were caught in a rapture of glee.
Unless we change and become like little children, Jesus said, we won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. We don’t exactly know what Jesus was getting at, and so this statement has lead to earnest speculation. For many years I was told that we are supposed to have the innocence of children. That is what gets us into Heaven. I no longer think this is the core of what He meant.
I have seen evil, treachery, and too much dissimulation. My gut has churned due to the sin that has come into my life, some of which I was powerless to stop. I have committed great sin as well. Sometimes I feel like a very old man and I’m only forty. So I’m sorry: the only innocence I’m capable of possessing must be given to me. I cannot “change” into innocence, as I’ve been told in sermons throughout the years. I’m no more capable of changing into innocence than I am of growing a third arm.
And as a coach, I can testify with my hand firmly on a Bible that children aren’t that innocent either. They, too, are capable of great cruelty. Some do so with glee and pride, like some of the worst adults I know.
I think it’s a sense of wonder and spiritedness that Jesus was pointing out with his usual bluntness. Knowing facts about God only goes so far when it comes to following Him. And knowing facts about God, after a while, isn’t enough to grab our allegiance for the long haul. Some of the coldest-hearted people I know claim to possess the cleanest and most fastidious theology. They have their facts about God down cold; yet I cannot picture them dancing with their daughters. I don’t see them smile or laugh much either. They are not keepers of wonder. Many are purveyors of anti-wonder.
“The sense of wonder,” wrote D.H. Lawrence, “that is our sixth sense. And it is the natural religious sense.” Wonder brings us a sense of gratitude, and it protects us against spiritual claustrophobia, which over-domesticates, turning us into pleasant and innocuous men instead of warriors of light. Wonder provides spiritual eagerness, willingness and readiness. It gives us a dynamic spiritual edge.
As we walked to our car, Abby pulled my right arm back, stopping me so she could give me a spontaneous kiss. I’m not going to tell you what she said because that’s between us. But I can tell that what she said and what I saw this night was what working stiffs low on wonder needs to experience on a winter’s Friday night.
Paul Coughlin is the author of No More Christian Nice Guy, and the upcoming, No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps: Raising Secure, Assertive Kids in a Tough World (June 2007). He is the co-author along with his wife Sandy of Married But Not Engaged. He's also a founding member of GodMen (www.godmen.com). To have Paul speak at your men's event, contact him at www.christianniceguy.com. Sandy can be reached at http://reluctantentertainer.blogspot.com/