I went hunting with a group of dads in 2002. One of the dads was a work associate named Ted, and he brought his 16 year old son, Aaron. By the end of the hunting trip, I thought Ted was the worst dad of a teenage boy on the face of the planet. Two years later, I thought the exact opposite. (This is a long post, but a good one.)
First I should explain how I hunt. I’m a gun owner, but not really a gun enthusiast. I’m not trigger happy and I don’t like hunting with those who are. And I enjoy the actual hunting, sure, but just as much are the campfire conversations and card games in the outfitters tent. This year we had a particularly large party of hunters – about 20 of us – and 16-year-old Aaron was the loudest of them all.
He said he was going to sleep with his gun just in case a bear tried to break in the tent. He tried to take out targets and shoot them the day before the hunt. He argued with those of us who said no-way. When conversations would start up about hunting stories – some of the same stories we’ve told for years, real good ones from some of the seasoned hunters – Aaron (16 years old, mind you, on perhaps his second hunting trip of his life) would jump in and try to top them. By the end of the first day, we were fed up with Aaron.
And his dad seemed to be in the clouds. For the most part, Ted ignored Aaron, only intervening when his son was way over the top and one of the hunting party thought they’d have to take on Ted’s parenting for him. Ted would even coddle his son’s rotten (and arguably dangerous) behavior. By the end of the week, we had a very poor opinion of Ted’s fathering abilities.
Good thing we didn’t hunt together. We disbanded during the days to enjoy the hunt, and we actually did have a nice time for the remainder of the week. It’s when we returned to the campfire, that’s what none of us really looked forward to. It put a damper on the entire week.
When we returned to the office, life continued in a working relationship just fine. I never invited Ted back hunting, and he never asked.
The story gets interesting two years later, and it has absolutely nothing to do with hunting or Ted or his son.
My wife, Wendy, and I went through one of the most difficult trials of our lifetime. Our oldest daughter at 19 started to rebel, run headfirst into a self-destructive lifestyle. When I shared my trial with some of my co-workers, none of them seemed to understand or give me any good advice. The office was filled with young parents who hadn’t the foggiest the problem I was dealing with.
Seriously, losing a child to a lifestyle where they are abusive and destructive to themselves is incredibly painful. You really have no idea until it hits you. Wendy and I eventually wrote a book about this called Love in the House that explores more deeply the subject, but let me just tell you now: this situation rocked our world. When I was seeking guidance from my boss (who also had only small children), he asked, “Have you talked with Ted?”
Ted? The one who can’t get control over his son? No, I hadn’t even thought of it. “Ted has a daughter who did the same thing a couple years ago,” my boss said. “You should talk with him.”
I did, and I’ll never forget the spirit of the conversation. We took an afternoon off and shared our stories. His daughter was on the other end of her rebellious stint, so I found great comfort talking with someone who experienced what I was experiencing. He understood my pain, he listened, and had the kind of advice that no one else could give. His relationship with his daughter had healed by this time, but he remembered all too well how his life was falling in around him. He understood exactly where I was emotionally because he had walked in those same shoes two years before.
“When did this all happen?” I asked him. I put the timeline together in my head. It was right about the time we went hunting.
“About the fall of 2002,” Ted replied. “The news of it all hit my family the week before our hunting trip. It was particularly hard on Aaron. He had a wonderful relationship with his sister. That hunting trip was much more than hunting for us. We really needed that time to sort things out.”
With this bit of news, I started to profusely apologize to Ted. I cried a little. “I had no idea,” I confessed. I think I called myself an ass. Here I was in immense emotional pain with an old friend who, just two years prior, was in the exact same position. He was being a friend. Back then, I was being a judgmental jerk.
Ted was gracious, totally understanding. “Oh, good grief, forget about it,” he insisted with a wave of his hand. What a great guy. And from just one bit of perspective that 20 guys around a campfire never even considered, Ted was a great dad.
This story has little to do with hunting or parenting. It’s about judgment. When we judge others, we close the door to the one we’re judging, we cut off understanding or growth. With Ted and his son, Aaron, there was a bigger and deeper issue going on – one that I could have learned much from – but I was too wadded up in judgment to see any better.
I remember that story often, though I’ve not shared it till now. Thanks for bearing with me, it is a long one but a good one. Share this with others, please do, because I’m convinced that there is great freedom and joy in a life free of condemnation and judgment.