How is it possible for a guy to be a committed follower of Jesus like I was for thirty-six years and still miss out on the life offered to him through Christ? For me, the explanation goes back to my childhood. I grew up in Indiana, a Baby Boomer in the heartland. But my boyhood didn’t look much like Leave It to Beaver or anything else on TV in those days.
My dad came back from World War II and, like many of the guys from the Greatest Generation, he had to find a job. He had a background and great interest in music and the arts, but during the postwar boom, sales offered a better way to feed a growing family, so my dad became a road warrior—gone Monday through Friday, calling on customers all over the state, then coming home on the weekends. In later years, I would come to understand a little bit of his resentment at never having a chance to pursue his dreams. As Dad put it, he never got the breaks.
Over the years, to stick a band-aid on his inner hurts, he started drinking. He spent the majority of his time at home in some stage of intoxication. Unfortunately, liquor didn’t mellow Dad out; it just made him meaner.
I was the oldest of three boys, so during the week I was pretty much the man of the house, as far as my mom and brothers were concerned. That also meant that on the weekends, when Dad was home, I became the focal point for his resentment of his lot in life. I grew up feeling that nothing I did suited him. I just couldn’t measure up, somehow. I was lazy, or dumb, or too slow bringing in the newspaper, or whatever. There was never any physical abuse, but his words cut me like a whip. He was verbally abusive of me, my mom, and my brothers.
I remember that our house had these walls made of knotty pine, but at night, my brothers and I could hear Dad arguing with Mom in the kitchen, through the walls. His voice would get angrier and louder as the night wore on into the wee hours, and the hot shame of his accusations came right through the walls and into me.
The one thing we didn’t dare to do was leave our rooms to go in and ask him to ease off. I used to wonder what horrible thing might happen if I actually tried to stand up to him. The prospect was too awful to think about, so I never did it, and my younger brothers certainly didn’t. Dad would tie into Mom about me: Why is Wally so messed up? Why can’t he do anything right? How come nobody around here is on my team? And on and on—it got to seem like a broken record.
My mom would try to defend me, but Dad would just crank up the volume. A few times, it got so loud that my brothers and I would sneak out our bedroom windows to go sleep at the neighbors’. I remember once or twice, Dad stomped out of the house in a rage, and we locked the door behind him. He came back with a sledgehammer and started yelling that he was going to break the door down. Somebody called the police on him and the squad cars arrived, lights flashing, to put an end to the embarrassing and frightening spectacle.
I don’t ever remember my dad apologizing for any of it, either. In fact, nobody ever mentioned the episodes—ever. I guess it was supposed to be like it never happened. But the damage wreaked inside me was real. Why am I so messed up? What’s wrong with me? The questions ground at my insides, day after day, but I couldn’t find any answers. Eventually, just to survive, I learned to shut my emotions down. I tried to make myself not care. The trouble with repressed anger and guilt, though, is that it’s like radioactive waste. It just lies there, sometimes for decades, waiting for a chance to leak out of its container.
In the meantime, what I felt was this burning need inside to prove to him that I was okay—and somehow, redeem myself. I would show him that I could be somebody he was proud of. Most of us will do just about anything to meet those deepest longings for significance and security. Mine was tethered to performance.