Looking for a Daddy, in All the Wrong Places

The rising popularity of single player games has led to a new phenomenon: Players looking for something more will join an online multiplayer game with the goal of finding a daddy. This narrative is so prevalent that developers are actually adding father figures as playable characters in their own games.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, author of several spirituality books, and organizer of men’s retreats, is a well-known figure today. But, in the early 1980s, he was only beginning out as a writer, having recently published his first book about the male initiation process. As a result, Fr. Rohr was taken aback when he entered a church in Nuremberg, Germany, while on a book tour, and discovered that the event had drawn a large crowd. From front to back, the rows were packed with men. The aisles and sanctuary were overflowing with men. 

Rohr opened the floor to questions after delivering a lecture to the rapt, mostly male crowd. “Father, we appreciate you for coming here today,” a young guy rose up and said. Then he said, stretching one arm to the right and the other to the left:

We are the sons without dads, the grandchildren. During the First World War, we assassinated all of our grandfathers. During WWII, we assassinated all of our dads. That is why this church is so full today. We have no idea how to accomplish it. 

“You could have heard a pin drop,” Rohr said of the time during his participation on the AoM podcast.

It was at that point that Rohr truly recognized the relevance of a topic about which he had written and spoken for decades: the father wound.

What Is the Father Wound, and How Does It Affect You?

According to some psychologists and spiritual leaders, everyone is born with a “father hunger” — a desire to be affirmed, approved, known, understood, and loved by one’s paternal parent, as well as to grow up with a sense of strength and authority that, while not overbearing, provides the kind of structure that allows a child to thrive and take flight. This father hunger becomes a father wound when a child doesn’t receive this kind of masculine nurturing — whether because Dad wasn’t around because of divorce, abandonment, or death, or because he was nominally present but functionally absent because he prioritized work, greatly favored a sibling, or was outright abusive —

A father’s wound causes a sensation of emptiness that may last a person’s whole life, even if they don’t always identify it for what it is or can’t put a name to it.

While a mother’s neglect may cause a “mother wound,” Rohr writes in From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality that a father’s particular bond with his children makes his love especially treasured, and so generates a uniquely sharp swath of harm when it isn’t given:

Our father’s reaction to us is the first reaction of a “outsider.” From the womb to the breast, Mom’s love is centered on the body. Because it is expected, taken for granted, and depended upon intuitively, a foundational’mother wound’ may be much more destructive to one’s core. Because she is your first clear God image and Divine security, it seems like God has died when one’s good mother dies.

 

Dad, on the other hand, is the other person in the home, and he’s a little farther away. He is not obligated to adore you. Unlike Mother love, his love is not intrinsically sensed and called upon. He must make the decision to adore you! He chooses you, he singles you out from the crowd, he recognizes you amid the many. As a result, it redeems, liberates, and thrills in a whole other manner. That is masculine love’s one-of-a-kind transformational experience. It truly confirms and affirms us precisely because it isn’t required.

“A profound pain, a deprivation that leads to a bad sense of one’s own center and limits, a mind that is distant from one’s body and emotions, a life frequently with the passivity of an extinguished fire,” Rohr claims of not getting a father’s uniquely chosen affirmation.

He claims that both boys and girls need the male energy that comes from a father’s love; without it, “they would lack self-confidence and the strength to achieve, to carry through, to trust themselves — because they were never trusted by him.”

This effect is particularly pronounced for males, according to Rohr, since a parent’s lack of nurturing has the greatest impact on a kid of the same gender: 

We don’t seem to be able to be ourselves, our own man, or our own father, until we’ve been someone else’s young boy. We need him to like us, to bless us despite our flaws, to enjoy our company, and to believe in our ability to achieve. Separation from one who is similar to us (our father) is in some ways much more devastating than separation from one who is diametrically opposed to us (our mother). If masculinity doesn’t like me, I’ll always be uneasy about my own. His affirmation is ten times more valuable than any other man’s, and it is of a totally different caliber than a woman’s affirmation.

How Does the Father Wound Show Up?

When a man grows up without his father’s approval, he looks for it elsewhere. This may present itself in its most severe and destructive form as a turn to crime. This was a lesson that Rohr was taught most profoundly via a tale given to him by a nun who worked in a Peruvian male prison:

During her first year in jail, she told how the guys in the institution continued requesting her for Mother’s Day cards as Mother’s Day approached. She brought boxes and boxes of cards for the inmates to give to Mama, but she never seemed to have enough. As Father’s Day neared, she decided to stock up on Father’s Day cards in anticipation of the flood of requests. But, she reminded me, the case is still in her office. She didn’t get a single Father’s Day card from any of the men she met. She wasn’t even able to give them away.

She recognized at that point — and she told me this tale with tears in her eyes — that the majority of the guys in prison were there because they lacked dads. They weren’t orphans, but they’d never had a father. They had never recognized themselves as sons of men who adored them, had never had a profound sense of secure identity, and had never experienced the primordial excitement that comes with growing up in close proximity to an older, more secure guy. As a result, they spent their lives deviously and destructively attempting to become men. They were insecure guys who had to show their masculinity since no one had ever told them so. Acts of lawlessness, resistance, and violence were generally the result of their negative acting out.

 

Men who have a father wound may try to show themselves as men in more socially acceptable ways, such as via physical fitness, sexual conquests, riches, and professional standing. These guys are pushed not just by a subconscious need for their father to acknowledge them and pat them on the back, but also by a desire to show that they’ve made it as men. They’re always saying, “Daddy! Daddy!” in a way. “Take a look at me!”

Having a chip on one’s shoulder isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the motivation it provides may be channeled towards achieving positive objectives. Winston Churchill’s entire career, for example, can be traced back to the fact that he was never affirmed by a father who alternately ignored and harshly criticized him; even after his father died when Winston was only 21 years old, a deep yearning for paternal approval and admiration drove him to reach the pinnacles of power, and the world is a better place as a result.

However, this shoulder chip has the potential to propel men into a never-ending, meaningless quest for worldly prosperity. A void produced by a lack of love can never be filled by money, fame, or prestige, and when a man’s achievements don’t satisfy him, he only strives harder, which only adds to his feelings of emptiness and melancholy. A man’s persistent pursuit of external success may destroy the other elements of his life that, even if they don’t totally heal the father wound, go the farthest in nourishing his soul, including, paradoxically, his capacity to be a good father to his own children. 

I’m looking for a Daddy

“Every male connection will somehow represent our unfulfilled father, for good or evil,” Rohr argues, without the validation of one’s father.

The transferring of a man’s father hunger onto other men is another way that a father wound expresses itself. Friends, coaches, instructors, employers, and pastors are all places where wounded men seek parental acceptance and nurturing. This need for mentoring isn’t always a negative thing; in fact, even boys who have positive connections with their dads want other male role models. 

The intensity of a desire to be fathered, on the other hand, might lead to unhealthy ties. A young guy joins a gang to get the acceptance he seeks, despite the fact that it’s “an exercise in futility, seventeen-year-old boys trying to receive father energy from other seventeen-year-old boys,” as Rohr points out. When an employee becomes a “yes guy,” he is eager to go above and beyond to satisfy his employer. A young guy falls prey to a minister’s machinations, who promises him fatherly affection… coupled with cruelty.

Men who have lost a parent are more likely to show excessive attachment to prominent personalities. They seek to social media celebrities for their marching orders, often referring to them as “uncle” to hide their need for parental approval. They see politicians as more than just elected officials; they regard them as father figures. As a result, strong male leaders, who essentially function as replacement fathers, figures who provide a feeling of paternal authority, power, and stability, and who promise to return to a guy the respect he grew up without, have a special appeal. No politician deserves the type of all-in adulation and unquestioning fealty that men give to such leaders. “These believers would do nearly anything for the certainty and comfort that ‘Daddy’s’ acceptance provides,” Rohr observed.

 

As a result, dealing with a father’s wound isn’t simple; it’s like walking a tightrope. 

Only the love of one’s own father can really heal such a hurt. There is nothing further that can be done, and that truth must be acknowledged. It’s a common adage that time cures all wounds, but this isn’t always the case. Wounds just get less raw and gaping as time passes; they heal, but the scar remains. The harsh fact is that a father’s hurt is like a limp, a lifelong handicap. However, it may be noticed, dealt with, and minimized to the point where it only has a little impact on a man’s stride and is nearly invisible. Finding mentors and role models, as well as advisers who can help a guy regain as much “mobility” as possible, is part of the mitigating process. 

However, putting too much faith in such father figures might backfire. The mentorship one wants cannot be overbearing, urgent, or burdened with unrealistic expectations that will only lead to disillusionment and worse. 

The same young guy who came up to explain that the chapel was so full because Germany was filled by men orphaned by war, as Rohr recalls his presentation at the Nuremberg cathedral, added another insight to his remarks: “We wanted a father so badly that we selected a horrible parent.” “Of course, everyone understood [who] he was referring about,” Rohr adds.

Don’t forget to listen to Fr. Rohr’s podcast: