6 min read

The really annoying thing about dying

In his first Notes from Solitude, the death of his dad causes Roger Bretherton to reflect on the relationship and the strange emergence of 'father’.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A pocket watch rests next to a black and white photograph of a father lying beside a new born baby.
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.

The death of my dad was sudden and unexpected. I don’t know why it is that, from the moment he died, I have had to fight the almost irresistible urge to refer to him as father- a term of address I never used about him or to him during his life.  

Perhaps in some psychotherapy session at some point my therapist referred to my ‘father’, and I may have followed suit. And maybe occasionally when socialising with those who seemed a cut above my largely lower-middle class background, I called him father so as to avoid the flat northern vowel sounds that would expose me as an interloper. But that was just to fit in- on all other occasions he was decidedly not father and definitely just good old plain, dad.  

At death he became a classic, a museum piece, a part of history, not the dad who taught me how to ride a bike.

But for some reason the moment he died, it felt like dad wasn’t enough. I now had to call him father - those were the rules. At death he became a classic, a museum piece, a part of history, not the dad who taught me how to ride a bike by panting and sweating my five-year old self round the block, but the father who taught me to be… a man, or something like that.  

The F-word has gravitas, presence, authority. Dads are human, often bewildered, occasionally pissed off, eminently huggable, easily taken for granted - just there. Admittedly, Freud would have lost significant gravitas if oedipal theory had considered common-all-garden dads and not cigar-smoking brandy-swilling fathers. And no doubt the climactic scene of The Empire Strikes Back would have lacked considerable pathos had Darth Vader casually quipped, ‘No Luke, I’m your’re Dad’.  

The curse of the martyr, write Albert Camus, was to have other people tell their story. The principle doesn’t just apply to martyrs, it’s true of all those who die. To be dead is to become a character in other people’s anecdotes. That’s the really annoying thing about dying, we become a topic of gossip, people get to talk about us without the courtesy of ever having to talk to us. We become object, no longer subject. I think that’s why I resist calling my late Dad, Father. It objectifies him, makes of him something that he wasn’t. It, most definitely fails to do justice to all that he meant to me. 

She simply said, ‘It’s your Dad’, and held me tight in a hug that lasted longer than usually permitted in polite company. 

I say he died suddenly. It was a Sunday morning. I was in church at the time. Actually, worse than that, I was on stage speaking to a church. As a psychologist working in academia, I teach and train all kinds of people in every kind of organisation imaginable, but every now and then I get to speak in churches.  

On this occasion I was talking about character, the positive qualities of being – like love, gratitude, hope, wisdom and so on – that make life worth living. When I stepped off the stage my wife was waving to me from the back of the room, which was weird given that we don’t go to that church and she hadn’t come with me. When I wandered to the back of the auditorium wearing my ‘what are you doing here?’ face, she simply said, ‘It’s your Dad’, and held me tight in a hug that lasted longer than usually permitted in polite company. For someone who prides himself on social insight, it shames me to say that it took a while for the penny to drop. We were in the car with the engine running before it finally dawned on me what she meant. 

I try not to make too much of divine timings or fate, but there was something odd in the timing of getting that news. In that month I had addressed church congregations three Sundays in a row- which, as someone who is generally lazy and prefers not to work weekends, is an unusually intense frequency. But over three successive Sundays I had reflected aloud with those congregations that there were prayers that had accompanied the various stages of my life. Prayers that I found myself praying, almost as if they were prayed through me, as if they had chosen me rather than I they.  

In my twenties I had found myself praying as regularly as a heartbeat, ‘God do whatever you need to do with me, to make me into the person you would like me to be.’ It was a radical invitation for God to put me through whatever was needed to become who I was meant to be. But then the prayer faded. Its visit was over, it had done its work and it moved on. But as I addressed the congregations on those three Sundays I mused aloud that while the prayer of my twenties had departed decades before, I found a new prayer stirring in my forties. Now as the father of teenage boys, my new prayer was, ‘God do whatever you need to do with me to make me the father you would like me to be.’  

In the weeks that followed, people asked me whether I had had a good relationship with my dad. The most accurately answer was: we had the best relationship of which we were both capable. We both tried in our own ways to deepen our connection, but we were like the lovers in a romantic comedy; we always managed to miss each other. When he tried with me, I didn’t want to know. For several years, he left a book lying around at home that he wanted me to read. I never saw anyone touch it, but it moved around the house under its own steam. It was by my bedside, in the toilet, on the dining room table…  Macavity the Mystery Cat would have been proud. It was called, Things We Wish We Had Said. We may have wished, but we didn’t say. I never read it. Years later, when I tried with him, he was too flustered to respond. Both of us in our own ways lacked the courage to connect any deeper. But I was never in any doubt that he loved me, and I him. 

When he was alive I was most aware of how different we were. I defined myself in opposition to whatever he was. If he was gentle, I was assertive. If he was indecisive, I was ambitious.

He died of a heart attack on a Sunday morning asleep in bed, while my Mum was at church. Almost immediately his absence prompted a profound change of consciousness in me. When he was alive I was most aware of how different we were. I defined myself in opposition to whatever he was. If he was gentle, I was assertive. If he was indecisive, I was ambitious. If he was inexpressive, I was articulate. If he was like that, I was like this. And yet, almost at the very moment of his death, a reversal of awareness occurred. I started to see just how very much like him I was. His gentleness, his uncertainty, his scepticism, his care, his humour, were all mine. 

There is a rule in family therapy, that adult children relating to their parents should set their expectations to zero. We never truly see our parents until we stop viewing them through the lens of our own desires; what we wanted from them but never got. Until we do that our lives don’t really work, we sit around waiting for an impossible transformation, a payday that never comes, the moment our parents become exactly how we would like them to be, not as they are. For me, that moment of acceptance for dad only came when he was gone, I accepted him as he was when there was nothing left to accept. I don’t write this with any great sense of guilt or regret at opportunities lost, more with a sense of gratitude for what was given but often taken for granted.  

Oddly though, in the shadow of that seismic shift in my interior furniture, I detected the stirrings of an answer to my own prayer to be a better father. No longer compelled to define myself in contrast to what he was, I was freed to be what I was- both like and unlike him, and to be fair, more like him than I cared to admit. At some visceral level I came to appreciate how much of myself originated with him. I came to accept myself as a dad and my dad as a father.

1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 


How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.