I watched a 4-part documentary called 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki. It was based on the renowned japanese anime director (known for his movies like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neigbor Totoro). I’m not exactly a huge fan of anime, but his storytelling in his films and creative process captivated me.

I was struck by two things:

  1. His par excellent devotion to the craft.
  2. He was a lousy father.


His adult son works with him in Studio Ghibli. His son premiered one of his very own film. Midway through the show, Hayao is seen walking out of the cinema. Hayao speaks to the director of the documentary and says, “His show is too similar to my work… He shouldn’t make a film based on his emotions.” When the crowd comes out, someone walks to Hayao and says, “”(Your son) has made quite a philosophical film…” but Hayao walks away. Hayao then speaks to the documentarian, “You have to change the world with film… Otherwise, what’s the point?”

The painful part about Hayao’s assessment was that he might be right… and entirely disconnected from his role as a father.


Ethics Before Excellence

Some might say that’s the price you have to pay in order to achieve top performance. But excellence without the ethics of care is not fatherhood. Excellence without fathering leaves father-wounds, a kind of inner-vacuum that gnaws at you that a life-time of professional achievement cannot fix.

What’s even more painful is that Hayao and his relationship with his son speaks closer to home that I wish to admit. When I pour my energy to my work, when I come home, all I’m left for my kids and wife are crumbs. I get short, I can’t play, I can’t be a father. My excuse? “I’ve already done what a father should do in the daytime. I provide. “

But what do I really provide? What kind of future am I really providing?

Become a Father-Figure

How do you become a father? A child comes into the picture.

How do you become a father-figure? A child chisels you, breaks your well-intended expectations and inflicts backaches and heartbreaks.

How do you become a father-figure in the family? You lead.

How do you become a father-figure if you have no child? You lead.

Both responses are the same.

The thing is, you may be a father without being a father-figure, and you can be a father-figure without being a father.

Some of the most significant father-figures in my life were not fathers; a few were females.

The call for each of us to become father-figures is to become leaders who guide, mentor and support others at home and in the wider community. The call is not easy, because leadership requires both contemplative action and active contemplation.

The Good Ancestor

Jonas Salk was a junior medical researcher and he was ostracised by his fellow scientists. In 1955, he and his team developed the first successful and safe treatment for polio. Salk would have been sorted for life because of his success. However, he did not patent the vaccine. An interviewer asked Salk, “Who owns the vaccine?” His reply was, “The people, I would say… There is not a patent. Could you patent the Sun?”

Some twenty years later, in an acceptance speech in New Delhi, Salk expressed his philosophy of life, “The most important question we must ask ourselves is, ‘Are we being good ancestors?””

Author Roman Krznaric says, “The old biblical aspiration to be a Good Samaritan is no longer enough. It’s time for a twenty-first century update: to be a good ancestor.””

That’s what being a father-figure is. To be a good ancestor, we need to think not just of the impact on our children or our children’s children, but to stretch our imagination seven generations and beyond.

To be a father-figure, we need to employ a sort of “cathedral thinking” that Jonas Salk employed, thinking far beyond.

If you are a father-figure to others around you, on behalf of your tribe, I sincerely thank you for being a good ancestor. The world is Father-hungry.


(Note: This was first written for the Redemptorist Monastery newsletter on 3 Sept 2021.)