How to Be a Dad

How to Be a Dad

Zen Archery and the Art of Parenting

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When I first heard the news, I was ecstatic. I’ve wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember. Any time a small child was yelled at by their parents, growing up, I wanted to shield them. They were defenseless little creatures who had no recourse against the imposing, angry figures standing in front of them. Sometimes, after I grew a bit bigger, I would intervene politely. I felt a sort of guardianship for kids.

A photo posted by Charlie Capen (@charliecapen) on

The chance to be that steward came in the form of a 10-pound baby with incredibly blue eyes and an impish smile about six years ago. Finn was my first chance to care for someone else in the most intimate and grueling ways possible. There were moments when I had to give everything inside me to be better for him. It was uncomfortable in ways I imagine a snake feels when it sheds a skin. Friction and evolution. I questioned whether I was cut out for the whole parenthood deal.

Years passed, and the reciprocal feelings of love, affection, humor, and adventure swelled. We found common interests and affirmations of our connectivity. A new boy joined us, and added even more dimension to our lives. But it still could be so difficult. I’ve often theorized the hardest parts of parenting are moments and behaviors that mirror our own issues. A tiny mirror reflection begging for attention. It’s tough looking at our weakest or most sensitive parts of ourselves.

I love being a father. It’s the marrow of who I am. But it’s fucking hard sometimes. In all the theoretical discussions about having it all we can’t subtract the fact that having more of one thing usually means having less for another. I’ve tried to be there, provide for my family, stay creative, achieve goals, keep a job, plan for the future, stay healthy, dream, laugh, love and learn. Some more than others. Some none at all for long stretches.


But one of the hardest parts of this whole metamorphosis is assessing whether I’m doing a good enough job being a father to my boys. I know I’ve harped on this before but it’s ridiculously ambiguous, especially when considering the future.

Zen archery is all about the idea that we mustn’t be conscious of ourselves when we let loose an arrow toward a target. Once we wholly become part of the act of shooting the arrow, we are no longer ourselves but a perfect moment between the target, the arrow, the world, and ourselves. I’ve yearned for that feeling as a father. I’ve had a few of those moments, but I want more.

This is where I live. In the state of questioning. Of wanting and doing.

Recently, I can’t tell if my efforts to imbue discipline and understanding with my son are working. Sometimes it completely backfires on me. My son is in tears, or he gets angry. I don’t want to be hard on him, but I have no frame of reference. My father was not a disciplinarian and my single mom just couldn’t control my brother and I after a certain point in our lives together.

So I pull my arrow from its quiver, line up my shot and let it fly. Where the arrow goes is the result of so many factors, it’s almost impossible to predict. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to will the arrow to a mark with the deepest red and beyond the furthest horizon.


5 Responses to “Zen Archery and the Art of Parenting”

  1. daniel says:

    Well said. Are we doing a good job as parents? These are things we can only know in retrospect, after the job is done. Sort of like childbirth itself. Was the labor “a success” – that is only determined after the fact. We do our best, and sometimes it doens’t work out the way we hope. Not having a father myself for the most part, I understand your lack of a frame of reference and how troubling it is. I think the bottom line is being aware of this issue and “being there” for our kids makes us more successful thann we might realize.

  2. Reminds me of this excerpt from a Gibran poem:

    “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

    Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

    For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable. ”

    Your post was one I could really relate to, especially after a rough morning today with my middle child.

    • Fawn says:

      that last line is amazing!!

      “for even as he loves the arrow hat flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

      I’m experiencing that with my now 19 year-old son. I read at poem quite a few times and each time I get it more. Thank you.

  3. neal says:

    I hear you. We’re currently in the midst of re-evaluating our behaviors with our five-year-old, re-evaluating which of her behaviors are trainable and which are inherent in her, which moments of discipline are educational and which ones merely crush something in her that’s just not gonna change as quick as we expect it to. And it feels like taking a shot in the dark. Using your metaphor, letting loose that arrow, sometimes without even being able to see the target, but just hoping you’re pointed toward it, and that the light will come back on so you can know one way or the other.

    Take luck, man.

  4. Coba says:

    Beautifully written. My husband and I each struggle with this, too. I’m finding parenting, like marriage or any other important relationship is all about evolution and change, even great change, can still be hard. At least ten times a day I have to remind myself to stay in the moment, because they go so quickly. I’m also a firm believer that if you aren’t questioning how you are doing, you’re probably doing something wrong. I always think of this quote from Jaggi Vasudev at those times: “The sign of intelligence is that you are constantly wondering. Idiots are always dead sure about every damn thing they are doing in their life.”

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