I lived my worst fear as a father. Here’s what I learned about surviving a crisis
Twelve years ago, in a moment of deep personal crisis, I came up with an idea of how my family might get through a life-threatening ordeal. This week, in a moment of deep national crisis, that idea is coming to television in the form of a drama series on NBC. The eerie parallel between these two events has me thinking about what we all can learn about how to survive and thrive in times of hardship.
In July 2008, as a 43-year-old, newly married dad, I learned that I had a 7-inch osteogenic sarcoma in my left femur. This type of bone cancer is so rare it strikes only 800 people a year, most of whom are children. The afternoon of my diagnosis, I went home and my 3-year-old, identical twin daughters, Eden and Tybee, greeted me with a dance, twirling faster and faster, before they collapsed to the floor, laughing.
I collapsed with them. I kept imagining all the walks I wouldn’t take with them, the boyfriends I wouldn’t scowl at, the aisles I wouldn’t walk down. Would they yearn for my approval, my love, my voice?
Three days later, I awoke with an idea of how I might give them my voice. I would reach out to six men from all parts of my life and ask them to be present in the lives of my daughters. And I would call this group of men the Council of Dads.
My initial instinct was not to tell my wife, Linda. We should focus on the positive. But I soon lost my resolve. Linda embraced my idea, but she quickly started rejecting my nominees. “I love him,” she would say, “but I would never ask him for advice.” Starting a council was a very efficient way to find out what my wife really thought of my friends.
Over the next year, as I endured 16 rounds of chemotherapy and a 17-hour surgery to rebuild my left leg, I held a series of emotional sessions with my oldest friend, my college roommate, my business partner, my closest confidant, etc., in which I invited them to be in the council. Linda joked these were like proposals in which I “friend-married” each one.
At the end of that year, I sat down and wrote a book about my experience and the life lessons I wanted each of the dads to convey to my girls — how to live, how to travel, how to think, how to dream.
“The Council of Dads” was published in 2010, accompanied by a CNN documentary hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. As our story made its way into the world, I began to hear the most remarkable reactions. Single parents created Councils of Moms or Dads to help them through difficult times. Parents of teenagers formed councils because their children were starting to separate and need trusted adults. The United States military started a program for servicemen and women to form councils. Even grown-ups who had lost a parent when they were young generated councils to connect retroactively with their pasts.
That interest eventually reached Hollywood. Suddenly I was receiving flattering, if slightly surreal, calls from representatives of the most storied names in American entertainment. (Steven Spielberg! Will Smith! Tom Cruise!) Everyone had a slightly different approach to bringing our story to the screen. A movie! A sitcom! A musical! We rode this merry-go-round with as much wonder and good cheer as possible. We met some lovely people. Linda and I accepted that this Hollywood detour made for a few laughs and would never amount to anything.
Until a decade into these kinds of calls — just days after I received a clean scan marking my 10-year cancerversary — an extraordinarily talented team of industry veterans came into our lives. These included producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the husband-and-wife showrunners Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, director James Strong and, ultimately a skilled, richly diverse cast of performers, led by Sarah Wayne Callies and Clive Standen.
We all decamped to my hometown of Savannah, Ga., for a month, and this team made a stirring show. I know network television is not known for its artistry, but that’s what this crew did. And then we learned that NBC would air the show after its signature drama, “This Is Us.”
What none of us anticipated during this long journey was that this idea, born out of a moment of personal fear and desperation, would arrive in a world saturated by fear and desperation. Suddenly, the whole world is asking those questions that I asked on first hearing my diagnosis: How can I get through this? Who matters most to me? Can anything good come of this horror?
Twelve years later, here’s what I’ve learned about how to answer those questions:
First, we can’t do it alone.
Today, the watchword for our plight is “social distancing.” While the concept is urgent, the wording is awful. Physical distancing is critical; emotional distancing is dangerous. I often said when I was sick that cancer is a passport to intimacy. It is an invitation, maybe even a mandate, to enter the most vital arenas of human life, the most sensitive and the most frightening, the ones we never want to go to — but when we do, we feel incredibly transformed. An illness that all of us are confronting at the same time is no less an occasion for vulnerability and connection, even if we need to do it virtually or more than 6 feet apart.
Second, family is not enough; we need friends.
A hallmark of contemporary life is that family has become central not just for women but for men too. For the bulk of busy parents today, we have our work, we have our children, but our friends keep getting pushed aside. The result is a crisis of friendship. Creating a Council of Dads proved to be a powerful way to invite friends into the heart of what’s most important in our lives and to give them a role in the process. Perhaps the best testament to this need: After learning that they had a Council of Dads, my then-5-year-old daughters asked for a Council of Moms.
Third, we crave positive male role models.
The biggest societal change in the last decade is that the definition of what it means to be a man came under scrutiny — and began to evolve. The Council of Dads reflected this evolution and, in some ways, anticipated it. Movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, as well as ideas like “toxic masculinity” and “the patriarchy” migrated from the fringes of culture to the very heart. Suddenly the idea of having a Council of Positive Male Role Models for my daughters went from being a quaint, inessential sidebar of my having cancer to an urgent necessity of growing up around noxious, outdated bro culture. At a moment when all of us are trapped at home, we need to use this moment as an opportunity to re-imagine traditional gender models and open ourselves to new paradigms.
Fourth, crises are times of meaning.
In the early days of a disruptive life event, we are paralyzed by emotions and consumed with logistics — how I will eat, pay my bills, adjust my routines, stay alive? But humans are fundamentally meaning-making creatures, and, over time, we turn even the most horrific life experience into occasions for personal reflection and emotional recalibration.
I spent the last few years crisscrossing the country, collecting hundreds of life stories of Americans in all 50 states who experienced wrenching personal upheavals — what I call “lifequakes” — from losing limbs and losing children to changing religions and changing gender presentations. What I learned is that there are three components to making sense of periods of change. The ABCs of Meaning, if you will.
The A is agency — we need some sense of autonomy, freedom, mastery. The B is belonging —we need relationships, love, community. The C is cause — we need some higher calling, direction, purpose. Though I didn’t know it at the time, creating a Council of Dads helped all three — agency (“I’m doing something!”), belonging (“I’m connecting my daughters to my friends”) and cause (“I’m helping my girls through their pain.”)
The first time the original Council of Dads met, we had dinner. Everyone went around the table and described how the experience had changed him. One felt the council helped replace the voice of his own father. Another took his own advice and changed how he parented his children. The last person to speak expressed skepticism.
“When I first heard the idea of the council, I rejected it,” he said. “You would triumph over your illness. We wouldn’t need to exist. Today I realized I was wrong. Whether we’re healthy or sick, male or female, we all need to be surrounded by the ones we love. We all need councils.”
Therein lies the biggest lesson I took away. Linda and I did it for our girls.
But ultimately it changed all of us.
Bruce Feiler is the author of six consecutive bestsellers, including “The Secrets of Happy Families” and “The Council of Dads.” His latest book, “Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age,” will be published this spring.
‘Council of Dads’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
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