About growing up without a father

Luang Prabang, Laos.

A Dutch female reader asked me about the role my father played in my journey. The easy answer would be ‘no role at all’. Since 1976 we lived in different countries and my father died in 2006. I have seen him very few times during my life, once at 24 and couple of times at 34, when he already had cancer. I left Amsterdam in 2012, at 40.

My reader is interested in things like if I ever got reunited with my father and if I know what motivated his decisions and what did my mother tell me about my father and his absence from our life? What kind of relationship do you have with your mother as a result of your father leaving? She feels my answers could help her on her journey.

I think I have never told the whole story about my father. Not so much because it is a secret but because it never seemed relevant. My writings are my way of practicing speaking my truth in the very moment. I never really plan what to write, I just sit down and see what comes out of my fingers. Sometimes I am reminded of him for some reason but I never felt the need to exhaustingly write down what happened in the past.

And for a blog post it is too long of a story. But let me say a couple of things that might matter. I do feel that the absence of my father is the red thread (is that English?) of my life. I never had a father, a stepfather or someone else who filled that gap. My spiritual journey or life quest is about figuring out what it means to be a man and – ultimately – what it means to be a father.

I never had a heart to heart with my father. All encounters that I had with him were pretty awful and if I add up the hours we spend in the same room during my life it will be less than 24 since 1976 (during the first 5 years of my life he was more or less a normal dad, I guess). So there was no reconciliation or feel-good happy end, something that we as a family perhaps hoped for when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I did do a lot of work on reconciliation and forgiveness inside myself. For some reason I don’t feel so eloquent in this very moment (bit sleepy) and I find it hard to explain. It has everything to do with the awakening I experienced in 2004. It was actually not just one event but a major breakthrough followed by a whole string of events.

The moment of awakening came when I was writing a letter to the girlfriend I had back then. Our relationship was falling apart. I was angry, desperate and devastated and had nothing to lose. Consciously or subconsciously I was digging in places of my soul I did not know they existed. Then, out of nowhere, I broke through something and I cracked wide open. I felt like Alice who fell through a rabbit hole and found herself in a completely different reality only it happened inside me. What happened was that my identity fell apart and because that happened I realized that an identity is not real or final, it is a fabrication that can be deconstructed. Also, the feeling of liberation was so huge that I understood that our identity (self, ego) should be deconstructed because the death of the ego equals ultimate freedom. Being able to see through the ego-state automatically lead to wisdom and compassion. It is not that I suddenly knew lots of facts on different hard topics but seeing that the condition that at least 99% of the population perceives as reality is NOT reality, seeing that even the smartest, richest and most powerful people on earth and throughout history have no clue of this was mind blowing, confusing, thrilling but most of al guiding.

Now what I hardly ever tell people is that the experience was triggered by a voice or some words that spoke to me. These words were not mine; they didn’t feel like I could think them up myself. Actually, they were the complete opposite of what I believed to be true. They were words about my father. Very strange and nonsensical because I was writing a letter to my girlfriend, remember? I will not disclose the exact words but it were kind words. Until that moment I had never entertained a kind thought about my father. For a long time I believed I hated or despised him and later I thought I just felt sorry for him being a loser and just didn’t care. When the voice spoke to me my complete belief system collapsed. This collapse is literally indescribable. You find out that you are a completely different person that you thought you are AND this new person makes a lot more sense and you instantly know that you were this person all along but never came out.

I realized that I had started to manufacture toughness very early in life. And not just me, we all do. We cover up a softness that is so kind and loving that we have no idea how to deal with it. This was such a big thing to discover. When Jesus says ‘love your enemies’ you can think ‘hell no!’ or ‘impossible’ or ‘I am just not as good as Jesus’ but what I found is that we already love our enemies only we don’t know. I honestly did not know I had love for my father until that day in 2004. Finding something that big is impressive but realizing it was there all along and how much effort it must have cost to keep it hidden all those years is even more startling.

There are so many things I can say about this. My paradigm of life changed completely. By finding that I had love and tenderness inside me I didn’t know existed, I realized that all human beings are carrying such a gift inside. But we all have reasons to cover up our basic goodness. The more people get hurt by life, the bigger the chance that the walls become thick. Since that day in 2004 an asshole is no longer just an asshole to me. I see a person with thick walls and very disconnected from his true nature. I still might not like him but being disconnected is not a crime. We don’t do it on purpose although disconnected behavior causes always suffering. This understanding made me see my father in a different light. I was and am grateful for the transformation that happened to me and it seems that all the pain was necessary to build up enough critical mass for my ego structure to collapse. The collapse of the structure gave me insight and forgiveness.

So to come back to the questions of my reader in the beginning of this post: in my journey of life there was an essential moment were my relationship with myself shifted completely. That changed all my relationships with others. The transformation made everything that happened before less relevant or better: seen in an entirely different light. Yeah, I could argue that I have a somewhat sad story but I am not my story. At the same time it is a fact that every time I go deep into some unexplored and difficult or dark part of my soul the same themes come up. My life journey is about accepting myself, feeling accepted, overcoming fear of rejection and abandonment, wanting to be seen and heard, wanting to forgive and to be forgiven. All these things seem to easily connect with the absence of a father. The journey that I am on right now (the physical one) is about finding purpose, wanting to be free from my past, being my own man, freeing myself from fear and obstacles, testing my courage, being fearless, selfless and serving. Again: themes that can easily be connected to the absence of my father.

What I see is that as human beings our stories are very much the same everywhere. We all come out of childhood conditioned and therefore by definition wounded and limited. Essential parts of us get lost or covered up. Since pretty much everybody has less than enlightened parents conditioning is ‘done to us’ without our parents being conscious of it (and as it was done to them). Patterns are passed on through the generations. We cannot transmit what we don’t know. Freeing ourselves from our conditioning and finding back the parts of us that got lost along the way is our obligation towards our heart and soul. All the work we don’t do before our children are born is being put on their plate.

I know I didn’t answer all the questions yet, maybe in the near future. But let me answer one: Yes, I do feel that my father’s role in my life influences my actions until today. I also feel that freeing ourselves from parental ties is necessary for all of us, not just for me because my case is kind of dramatic. Letting go of the old and the limiting makes space for new, more mature and more wholesome relationships.


  1. Anu Sharma says

    Very beautifully written Atalwin… I love your honesty and courage.. It takes a lot of inner strength to be vulnerable and share so deeply.
    I wrote this few days back when I was reconnecting with my parents and thought I’ll share it with you

    “Parents aren’t always right.
    They are not flawless. They’re not always virtuous. They won’t always be there when you need them.
    They may lie, err, fight and sometimes set bad examples.
    They may be unreasonable, demanding, needy or sometimes simply selfish
    At all times — they’re human.
    Like all children, I put my parents on a pedestal for the longest time.
    As a teenager, I remember analyzing them a bit more critically. Holding them responsible for all the wrongdoings. Not taking their word for everything.
    But I also recognized early on that they were just trying to do their best.
    Juggling their jobs, their relationship, their aspirations, their ambitions, and their family.
    I remember the time I started seeing my parents as just two individuals with all their follies.
    It hurt.
    Why couldn’t they be perfect?
    And why did I have to feel like an ingrate for thinking of them such?
    They had so many expectations of me.
    But I had even more….. Of them.
    So many times I resented them for being who they were.
    Until, years, later I realized there is nothing like a functional family.
    All families are comprised of people — and people aren’t perfect.
    The disappointment slowly faded away.
    I started empathizing with them — as an adult. A flawed, imperfect, human being.
    They were just like me.
    Like the rest of the world, I used to see them in myself — the eyes, the hair, the nose, the jawline.
    Now I started seeing me in them.
    It’s been easier since then.
    In their head, I was always their six-year-old.
    And they were always my parents, telling me to not do this, to do that better, worrying about me, encouraging me, brimming with pride at my smallest accomplishments.
    Some things never changed.
    But some things have.
    Today they are no longer in their physical bodies
    I wish I had seen them objectively for who they were.
    They were my parents. But they were also adults figuring their way about life.
    Just like the rest of us.
    I wish I had let them know more often that they were doing a great job and I was lucky to have them.
    They were perfect for me… They made me who I am today..
    Thanks Mummy and Daddy… I love you both very much.”


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