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Cultivating Fatherhood – Carry the Fire

January 22, 2024

Adam R. Nettesheim

Cultivating Fatherhood is a space made for the dads among us who love their kids and yet know that the adventure of parenting, with all its joys and beauty, can also be a perilous one. Make no mistake, showing up for your kids is beautiful, rewarding, hard, holy, brave work. My efforts are here intended to provide encouragement and understanding that equips us for our responsibility to the amazing beings who call us “dad.”

“You have to carry the fire.

I don’t know how to.

Yes, you do.

Is the fire real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”

― Cormac McCarthy, The Road

It took us five days to light our ‘hope’ candle this last Advent. The season got busy, and we struggled to make space for all our good intentions. It was Thursday night before a match was struck and flame danced upon the candle’s new wick as we gathered the kids and talked about why hope matters. Looking back, it strikes me that hope, like fire, like anything we carry, requires us to choose to carry it. And if we choose to carry it, we must also choose to care for it.

I remember standing with my dad in the yard of the property three generations share as we watched the night sky glowing orange above the hills behind our pasture as wildfire headed our way. We made evacuation plans and I encouraged my kids to put together their own ‘go-bags’ should we get the call to leave. I was constantly checking the progress reports from the front lines, and my sense of our well-being felt tied to the growing and shrinking containment percentages. The sunlight shown through a sickly orange haze of smoke while strange bits of burnt wood blown from miles away collected in our rain gutters. It took work to keep hope alive, especially in front of the kids.

And yet, even experiencing the relentless power of fire, I also know this paradox: fire is a fragile thing, too.

Do you remember the first time you tried to make a campfire? I’m still not terribly good at it. But if a campfire is to be useful for light, warmth, or food preparation, it takes effort and care to start it. If it is to grow it must be fed, and it requires dedication to maintain its life. 

I was a new father the first time I watched “The Road,” a film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. To date, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it again, but it has stuck with me for the better part of a decade. It’s about a father and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic America. The father has seen things he never wants his son to see, yet this is the reality of the world he’s inheriting. The father doesn’t know who to trust, and often acts out of an overabundance of protection and fear, all while telling his son to ‘carry the fire.’ This ‘fire’ is not – to my memory – explicitly explained, but it is a ‘fire’ of the heart. Perhaps even the father himself doesn’t quite understand exactly what he means, other than some vague sense of maintaining their humanity in a world now given to scarcity, cannibalism, and all manner of evil. Maybe it means keeping some form of hope alive, a hope that lifts their feet one in front of the other as they travel through an impossible hellscape. A hope that life is still worth living and that somehow things will get better. The father does not ‘carry his fire’ perfectly, but he teaches his son the importance of it throughout their journey. 

I felt a kindredness with this father as a new dad, and I still feel it as the father of three. Though I may have a warm bed and a fully stocked refrigerator, and I may have access to functioning municipal services, and I am reasonably confident law enforcement is available to me should I need them, though I may not live in the world of The Road… I still must lead my children through this world with its own uncertainties, scarcities, and dangers. And I, like that father, wrestle with my own fears and fight a sense of hopelessness about the future, even as I know I must instill a sense of hope and courage in the hearts of my children.

Like the father, I certainly don’t do it perfectly, but I know that like the son, my children will learn to carry their fire by watching me carry mine.

Within a year or two of seeing that film, I was driving home from the assisted living facility where my grandmother lived. I saw a beautiful church on the left side of the road and felt compelled to see if it was open. I suspect I needed a little hope after seeing my grandma’s condition that day. I was not very familiar with liturgical traditions, so as I sat in the pew at the back of that sanctuary alone, I saw the stations of the cross, the large crucifix at the front, the raised altar, and the iconography through unaccustomed eyes. I sat there for a while and prayed. Then, into that sanctuary, through the doors at the front, a father and teenage son came holding candles. They were unaware of my presence as they stepped onto the stage and placed the candles in their holders. Then they walked down to the floor, and turned to face the altar again. The father bowed, and seeing his father’s example, his son bowed too. Based on the son’s body language, I got the sense he was a little uncertain and maybe even a bit self-conscious. But the father warmly put his arm around his son and patted his shoulder. They looked at each other and smiled before walking back out the doors at the front of the sanctuary. Without meaning to intrude on their private moment, I was given the grace to witness one man teaching his son how to ‘carry the fire’, and their example has stayed with me.

If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films, you’ll likely remember the scene in Return of the King where the beacons are lit between Gondor and Rohan. Unlike the glow of the wildfires we witnessed emanating from the other side of our hills, the glow of flame from these mountains were a welcome sight. Gandalf stands on the wall of Minas Tirith and commemorates this event with the words “Hope is kindled.” As the camera follows this powerful scene, you see little cabins on the mountaintops standing next to pyres of igniting wood. Someone must, presumably, keep a constant watch for the beacon closest to it and be ready to light theirs should the signal go up. They must take their place in the chain of light that stretches from one kingdom to the next, knowing that if they are derelict in their duty, hope will be lost. I’ve wondered about the people who keep those posts. Surely they must ensure the wood pyre is clean and dry and that their home-fire is always lit and ready. I wonder if being a beacon keeper is passed down from one generation to the next – a literal ‘passing of the torch’ if you will. 

What a brave thing it is to carry the fire, and how vital it is that we pass it on. 

As fathers, we want to leave a legacy for our kids. We want to protect them against the darkness in the world, and we want to provide for their future. We attempt to protect them with physical safety and financial resources. We seek to equip them for what lies ahead with knowledge, experiences, defenses, and even possessions. It is appropriate to care for the needs of those within our responsibility in a way that honors God, but what is often hardest for us to accept, is that all that we’ve stored up for our children will one day come to an end. Moth and rust and time and whatever else will take the material from their hands and one day our children will likely find themselves on the road alone. But what cannot be destroyed by time and what cannot be taken away, what can be a true legacy that protects them, provides for their future, what can always burn inside them and outlast the darkness itself… is if we’ve taught them how to ‘carry the fire’.

We finally did light our little ‘hope’ candle, we talked about light and we talked about hope. It seemed to us that when life is at its darkest and you cannot see where you are going, hope is a light that can help you find your way.

Our children must learn how to carry their fire. How to protect it when it’s fragile, how to build it up, how to light it again if it ever goes out, and how to keep that fire burning bright in the darkest night. 

Our children will learn how to carry their fire tomorrow by watching us carry our fire today.

The featured artwork titled “Cultivating Fatherhood: Carry the Fire” is (c) Adam Nettesheim and is used with his gracious permission for Cultivating.


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