Fathers and Sons

Tom Nickel
4 min readOct 12, 2015

I don’t think there has to be conflict between generations, but sometimes there sure is.

Four Nickel generations

For me, it was frequent and open from around 1963 to the early 70s. These were also the coming of age years for the early half of the baby boomers, when generational lines were sharply drawn with memes like “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty.” Still, not everyone born between 1946 and 1965 wore that button. Some baby boomers took LSD, some became cheerleaders. Probably some did both.

The 1960s in the US and Western Europe had a lot in common with the 1860s in Russia. The big deal then was emancipating the serfs and adjusting to completely new social relations. The liberals of the time were the educated gentry who tried to get with the program. Conservatives felt the new ways were an affront to everything sacred.

These reactions to major cultural change are dramatized in “Fathers and Sons,” the great Russian novel, published in 1862.

I’m reading “Fathers and Sons” because I’m about to go on a moderately challenging adventure with my son. We’re going to India and most of my pre-travel reading has been about … India. It’ll be the main character in the story, no question.

But the father-son journey part is going to be a factor. It’ll influence the experience deeply for both of us. So I wanted to put some attention there too and I thought Turgenev might get my juices flowing. He did.

I’m generally inclined toward appreciation, which often avoids conflict without trying to avoid conflict. I was personally appreciated as a child when I conformed to parental norms and expectations, not so much when I tried, awkwardly, to become the change.

It’s a common narrative, but it’s not the story of “Fathers and Sons,” in which both fathers are liberals and both of them appreciate their sons, even when they become free-thinking Nihilists and challenge their beliefs.

One of the sons gradually decides to build on his father’s transition from serf owner to modern estate manager and eventually does a better job of it than his old man. He has children, becomes more like a liberal than a radical nihilist, and lives happily ever after.

The other son doesn’t. It feels partly random why things work out for one son and not the other, but not entirely. What brings the other son down, clearly, is his own carelessness. Maybe that is a trait inextricably linked to free thinking. It shouldn’t be.

Both sons tend to assume that their more up-to-date styles and perspectives are also more advanced. My son does too. I’m glad he feels that way. There is no reason for me to feel threatened by this. The fathers in “Fathers and Sons” don’t.

They are a little intimidated by their sons, though — they’re afraid of being in the way, of disturbing their work or concentration or equanimity somehow. Fathers don’t want to upset their sons in “Fathers and Sons.” I don’t either. But I also don’t want to go tip-toeing around on eggshells like these fathers seem to.

Just being a father and son traveling together to a faraway place with spiritual vibes like India won’t just affect how both of us experience India minute by minute — it will also affect how people, Indian and non-Indian, experience us.
People like the idea when it comes up; it has kind of a classic feel to it, like there must have been some famous book about a father and son going to India and having adventures, (I haven’t found one although I’m sure some must exist). Some people are quite moved by the idea.

Let’s face it, fathers and sons don’t always get along. Fathers and anybody don’t always get along. So the strong response isn’t really about us specifically; it’s about some strong feeling in other people, something they had and cherished, or something they never had and longed for, or something else.We have the potential for being evocative.

That’s also one reason “Fathers and Sons” has endured. The topic is ancient and it will never grow old. The dynamics are complicated and worth understanding for fathers, sons, and anyone closely related to one or the other.

I’m still learning as I’m writing this piece and working on Turgenev’s insight about appreciative fathers treading carefully around sons.He saw how vulnerable his fathers would be, and I feel that way too.Traveling by definition is outside the comfort zone. Traveling to India is probably all the way to the dis-comfort zone.Unexpected things will occur and we will react to them and to each other in unexpected ways.“Careful” won’t always be part of it.

While I’m prepared to have my tip-toes stepped on, I don’t think that conflict — small, medium, or large — will be the main feature of the father-son landscape and Turgenev didn’t either.We will be much stronger together and we will naturally behave in ways that support our togetherness most of the time.I think we’ll actually be good at it because we’re unusually well-tuned to each other.

When I was just a son, I saw my future self as a father who would do things like go to India with his son.That should be enough time to prepare.

Originally published at uofthenet.org.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos