When hospice called and said that my father had died in his sleep, I felt liberated. While in his presence, from my earliest memory until my last visit a couple of days earlier, a noose around my neck tightened. No more. I thought of my brother, whose experience of our father mirrored mine. No more. And I recalled the old negro spiritual Martin Luther King quoted in his iconic I Have a Dream speech: “Free at last, Free at last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”
In the months following his death, dissonant feelings about my father, and my relationship with him, were at odds with the assurance of those who were close to me that, in time, I would forgive him. I’d nod and fear that forgiveness might never occur. Will I ever find the compassion to forgive what hurt me so? I assumed, in time. My father died in 2010. That time hasn’t arrived. Today, I don’t think it needs to.
Why haven’t I forgiven my father? Why am I okay with this lack of forgiveness? And how is it that, despite not forgiving him, I have come to feel better about myself and my father?
Why haven’t I forgiven my father?
Remembrances of my father begin with trauma. In our society, forgiveness is arguably a preferred way for me to deal with his emotional legacy. The axiom being, when you forgive, you feel better—about yourself and the person you’re forgiving.
I have imagined forgiving my father. I don’t feel better. Instead, forgiveness comes to me as way to mitigate, assuage, understand, reconstruct, perhaps even discount my feelings about my father in order to somehow feel better about myself and him. In this way, forgiveness is like tampering. And it’s that tampering with my deeply held feelings that reminds me of how my father tampered with them.
What exactly do I mean by tampering? I construe forgiveness as a moral imperative that insists, you really don’t have much choice, Paul. Our culture places a premium on forgiveness. Forgiveness is a virtue, the ethical high ground. As the saying goes, forgiveness is divine. Expressing forgiveness is an endemic part of our experience, from resolving sandbox squabbles to memorials and obits that highlight the good and forego the more troubling aspects of the deceased’s life.
To be clear, critiquing forgiveness is not my outcome. I believe in the power and efficacy of forgiveness under many circumstances. However, when juxtaposing forgiveness with my experience of my father, I am suddenly harassed, even a little threatened by this virtue. Like a twinge, forgiveness tampers with my feelings, as if how I feel isn’t okay, is okay up to a point, or the point when it’s time to move on. And I wonder, why can’t my feelings simply belong to me as they are without tampering? I think they can. It is this tampering that menaces my feelings. Tampering explains why I haven’t forgiven my father.
Why am I okay with this lack of forgiveness?
An integral discovery in my journey as a son (and a father), is that my feelings belong to me, are valid, and are, by definition, okay. There is no judge, no timeline, no agenda that compels me to alter them. Since 2010 this sense of feelings-ownership, of okayness, if you will, has been empowering, and found me far less angry, far more positive about myself, far more accepting of a father and son that could have been, but never was.
My father’s behavior would not generate high TV movie ratings. He wasn’t a criminal. My brother and I did not suffer physical abuse. He earned a modest living. That said, we did endure death by a thousand emotional cuts from a terrorist whose vehemence and rage, daily it seemed, traumatized us as children, angered us as adults. We were never psychically safe in his presence.
Regarding my father as a terrible parent makes sense to me. Terrible parent is how I experienced him as a child and an adult. Terrible parent is my reality. To contextualize his behavior by searching for reasons to justify why he did what he did feels as much a disservice to my experience of him as the opposite—vilifying and condemning him. Neither approach permits my feelings about him to be processed by me in my own way and in my own time. For now, I am okay with terrible parent, and want to be permitted to feel that way.
Can I imagine forgiving my father someday? Can I imagine forgiving him for traumatizing children that were powerless to stop him? For being unable to help himself, whether or not he knew better? Can I imagine taking the moral high ground? I can, though as time passes the need to do so lessens. And with that lessening my response to the trauma has diminished, as has the anger. As have the myriad of self-destructive feelings whose burden weighs less with each passing day.
Feeling better about myself and my father
If not forgiveness, what accounts for this continued lessening of animus toward my father, along with other changes in me that feel coherent and positive? There may be many reasons, some I know, others I may never know. Below are those that I am aware of and speak truth to me:
My feelings are valid. They are okay. If the feelings born of my experience with my father are valid and okay, then I am, too.
My feelings are owned by me. As sole owner, I find myself confident, safe, secure, in full possession of me.
My feelings are tamper-proof. Therefore, they are not susceptible to others’ interpretation or desire to change them, no matter how well-meaning they may be.
My feelings are subject to change in ways that do not tamper with my ownership of them. My change of heart is predicated on ownership of my heart, rather than another’s prescribing a time line, a mandate, a judgment about what’s best, what’s right, what’s moral.
Ownership and validity hasten change. Because my feelings reside safely within me, because I know they are valid, I am more confident, safe, happier with who I am and that predisposition propels me to make sense of my relationship with my father as a less angry, more loving human being.
These reasons remind me that, as a child and an adult, my feelings were never my father’s problem, or concern. They existed, it felt, for him to manipulate for his advantage, to discredit, to dismiss as unimportant, to ignore, as if neither my feelings nor I existed. My feelings, it always seemed, were there for the tampering.
Surely my need to covet and protect what was regularly invalidated and taken from me at the drop of hat is, in large part, induced by my father and son history. Today, being in full possession of my feelings, knowing they are valid, okay and mine continues to reduce feelings about my father that once boiled to a simmer. With each passing day, that simmer lessen. With each passing day, I feel better about me.
Photo credit: Getty Images