How does someone go about forgiving a father for a multitude of sins? Henrietta M. Ross tells us how.
It’s a word thrown around breezily these days. Facebook pictures implore you to forgive whilst cuddling your cat, whilst books, quotes, religious texts, do something similar. Even in conversations with others, the message often conveyed is that you must let things go; by not doing so, you’re inviting the wrongs of another to fester and contaminate your mind and body.
I cared little for contamination theories as a twenty something girl, side-stepping my way through life. Where hate lived, bountiful rewards flowed alongside; the pain I had endured reinvigorated by large helpings of venom and wrath that could be extended to others, often without guilt. It may have been unwise, at least that is how I’d describe it now, misguided, but at the time I was reacting and not thinking, so walking that path seemed a natural occurrence rather than a choice. It was foolish, but isn’t that the luxury of youth? We now know that the brain only matures once we get past the grand old age of twenty five, a time where our world could be opened to a blizzard of possibilities, where hating might not hold the same delight.
This maturing led me to ponder forgiveness. How does one forgive the father who was absent physically and emotionally? How does one forgive the father who in his absence allowed unspeakable things to happen? How does one forgive the father who was indifferent to the hurt and pain that ensued?
Easier to not forgive, I had often argued, easier to hold my father to account, for his wrong doings. Wouldn’t letting things go signify that I was allowing the draw bridge to descend, that invisible army I fought against preparing to plunder my life for gold.
I was wrong. It’s no easy feat to let the past go, changing one’s perspective inch by inch, allowing those things that harmed us to not exert the same power they once did. It’s easier to hate, more difficult to love.
He is not Superman
Children want their fathers to be Superman or any superhero who is everything a father should be in their innocent minds. I liked the Hulk for obvious reasons. The particular psychology of a child will not allow them to hold harsh thoughts about their parents because if their parents are not superheroes, then they are just regular human beings who could let them down at any point. For a child, the most frightening idea dominating their inner lives is one of annihilation. To counter this tremendous anxiety, children put their parents on a pedestal while blaming themselves inwardly for everything that goes wrong.
The problem is our fathers are human beings. They did not appear in the world as beautifully unflawed specimens the day we were born; they had decades of life behind them. Things happened, an assortment of good and bad experiences – a paintbrush that flicked color onto a canvas and built up a picture that was unique to them. These events shaped their individual realities in a myriad of ways and pushed them in a particular direction to how they viewed the world. When we came along, our fathers had known suffering, and often rather than learning from their pain, they walked though the world in a reactive state, pulling others down with them, not knowing they could stop the wayward dance at any time of their choosing.
You’re an adult now
This is often a tough one. It is easier to blame our pasts for everything that happens in our lives than take responsibility for who we are now. Harder still when we see that our own fathers played out their hurts with exquisite abandon and yet something more is expected from us. However, instead of deciding we’re being put upon, it is more productive to understand the truth. We are adults now; we have a choice, our lives are our responsibility.
Rather than picking the past apart, and playing out the story of our lives for eternity in an endless disempowering misery, it may be easier to deal with things as they come up and see how we learn from our behavior, apply insight, and move forward. It is a tough, but the chance to live our lives the way we choose to, without the past shackling us to a pre-planned story we have no control over is far greater and a much bigger reward.
What a Father isn’t
Teaching doesn’t always mean the teacher knows what they’re doing—sometimes our best teachers in life are those who haven’t got a clue what they’re up to as they pelt the board with ineligible chalk patterns. Those who are trampling through life hurting everyone, with little awareness, can be a rich resource for anyone who wishes to learn a thing or two. Turn it around, stop to take stock of all you know about who a father isn’t, revisit all the lessons you learned and then walk forward—you have information and guidance that not everyone is lucky enough to garner in life.
For instance, my own father’s preferred approach to everything was anger; it was his default mode, his go-to every time emotions became too uncomfortable. As much as that was frightening when I was child, I have learned that it was more about his feelings of helplessness and inadequacy, about not being to cope or show up for up when the demands of life came his way.
Knowing who a father isn’t has helped me as an individual; it has helped me as a woman and as mother. It allows me to recognize when a man hasn’t thought through his past and instead lays it at everyone else’s feet, when he isn’t prepared to try to be psychologically healthier or put at least one foot on that path that could potentially transform him, and when he is tortured by his emotions and the romanticism of the tortured genius isn’t working its mysticism anymore.
Yes, it may been have better to not need to look, to feel assured that my father did an amazing job and taught me everything my young mind was eager to know, but didn’t he by teaching me everything I didn’t ask for, still give something worth appreciating?
We see suffering as negative, especially in the western world and try to avoid it at all costs. Suffering is inevitable in life but the hard won prize of pain, if we take time to understand and work though it, is wisdom. As Confucius once said “He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in greater danger.”
There are days when the work done on forgiveness appears to come undone and we are left, disenchanted, and angry. Remember, like everything in life, it is a process, we are always moving forward and even when we slip, we never slip back farther than we have journeyed. Don’t give up.
Hate may seem the bigger bounty and it may give you a ready explanation for your behavior but my father had one of those and it hasn’t helped him. I may practice forgiveness, but he has never forgiven himself.
Photo: Jim Pennucci/Flickr