“When we understand that we are born babies, that we all bleed blood, and that we experience the same pains and joys, then we have the basis of the empathy and humility we need to be able to forgive.”
Everett L. Worthington Jr., Forgiving and Reconciling, p. 127
Mike’s dad kicked him out of the house when he was sixteen. The last time I saw Mike before he left to live with his mother in Katmandu, Nepal was when my older brother and I were running laps around a big grassy field in our neighborhood park. It was night. Where I ran Mike was going to sleep. I don’t remember if I invited Mike to come stay at our house. He wouldn’t have anyway so I guess it wouldn’t have mattered. I’ll get to that in minute.
Mike’s parents divorced when Mike was two, maybe before that. As long as I had known Mike it was just his dad and he. Paul, another friend of ours, frequently reminded me how much he envied Mike’s relationship with his dad. He’d see Mike and his dad walk to the park to play catch or go to a movie every Sunday. Although I don’t know what there is to envy about the type of father who would kick his son out of the house at the age of sixteen Paul always talked glowingly about their relationship. Of course, Paul’s father was a physically abusive alcoholic who left his family when Paul was nine. It’s all relative.
Apparently Mike’s father was abusive as well. Paul told me. I recently returned to my hometown and Paul and I caught up. I pictured Mike helpless in his father’s shuttered two-bedroom house. “I wonder if that’s why Mike never wore shorts,” I speculated. Mike had a penchant for Toughskins, even during our fifth grade soccer practices and games. Better to hide the bruises.
Mike’s hard living predated his departure. He started drinking and smoking in seventh grade. Between sixteen and twenty-one he experimented with every drug imaginable, lived in Jamaica for a while, toured the country, wrote poetry. After twenty-one I guess he lived in Chicago. He never graduated from high school.
Mike’s dead. A rare neurological condition caught up with him in his late thirties. I can’t imagine the drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes helped. Paul told me that Mike and his dad reconciled. I’m not sure when, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was on account of Mike’s decline. Death has a way of opening up doors.
The last time I saw Mike we were twenty-one. Of all of the insights we shared during our brief reconnection the one that sticks out the most wasn’t really an insight at all but more of an inference. “Dads…,” Mike said with a subtle, disbelieving shake of the head. “Dads…”
I lead group therapy at a drug and alcohol rehab on Mondays. Kids mostly. That or adults acting as kids. When I say kids I mean eighteen or nineteen years old. Daniel reminds me of Mike, a Jewish version of Mike – long hair, intelligent, angry. A few days ago another group member rounded out a long diatribe about his parents’ chronic neglect with the question, “How do you get over that?” Daniel, spread across two seats, explained, “You don’t. There’s no forgiveness for that.”
Daniel is number two of eight children. He was objectified, yelled at, thrown. I found this out gradually. Daniel tends to stick around after group. I sense a desire to connect. His dad came up. In describing an exchange he had with his dad he got caught on an unconscious verb choice. “What were you about to say?” I asked. Punched. Punched was the verb. He was the object; his dad was the subject; punched was the verb.
I have a client who is the opposite of Daniel in many ways. He’s older, for one. A good twenty years older. He’s wildly successful at his profession in the arts. He’s established, connected, wealthy, and a father himself. But just like Daniel he’s mad. Mad as hell.
“I know it sounds cliché, but I saw stars,” my client said recently. “When he hit me I saw stars.” He was eleven. My son’s age. My son is less than half my size. Seventy-five pounds. Light as a bird. And he loves me. I can’t imagine hitting him like that. The damage I would cause.
My client started seeing me a year ago. He was wrestling with a dilemma. His father had called him for the first time in over five years and left a message. Should he call him back? My client had other issues as well: depression, anger, marital discord, porn addiction. He felt his life was unraveling. Even the career he had built over a twenty-year period was suffering.
A year later not much had changed. Still depressed. Still angry. Still fighting with his wife. Still using porn. Still struggling with keeping his head in his profession. I felt like I was failing him as a therapist. We were stuck. When stuck, always revert to the first thing that brought the client in. “Where are you with resolving things with your dad?” I asked. “I’m not anywhere,” he said. The letter I had recommended that he write to his dad was still unfinished. A year and that’s as far as he had gotten in addressing his presenting problem. I asked him why. “Because,” he said. “It’s hard.”
My dad came to visit me about a month ago. We see each other face to face about three or four times a year. Maybe I’d see him more but he likes to work. Always has. When I was seventeen we got into an argument. I was crying. I blurted out, “You weren’t even around when I was a kid!” He was and he wasn’t, but teenagers aren’t known for their subtlety, or fairness. I was trying to hurt him. And I did.
My dad does work a lot. One would understand this of him if he were scraping by, or hadn’t planned for his retirement, or needed extra spending money. But he isn’t scraping by, did plan for his retirement, and doesn’t need extra spending money. He’s been finding and selling oil since 1968. He’s fine. Just fine. So too are the many people who have worked for him throughout the years. And their kids, and maybe even their kids’ kids.
Looking back I can now correlate the quality of my relationship with my dad based on the price of oil. If oil was up, he wasn’t around. If oil was down, he was. Hence the conversation when I was seventeen, and the fact that he was around to have it.
When my dad was in high school his dad had a nervous breakdown. That’s how it was handed down to me anyway: “a nervous breakdown.” There was no Diagnostic and Statistical Manual back then, nor, apparently, much compassion. A difficult emotional experience wasn’t depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, or even mania. It was “a nervous breakdown.” Stick him in a room. Don’t talk about it.
They didn’t have much, my dad’s family. Never did. They moved into the Dust Bowl at the start of the Depression when everyone else was getting out. When my grandfather collapsed, someone had to work. It was left to my dad. He never stopped working since.
I once asked my dad what fond memories he had of his father. He didn’t answer immediately, just kept washing the dishes. “He’d have me chase pheasants out of the bushes so he could shoot them,” he said. That was it.
I had little contact with my grandfather growing up. They lived in Minnesota and we didn’t. When I was in seventh grade my grandfather’s health started to decline and my dad needed to manage his care. My dad asked me if I wanted to join him on a brief trip. I said yes, probably to be with my dad. Death has a way of opening up doors.
On one of the many trips that followed I sat with my grandfather in his small kitchen on a winter afternoon. We were playing gin rummy. I asked him about his own dad. Casually, he relayed how his older brother Al finally stood up to their dad, beat the crap out of him, then left home. My grandfather went with him. He was sixteen. Such was life in 1914.
My grandfather used to fight with my uncles. Bare knuckles. Bloody stuff. Probably the same way his father fought with his brother, or with him. My dad was youngest by ten years. He stayed out of it. By the time my father was old enough to fight with my grandfather my grandfather had his “nervous breakdown.” Better incapacitated than belligerent, I suppose, but neither are good options. My uncle Don was a tough son of a bitch, though. You can see it in his sons’ eyes.
When my dad came to visit recently we spent a lot of time with my own kids. Soccer games, dance lessons. In between activities we found ourselves on a bench in Pan Pacific Park watching Hispanic men play soccer in a dusty field. “It’s a crisis of self,” I said to my dad in reference to a midlife crisis. My dad is inordinately curious and I was explaining some of my work. “It’s a failure to make sufficient meaning out of your life, to understand who you are and where you came from. We all have unprocessed or unlived events and experiences, fragments if you will. To become whole is to return to these fragments, to look at them again, to try to make sense out of them, to integrate them. It’s a journey of the unconscious.”
My dad has never expressed much compassion for his dad. He may have compassion for him, but he doesn’t express it. I tried to conceptualize what my grandfather must have gone through when my father was in high school. He had approached all of his relationships since childhood the only way he was taught – through domination. But he had reached a point where domination no longer worked for him. He lost his job at a canning factory because he tried to control his boss. His oldest boys had little regard for him and now they were out of the house. He was incapable of making and holding intimate relationships.
He must have felt terribly lost, terribly alone. The entire way in which he knew how to organize reality – which is the same as how he knew how to maintain human connection – had utterly failed him. And yes, abusive fathers want human connection. That’s why they abuse: to control that which they don’t feel valuable enough to maintain through their own worth. To my grandfather, in the depths of his unconscious, if domination wouldn’t guarantee him human connection, then he would be alone…forever.
Of course, there are other options to maintaining human connection than domination, but when you’ve never experienced those it’s a frightening process to trust that one is good enough to be connected without it. And not feeling good enough is a product of some original domination that caused the feelings of inadequacy in the first place. And so it goes, on and on, generation to generation.
Until someone stops it.
My client wants to stop it. He talks of how he wakes up in the morning depressed, cemented to his bed. He checks Facebook with its rosy presentations of friends’ lives and he sinks even further. His wife wants him more involved, especially in the morning. So he fights his way into their glorious kitchen to somehow participate in the parade of children, wife, and food. He spends the rest of his day doing the kind of work only one percent of the people who actually set out to do this kind of work even get to attempt. But it’s still not enough to dissolve the inadequacy and pain.
It is said that depression is anger turned inward. I believe this. My client swallows his anger because he doesn’t know what else to do with it. Before he was married and had kids his depression was much milder. Now it rages. Better to take the hit for his family than unleash his anger on them. A bittersweet gambit, but ultimately an unsustainable one as my grandfather found out.
On some level his anger has served my client well. He knows how to succeed. He knows how to make himself big, bigger than his dad. But if domination is your only solution when your soul is screaming, your wife needs more time or attention, or your children require patience you don’t walk away with an Oscar.
Essentially my client’s coping mechanism is failing him, which is the reason most people enter into therapy. He cannot simultaneously maintain the dominance that has allowed him to succeed and the relinquishment that is required to sustain intimate relationships. He’s caught between his unconscious compulsion to be bigger than his father and the deeper yearning of the soul just to be. Ultimately he must make a choice: live perpetually in recreating the dynamics between his father and him or let go.
I’m learning to let go of my own dad. Not let go of that person with whom I sat on that bench in Pan Pacific Park talking about midlife. I enjoy him. But let go of that that person, that object in the core of my psyche who worked so much when I was a kid and could be very controlling. Perhaps he did it out of need; perhaps he did it because he found it meaningful; perhaps he did it to ward off the uncertainly of existence; perhaps he did it as a reaction against a father who should have been there for him but wasn’t, to prove a point, over and over and over again.
Whatever the reason, that struggle was his struggle, not mine. It became mine because like all children we yearn for connection, especially with our parents. It’s how we retain a sense of safety, a visceral sense of wellness that permeates our bodies. Sure, it goes against logic to deny who we truly are to mold ourselves after someone who has hurt us, but to our unconscious, that part that goes all the way back to birth, to remain connected to the earthly vessels that provided the conditions for our very existence means to exist. As ironic as it is, we would rather conceive of ourselves as defective than suffer the horror of disconnection.
My dad is an individual. I am an individual. That may not become as apparent when your father is young and vibrant and more powerful than you, but my father, while still vibrant, is 83 years old. Like it or not, he is a fellow traveler with just as much fear, confusion, love, hate, anger, excitement, joy, uncertainty, mistakes, and mortality as me. And just like me, he must face the uncertainty of existence as I must: by trusting the Unknown, by trusting God. Maybe we can hold hands as we drift into the Unknown together. Death has a way of opening up doors.
I had suggested to my client that he finish that letter he had started to his father. “Why bother?” he said. “He’s never going to read it.”
He probably won’t. That may not be the point. In a perfect world his father would read the letter and it would help him see his son’s perspective and he may gain or access the empathy required to reconnect. More than likely, as my client suggested, he would either not read the letter or read it without comprehending. Concepts require reference points. He may not have those reference points, or they’re buried beneath so much pain that he can’t access them without years of his own work. But that’s his own work, not my client’s. The letter is for my client to put words to how he feels, explore the dynamics of his relationship with his father, and ultimately begin the process of making meaning out of what he came from so he can move forward as his own person.
The thing about forgiveness is that it doesn’t happen when you feel the other person understands your pain. Forgiveness happens when we can recognize that the other person did what he or she did to you because of something inside of him or her. Your growth, your potential for contentment lies in the ability to make yourself the best person you can be, essentially, to become your own father.
The alternative is a slow burn through life, a low boil, alternating between various states of depression and anger, subservience and dominance. Some are “lucky.” Their behavior, which includes the abuse of alcohol, drugs, or sex, leads them to a place so messy that they lose all or most of what they truly care about – spouses, children, careers, integrity, freedom. At this point they realize the effects of their inability to accept themselves as separate from their fathers. That’s when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain of change.
“There’s no forgiveness for that,” Daniel said in response to a father’s neglect of his son. There is and there isn’t. Years ago another client asked me why he couldn’t forgive his father for the abuse he received at his hand. “What do you get out of not forgiving him?” I asked. He had to think hard about that one.
As with everything, I guess it all depends on what kind of life you want to live. One where you constantly set everyone else up to be the father you once knew just so that you can knock that person down – and it’s usually the weakest people in our lives who suffer this the most – or a life where you do the best to be who you are and not take responsibility for other people’s behavior.
The reason why Mike wouldn’t have stayed over at my house the night my brother and I were running laps around the park was because his father had told him never to trust a man with money, meaning my father. Apparently, that was the ideology that had come between my childhood best friend and me.
Mike’s dad didn’t know anything about my dad. My dad didn’t know anything Mike’s dad. Mike’s dad probably responded to the world based on his relationship with his father just as my dad responded to the world based on his relationship with his father. I’m certain Mike responded to the world based on his relationship with his father just as I know I have responded to the world based on my relationship with my father.
There are many wonderful things some of us learn from our fathers. I know my father taught me honesty, commitment, integrity, stability, steadfastness, moderation. We can also learn a lot of rotten things from our dads, because, in the end, our dads are human beings. But unless we want to continue to fracture our relationships we need to look within ourselves and decide which characteristics of our most significant attachment figure we wish to amplify and which characteristics we wish to minimize.
Much of this becomes more apparent when you have children of your own. To look into the eyes of your own child and know that he or she will learn how to move through the world from your example is a sobering experience. Some will avoid the responsibility for fear of accepting their value and worth. Others will claim it. Part of claiming it is to learn to forgive your own father for his shortcomings knowing that someday you will be hoping for the same compassion from your own child.
If I were to summarize, it would go something like this: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Lk, 6:37-38)