A Lesson in Forgiveness

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In his somewhat less than fully coherent email earlier in the week, Ed attempted to teach me about the importance of forgiveness.  In a brief note of follow up yesterday, he again reiterated his belief that forgiveness is necessary for healing.

There are a few key things about forgiveness Ed doesn’t seem to understand, for example: There are people who should not be forgiven – namely those who would take forgiveness as a sign that they weren’t so bad after all; this way of thinking opens the door to rationalization of their past, and future, behavior.  Ed has never understood the breadth or depth of what he has done; forgiving him before he fully comprehends would be downright self-destructive for me.

The problem inherent to forgiveness is that the power resides in the transgressor’s hands. The psychological impact of forgiveness on the forgiver is determined by whether or not the transgressor has made amends.  Forgiveness without amends leaves the forgiver with diminished feelings of self-worth.  To date, Ed has not sought to make anything right, he has sought only to move on.

Pain is deeper and longer lasting when the transgressor intentionally caused it – repeatedly.  This cannot be overstated; when you repeat a destructive behavior time without number, you did not make a mistake – you demonstrated something real and lasting about who you are.  Forgiveness for this [child abuse] is a process, and it is dependent wholly and entirely upon the transgressor’s sincere acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility for ALL wrongdoing, and their  forthright desire to make amends for what their behavior caused.

Despite Ed’s belief in forgiveness as a panacea, it isn’t simple.  I am not simple.  My self-respect, peace of mind, and understanding are not based in my forgiveness of my father; and to forgive now would leave me despondent because he has not earned it.  Any benefit I could derive from forgiving him would come through his personal growth and desire to make right what he destroyed.

The kind of forgiveness I’m speaking of takes time and concerted effort to earn.  You don’t close the cycle and end the abuse quickly or easily, and those you have harmed need to know they are valued, treasured, cherished and loved now as they always should have been; they need to know it is safe to forgive.

Forgiveness is sobering, and honest.  And while we embrace the sentiment, “To err is human, to forgive divine,” it cannot be universally applied.  We cannot reap the benefits of forgiveness alone, we need the full and complete cooperation of our transgressor, and therein lies the quandary; those with the capacity to destroy the lives of their children seldom, if ever, see the need to repair.

So you see Ed, the ball is most definitely NOT in my court.

No Forgiveness, Ever

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I think child abuse survivors accept what happened to them as a way of avoiding the pain involved in facing the truth about their parents, and that is understandable.

Others run away from the past; I ran from my childhood for a long, long time – buried the feelings and pain so deep I thought they’d never see the light of day; that part of my life was over, finished, done.  Or so I thought.

But I didn’t accept, didn’t choose to see abuse through the eyes of the abuser, or make their abuse somehow OK in my mind because their lives were less than ideal.  I didn’t lie to myself to avoid facing the reality that my parents were disgusting human beings.

That lack of acceptance and denial puts me far ahead of those who choose that path …

for that is the path that allows the cycle to continue.

Forgiveness is giving up the idea that the past could have been different than it was.

I didn’t forgive either …

I didn’t forgive because the past could have been different; abusing your child is a choice; an act of sheer will.  Ed and Pat made the choice to hurt their children, and they made it time and time again.  It was not a one-off, a mistake – it was a conscious choice that will forever define who they are.

Anyone capable of making the decision to hurt a child is devoid of character, nobility, integrity, compassion, empathy, honor, mercy, dignity, and love – in short, all the traits that separate human beings from animals …

How do you even begin to forgive someone for the whole of who they are?

What It Takes To Forgive

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“I remember you being hurt at the picnic and crying. You had done something I told you not to do and got hurt. Instead of comforting you and making sure you were OK, I got furious and literally dragged you across the lenght of the park (Washington Park across the street and down the block from our house), down the block and into the house. I remember people yelling at me not to be cruel to such a small defenseless child and my telling them to “f  * off, you were my son and I treat you anyway I wanted.” That I own completely as being a real A.. hole. You were being just a 5-6 year old kid wanting to be a part of the grown-up games, not some piece of trash on which I could vent my anger.

 

Now the hard part, the violent uncontrolled spankings, these I remember most deeply. I don’t remember the specific incident where you lost control of your bowels; I just remember being told that it happened. I do remember spanking you so hard my hand hurt, not the physical pain I was causing you, and that my hand hurt after I was through, and for several days thereafter. That incident remained so deep in my heart that it was one of the unresolved items I had to face during counseling sessions later- coming face-to face with the horror of what I did to you. That took me a long time to face and accept all that anger in myself and to resolve NEVER again to do anything like that. And I never have!”

 

 

The text above is from an email from Ed I received not long after he first contacted me.  It was difficult to read, and until now impossible to process or respond to …

The incident he recalls from above – the one where his hand hurt for several days following the beating (I will never refer to this as spanking) he gave me is one of dozens such incidents – but he usually used a stick or a belt to beat me, telling me he wouldn’t use his hand because he didn’t want his hand to hurt … so much for the pain deep in his heart.

And the day of the picnic, after he got me home, stripped me naked and beat me with a belt so long, so hard and so violently I actually remember being afraid he was never going to stop – and when he finally did, he left me alone, in the bathtub, sobbing incoherently.  The trauma of that day will never leave me.

And as for his never beating another child – he hasn’t had the opportunity; his own grew up, and his step-son, Jeffrey, had his mother and father for protection.  Not beating another child required no resolve on Ed’s part to accomplish, no personal growth or discipline to achieve.

Ed,

Now …

tell me again how it is you knew you had done all of these things to me, yet you didn’t know why I cut you out of my life.

Or that you cannot recall the many MULTIPLE beatings you gave me just like those you’ve confessed to … or the day-to-day hell I suffered and survived just being your son.

Today – you need to confront this horror with me.  Therapist be damned – you know exactly who and what you were while I was growing up, and you know exactly what you did time and time and time again.

You want my forgiveness, and I want to forgive you, but for that to happen you have to get completely real and honest with yourself and with me.

The time for selective memory has passed, no more seeing yourself through the veil of isolated incidents.  You were a violent, cruel, rage-filled and terrible father throughout my childhood; you beat so often and so hard my fear of you was palpable; you (and Pat) are the cause of mental illness and scars no one can heal.

And for God’s sake, stop with the daft, “I didn’t know, ” nonsense; you were there when it all happened, hell you did it!   You lived the same life in the same house I did – every. Single. Day.  What you recall above should be enough for you to understand we aren’t discussing an occasional mistake made by and otherwise caring and devoted father – we are talking about the fact that you were an angry out-of-control father who heinously abused his children at every turn …

Child abuse, Ed.  Child abuse you committed over and over and over again.   

See yourself as you truly were,

and own your truth, all of it.

 

Propensities and Principles – of Reconciliation

“Propensities and principles must be reconciled by some means.”  –Charlotte Bronte

Reconciliation with an estranged family member is possible, despite the bleak statistics … the failure rate is staggering.

I’d read and researched, been up and down with my father in my attempt at understanding – I’d spoken to my wife, children, friends, mother-in-law and therapist.  I’d listened to the advice of my readers …

Somewhere in the process I realized that relating to him now based solely on residual feelings from childhood – my being reactive (negatively) to everything he said, and my not seeing him for the man he is today wasn’t productive.  My anger – justified or not, was standing in the way of problem solving.  And about this same time, I began to understand that I wanted the problem of estrangement solved, and I wanted it all to have a happy ending … if that was possible.

So, I stepped back and away from what happened when I was a child and suggested we start with today. Build a connection now – a new connection based on our lives in the present.  I told him about my family and my life during the years since we’d last seen each other, I gave him hope in the form of sharing a few fond memories I had of him while I was growing up, and I invited him to an evening out with our wives.

 I extended an olive branch …

remembered my own principles; ‘a man should not be defined by his mistakes, but by what he does to make them right.’

And in remembering who I am, it dawned on me:

I had to give him a second chance.

In my anger and pain I hadn’t realized that believing in second chances meant I had to offer something, too – a willingness, an open heart. 

I thought, eventually, we’d have to revisit my childhood – but armed with a new connection, a solid bond, the moment would play itself out differently – it would be less complicated and more constructive – less painful and more resolute – less angry and more understanding.

Maybe my decision was wise, I don’t really know.  What I do know is that I no longer feel a need to speak of my father’s mistakes with him, no need to revisit my childhood and make the man he is today confront the father he was then.  He may not have been the father I needed as a child, but he gets an A+ for effort now.

In addition to getting my father back, I’ve gotten a far more complete understanding of my childhood – something I needed to feel whole emotionally.

I admire and respect his approach – to this day he will not speak to me disparagingly about my mother.  This is, even in my family where my mother has caused a sea of pain, destruction and heartbreak, the right thing to do.   Denigration is not the key to understanding, truth is.

If propensity represents the dark side of human nature, as Bronte suggests, acting on  our principles allows us to be something greater …

and to have something greater:

relationships based in truth, understanding, kindness, loyalty … and maybe even forgiveness.  

Interaction, Motivation & Intent

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There are two distinct roles in any human interaction, Giver and Receiver; the Giver makes a point, explains a concept and/or conveys his beliefs – and the Receiver listens, takes in, processes and draws a personal conclusion based on the Giver’s delivery technique and message content.

Delivery matters, it is vitally important.  Content matters – it is, after all, the point entirely.

There is a third facet to interaction and it is equally crucial but often overlooked in the moment; Motivation and Intent.  Specifically Motivation and Intent on the part of the Giver as perceived by the Receiver.

In this post, I explained how it is that a survivor of child abuse is the only person whose position and beliefs count when concluding that he was abused … today’s post broadens and refines to include interaction and perceptions of mistakes juxtapose to abuse …

In an abusive relationship, the message is delivered through violent and painful means.  The Giver/Abuser uses force, humiliation and pain to make his point.  He is often angry and sometimes out of control. He doesn’t concern himself with the feelings of the Receiver/Victim – the interaction is toxic, completely devoid of respect and the antithesis of loving; it is, at its core, betrayal.

Upon later reflection – that place where Motivation and Intent come into play, a victim of child abuse struggles to find in the message anything of pure Motivation or positive, well meaning Intent.

All parents make mistakes.  We are human and subject to frailty of resolve.  In healthy parent/child relationships mistakes are viewed on balance with far more positive than negative interaction, and are then seen for what they were, errors – nothing more.  Motivation and Intent, which were clearly understood and always based in love and respect will be considered, and will prevail, serving to mitigate any damage done to the relationship through unintentional parental error.

When I look back and consider Pat and Ed’s Motivation and Intent, I understand that they were motivated by a need to control and an inability to feel the pain of others – even their own child, and an intent to cause that pain as well as shame and humiliation.  That’s all I see, remember or feel.

A screaming young child in the throes of a tantrum is emotionally overwhelmed – probably exhausted, and in need of some down time and reassurance; to be held, rocked, comforted – not to have water thrown in his face.  Already compromised emotionally, there is no possible way he will be able to process this event in his mother’s favor … never gonna happen;

And then I think, if it was just that — if she hadn’t also beaten me, abandoned me and allowed my father to beat me violently with anything within his reach, maybe I could have forgiven having had a little water thrown in my face …

If it was just that, I would probably have been able to see it as a mistake.  An error.  A parental lapse in judgement.  If the rest of my childhood had been filled with love, respect and compassion; if I had been valued, cared for and wanted I would have perceived her message – though wrongly delivered, as something less than abuse, shame and humiliation.

But that isn’t how life works in an abusive home.  Interaction – virtually all interaction, is toxic.  Teaching moments – discipline, are marred by violence and total disregard for the feelings and well being of the child.  There is no balance, therefore Motivation and Intent can be seen ONLY for the demented, twisted and sick impetus they in fact were …

Abusers don’t make mistakes;

their actions are rooted in complete disregard for the pain they cause …

they are purposeful and designed to torment and punish.

I don’t know if my parents started out as bad people, I only know that is what they became.  Good people don’t hurt their children and feel of a sense of righteousness and pride in having done so.  We all learned in Kindergarten it is wrong to hit people and to hurt their feelings, it’s that basic.  They knew better, or should have, and they just didn’t care …

Children are not wild animals who need to be tamed.  They are fragile and delicate and respond best to kindness, gentleness and understanding.  They need guidance and love and compassion to become who they were born to be.

Pat and Ed, like the rest of us, were aware of this … so the pain they caused over and over and over again was intentional.  Their methods were torturous, their message clouded in their own perverse need to control, not guide.

I did love them, once.  When they betrayed that love time and time and time again, I judged them …

but I will never forgive them.

Why Forgiveness is Impossible

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To explore forgiveness,  I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate for this post. (kind of)

In this post, I took the position of the abuse survivor – myself.  I do that a lot on this blog, actually – it is the premise of Silence Shattered and and integral part of my life experience:

But to consider all of this from the other point-of-view – now that’s foreign to me.

So …

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say Ed and Pat didn’t want to live the last thirty years estranged from the their only son.  Let’s pretend they are capable of feeling the loss in never having known their grandchildren.  Let’s assume they’d like for things to be different than they are.  And we’ll all imagine them to be capable of change and asking for forgiveness …

I’m going to open myself up to all those possibilities, despite their inherent improbability.

I am going to attempt to see all of this through their eyes …

proceed from the ideation that I’m wrong – my memories are false, or I’m a liar, or under the influence of a very bad woman.

I’m going to step away from abuse that bordered on torture

from never feeling loved or understood, valued or wanted as a child (unless I was with my maternal grandparents)

I’m going to believe Ed – he didn’t rape that girl; she was able to consent morally and legally, and she did.

I’m going to understand Pat’s inability to cope with her life and unhappiness as a reason for being cruel to her children

I’m going to understand them, damn it!

I am!

I’m going to sit right here until I do.

If I try, this will come to me.

I.  Am.  Going.  To.  Understand.  And.  Forgive.

Wait a minute, I can’t.

And it isn’t just because I don’t want to, or because I don’t think they are deserving of forgiveness:

I simply lack the psychological make-up to understand,  my mind won’t allow me to.

No matter what I do, I will never get to a place where I understand the abuse, or the denial – or them.

To forgive someone for something, I have to be able to put myself in their shoes – and I have to be able to my admit my part in any shared conflict:

But I was a child, I played no part in the conflict

and I will never be able to put myself in their shoes…

because they just don’t fit.