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Their Reality: Is It Really That Cut and Dry?

I had just entered the house when I heard my mother’s voice calling my name. As a fifteen year old my first thought didn’t have me noticing anything special in her tone, but upon first glimpse of her it was apparent she was overwhelmed with something. I am sure most of us have experienced a moment where we knew, deep within the pit of our stomachs, that something was extremely amiss. That was one of those moments for me. My mom then said the words that seemed to lift me out of the reality of our moment and into a reality that felt as if I was living someone else’s life. I remember both thinking to myself while I was asking myself did she just say what I thought she said? Did Mama just say “your father was shot and killed today…” Damn, she did!

I remember not shedding a tear that day, or days, weeks, even years after that moment. I had too much anger in me to allow even one tear to slide down my cheek. Why would I cry for a man who walked the earth for six years prior to the moment of his death, but not find time to see his son! I felt much contempt for this man who was my father but never really my daddy. While not necessarily hating him, I hated what he stood for, or didn’t take the time to stand for. It would be years before I would shed a tear on his behalf or on my behalf for him, or for myself. Eventually I did though, and there is one film which invokes those tears every time I see it. The film is Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals! The scene is towards the end of the film when the main character, Victor (played by Adam Beach), is trying to come to terms with the death of his father and goes to disperse his father’s ashes off a bridge. Maybe it is the way this scene is packaged, but I can’t get past this scene without a flood of tears racing down my face. I can take a deep breath, steel my nerves, and convince myself it is only a movie. But the bottom line is always the same, I find myself crying for a man that just didn’t seem to care enough to love me! As Victor tosses the ashes off the bridge his thoughts are revealed in somewhat of a poetic fashion:

How do we forgive the sins of our fathers? Do we forgive them for leaving us too often. or forever when we were little? Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage? Or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all? Do we forgive our fathers for marrying... or not marrying our mothers? For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth... or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning? For shutting doors? For speaking through walls... or never speaking? Or never being silent? Do we forgive our fathers in our age... or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them? Or not saying it? If we forgive our fathers... what is left?

How do we forgive the sins of our fathers or as a matter of fact, the sins of our parents? Who is it actually that we should be trying to forgive in some cases, our father, mother, both parents, or the society that prevented them, inhibited them, from being all they could be? How important is it to find a context that at least gives us access to better understand their decision-making process so that we aren’t judging them by a modern day standard that isn’t applicable to the time they lived in? Is the thought of forgiving our fathers/mothers really fair when often times we really have only a limited version of the story? Is it really that cut and dry?


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I think that you put it quite well when you state that you “hated what he stood for.” I too went through a time of almost hatred for my own father. To me he stood for something I would never want to be. A man with an uncontrollable anger who thought that a beating was the only way to solve issues. As a young child and young teenager I could not understand how a man who could bring me into this world could be so far from anything I wanted to be.
But this was before I truly knew my father. I knew him as my father but little else was known. When I finally got to learn a little more about how he was raised and the pressures put on him I started to understand that this was what he was taught. He knew nothing else. Did this make it ok? No of course not, but it led to greater understanding as to why these things took place. Luckily my father is one of the most intelligent people I know who loves his family greatly. When my mother demanded that professional help be sought out for his and our family problems, my father resisted but still attended sessions. Being an intelligent person he accepted that perhaps he wasn’t going about things the best way and decided it was time for change.
This of course does not make him a saint. He lived as a person who had anger built up in him for over 4 decades. This cannot be erased, but he has made amazing strides and I love him for that. Yes there are times when the old him flares up but he knows now to examine why exactly he feels the need to lash out physically and not talk things out. I am especially proud since our culture (Caribbean) is usually one that says “spare the rod spoil the child.” He may not totally disagree with it but knows that corporal punishment is not the first and only way to deal with discipline problems ( or maybe because I am a lot bigger now and he has bad knees)
Basically I think that until we truly know our parents we cannot understand why things may be the way they are. This learning greatly helps in the process of possible forgiveness. But is forgiveness really necessary? Do we have to forgive or should we at least understand?

For a long time I based my reality on the life of one of my mother. Everything she said, or wanted me to believe, I did. I voluntarily allowed myself to be a puppet, all thoughts and actions a reflection of who she was or a branch of herself (what she couldn’t do, I would reach toward). It never questioned her upbringing or even societal factors-why did she value what she did, who she was, or who others thought I was? Was this even the case, or did societal factors cause me to question my upbringing?

Now that I am older and enlightened to an extent, I ponder about how much I am still like my mother. Actually, the newly acquired relationship with my father opened up thoughts like this for me. He challenged my emotions through thought (I never knew one could control the other) and has helped to contextualize how I view both of my parents. They are only products of their environment and I cannot fault them for the way they interact with/treat me. I love them both and appreciate their efforts.

This blog has struck several chords with me and I'm not sure where to start...! Maybe by saying that I share a memory similar to the one you experienced when you first heard the news of your father's death. For me, it was a 2:00 A.M. phone call from my father, who was on the scene of my 17 year old brother's fatal car accident. My father had just witnessed his child's lifeless body pinned to a steering wheel. I listened to the utter horror in his voice, anxiously, as he stumbled on his words. Although he was able to communicate to me that my brother had been in a car accident, he was incapable of delivering all the facts directly to me, so he asked me to give the phone to my husband. I already knew my brother was gone.

Over the next several months, I found myself reflecting on life,..death,..and everything in between, but especially on the importance of our relationships with our immediate family.

Knowing my father was suffering from the guilt he felt over the recent arguements he had with my brother, as well as the pain he felt from the loss, was weighing heavily on my heart. While they had begun to sort out their differences, I know neither of them would have expected they would not have the luxury we call "time" to truly make peace with each other. Six siblings, a mother and a step-mother would also feel the pain, the loss, and the regret of not fully expressing their love to their brother/son.

I would also reflect on my childhood, recalling my mother's constant battle with mental illness and the hardships and heartaches it caused our family. Seeing her helpless after a nervous breakdown, not knowing why she was so sad, or so emotionless, thinking what did I do to deserve this? As the oldest sibling, naturally, I would need to take up the slack and really, have many of the responsibilities that are usually meant for adults. With my father working on average, thirteen hours a day, six days a week, what other choice did I have?

While I realize now that in some ways I have become a better, stronger person as a result of my seemingly negative experiences, I think It is natural to feel slighted and resentful towards our parents for their mistakes, even if it isn't fully their fault. In order to contextualize the actions of our parents, we need an accurately detailed description of their past, as well as their mental capacity. Often, this is just not possible.

When I reflect on the reality of my brother's life ending too soon and so suddenly, it helps me to consider the positive outcomes of my negative experiences so that I can spend my precious time on earth in a manner that is productive, but most of all, peaceful.

(Pre-script: I can only write this from the male perspective. I simply am too uninformed to presume to generalize or even guess about a daughter's relationship with her father.)
One of the toughest days in a young boy's life than the day he realizes that his father is not superman, but in fact, is human, falible, imperfect. On that day, a boy's feelings move in one of two directions; forgiveness/understanding for not living up to the impossible standards that we set for our dads or resentment that our dads allowed (maybe even encouraged) us to "believe the hype" in the first place. Even if one starts with the second set of feelings, one must get back around to the first before the father/son relationship can move beyond that day.
JW, you felt for your father because that's who he was - your father. That is a connection that transcends society, transcends the actions of either father or son. It has been constant across every culture on earth, ever. Even when father and son do not speak for years, or, if they never spoke at all, I believe there is a force that binds the two. That tie can be like a strong, firm, warm handshake and hug, or, like handcuffs and a straight-jacket, or somewhere in between. But it exists, always. We may love our fathers, or hate them, but we cannot be indifferent toward them even if we never met them.
A trite but true saying comes to mind - the older I get the smarter my father gets.
There's a scene the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer" - the father of the boy-chess protige (not Bobby Fischer) has just realized that his 9-year-old son is better at Chess than he has ever been at anything in his life. He has been pushing his son to hone his talents and become as good as he can as quickly as he can. The boy's mother, fearful that the father is pushing too hard says through tears "when they step up to hit a baseball how many sons do you think are affraid their fathers won't love them if they don't get a hit!?" The dad screams back (perhaps recalling his own relationship with his father) "All of them!" You know, maybe that's where a lot of father/son angst comes from - for much of our lives we are compelled to live up to our fathers' expectations, but, we perceive that our fathers may not even try to live up to ours, or, even care that we have any.
I don't know if "forgiveness" is even the right word, JW. Understanding, wisdom, experience seem to fit better, at least with my own experience. Unlike several other bloggers, I really don't have a lot of childhood drama informing my attitudes. My parents didn't divorce, or even separate during my lifetime. There is no mental illness, or alcoholism. There is no abuse. Growing up, I saw my father was the stereotypical provider - big, tough, strong, distant. I've never had a reason to hate him even if I didn't always like him very much. I will say that I never really got to know the man until after my mother died. If I'm honest I'd have to say I probably didn't like him very much - I had none of the natural athletic talent that he did when he was a boy, and, he didn't seem to appreciate my accedemics or musical interests, and I think that dynamic frustrated both of us. We've been able to move beyond that somehow and we don't expect each other to be perfect. I've come to count on him for sage, non-judgemental advice in my most difficult hours. And I think he appreciates the father that I am to my own son. I certainly understand him, and like him, a lot more than I used to.

I too have experienced a lot of pain and anger towards my parents and extended family. I was adopted into a complicated web of deceit and drama and blissfully lived until I was seven. But when I was seven I found at that the woman who I thought was my mother was actually my aunt and the man I thought was my father had no biological relation to me whatsoever. And as if that wasn't complicated enough, the woman who I thought was my Aunt was my mother and her children weren't my cousins, but my sisters.

To this day I can't reflect back on any of it and be okay and so, to forgive is almost a foreign concept. I can reflect back on the experience of my biological family and see that ultimately, the decisions they made back in 1987 regarding me were the best decisions. And I can appreciate and respect my mother for knowing that her lifestyle wasn't healthy nor was it going to lead to success for me as her third child. I can grasp all of the complicated grown-up stuff of it. But I can't get over the emptiness I have felt and will continue to feel since I was 7.

"If we forgive our fathers... what is left?"
A very provoactive question. I don't know what is left. I think I have tried to forgive, but I can't forgive what I don't completely understand. And because no one will explicitly explain it to me and because there are so many stories about all of those events, I can't comprehend it completely.

And the hint of forgiveness I do have in my heart simply leaves behind pain and more emptiness because after forgiveness the only place to go is forward and there is no progress in mending that relationship.

So I don't know how to forgive the sins of our parents. I'm not sure we have to. Just as we can't forgive the sins of the colonizers of America, I don't think we can look back on any of that experience and forgive it. I think we can learn from it. I think we take it and we change it. I think we attempt to make it better so that our own children and families don't have to forgive our sins. For me it really does come down to a cliche-whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Quality of life increases significantly when one is able to forgive, maybe not forget, in fact, probably not, but forgive. Life is about choices, and I decided long ago to forgive both my parents. After all, they were simply working with the tools they were provided with and did the best they could. Yeah, they're not perfect, and there are areas they could improve upon and I haven't been shy to tell them that. But harboring resentment or anger only negatively impacts me. So why not let go of that anger. It doesn't mean you have to let people run over you, but heck, doesn't being angry get old?!

As far as my own children, I believe I've been the best parent I can be, but I know I've made mistakes, and I simply am open and honest with my daughter about those mistakes. I apologize, tell her I am not proud of myself and work to change so the mistakes repeated. Maybe this shatters the illusion of the perfect father, but that's not reality, and I would rather my daughter know people are real, they make mistakes and that's okay. I think it's good she sees me learn from my mistakes and hopefully she walks away with her own lessons learned.

Most importantly though, I think people are often too harsh on themselves and others. Many of us try to live up to a standard society created and we judge ourselves and others based on that bull crap. In reality, normal and right and wrong are what each individual makes of it. And as a parent, I strive to raise children who make their own decisions and don't let society, or even me tell them how to live their lives.

I know one thing I am trying to change in myself is the fact I have little patience for people who judge others based on their own perceptions on how the world should be and how its inhabitants should act. I work very hard at keeping myself in check and recognizing that my way of thinking is good for me, but in reality, it is no better or no more valid than the next person's. Ultimately, no one is really more right than another, and if people out there think they are, then they are merely trapped in societal conditioning that is extremely crippling, especially when it prevents the individual from choosing his or her own path in life, even if that path is condemned by the majority.

As a 22-year-old woman who is just beginning to identify with her independence, I have thought a lot about the similarities and differences that exist between my parents and I. Some of my thoughts are filled with appreciation. There are certain memories I have of my parents that remind me to stay positive and open and accepting of this world.

I also have resentments towards my parents. I resent my mother for treating each child differently in similar situations, and for expecting so much of me as the oldest child. I resent my father for being so short tempered towards us as children, and reacting to us like we one of his peers.

These resentments, among others, are feelings I have carried in my mind for many years. I actually resented these things as they were happening, although I may not have given myself approval to do so as a child. I don’t think their reality is any more cut and dry than our own is. It is important for people to see others as they see themselves. Think about intention. Have you ever intended to hurt someone for no reason at all? Most people will answer no. Even in a malicious act, there is usually some sort of fuel behind the intent; the doer of the action feels that the receiver deserves this action for a reason.

Forgiveness is one of the most important actions in our lives. It allows us to let go of what has hurt us, and free the person that we want to hurt back as well. It may seem that resentment and anger towards someone who has hurt us will eventually bring us peace and substantiate for our pain, but what we don’t always realize is that the resentment and anger diminish us as we try to heal ourselves. Healing is accomplished through forgiveness and love. Forgiving someone, especially when the task seems impossible, is like letting go of a ledge that you were holding so tightly in order to save yourself from falling, and upon falling, realizing that solid ground was right below your feet, only now your hand are free!

" Forgiving someone, especially when the task seems impossible, is like letting go of a ledge that you were holding so tightly in order to save yourself from falling, and upon falling, realizing that solid ground was right below your feet, only now your hands are free! "

Wow. That was really amazing. I think ALC is right on and that analogy is just beautiful. It just makes me think about the energy that is required to hold onto the hate or the hurt or to defend against the immense disappointment in who one's parent is- or isn't- or the greatest disappointment when your parent dies and you know- that you will now never know- who that person really was.

I think the tricky part for all of us is to not assume that the way we were treated- or ignored had anything to do with who we were, as children, or our worth. I guess that's where understanding the context- their reality- comes into play. The other tricky part, I think, is to find the balance between letting go of the past sufficiently to really move forward, but not just burying it without allowing oneself to really feel- and maybe mourn what was missing- or what was painful. It's good that Sheman Alexie gave you that good cry. I remember that scene and it is hard not to feel the sheer waste of opportunity.

But, the script gets written and we have no say about what stage is set before we get there. After that, it's up to us. Easier said than done, because who we are can be so connected to the prior scenes. For me- and others have said as much in their blogs, it's what you do with it all that counts. Those of us who are lucky enough to become parents get to redo it the way we wish it had been for us. Sometimes, we even get to expand that to others that we teach or guide- or love. It's not the same as having the parents we wish we'd had, or deserved to have, but it contains the damage and changes the course for the next generation.

But it is so scary to let go of that ledge!

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