Occasionally, when I am with my spiritual father and the topic of my childhood comes up, he suggests that I am unaware of how much my childhood experiences affect me. He never pushes me, and I usually say nothing. I don’t know what to say. I can talk about my childhood without feeling anything in particular. It is to me as though it were someone else’s childhood. I seldom think about it. The only context in which I intentionally bring it up is when I am talking to someone else and trying to help them deal with their painful past. Every now and then it comes up accidentally. For example, I will say something about my “mother” and then contradict it a moment later and have to explain that there were several “Moms” in my life.
This morning I was reading a paper written by one of my parishioners for his “Care for Dying, Grief and Loss” course. As I was reading it, I let myself feel a little. I didn’t like what I felt. Anger was close to the surface, the kind of anger that could easily and quickly get out of control.
I am disappointed in myself for still having such a strong emotional response to memories that I have dealt with again and again throughout my life. A few days ago (in helping someone else work though painful memories) I summarized the phases I have gone through (as though such phases were commonly known by all priests and confessors, not revealing that I was merely speaking from personal experience). My parishioner seemed helped. But this morning's experience confirms that there are yet more phases of forgiveness for me to go through.
When I was a child, I was mostly sad and confused. It’s not that I was trying to make sense of life, I just lived. People around me acted, I responded--I did my best to survive, to avoid getting hurt, to make the best I could of whatever advantages I had. It was a selfish existence. I didn’t feel connected to anyone. My mother left when I was five, my father was mostly at sea in the navy, and we moved every year or so staying with grand parents, a stepmother or other relatives (and combinations thereof). Although I felt emotionally unconnected, I did connect briefly with a few kind people along the way. The most prominent example of kindness (that I recognized) was my fifth grade teacher (I don’t remember his name). What I remember is that he was smart and thought I was smart, and he didn’t focus on my mistakes. I was a year behind my one-year younger brother who was in same math class. I had a focus problem. Today they call it ADD, but then it was just misbehavior. A sheet of twenty, four-digit addition problems was overwhelming. Of course I could do it, I just didn’t care.
One day my teacher took me aside and said, “I know you can do this. I’ll make a deal with you: If you do the first three correctly, you don’t have to do any more. You can go on to the next lesson.” What a gift. In a matter of a few months I went from adding four-digit columns to dividing fractions. Math was easy, so long as it wasn't too boring. And in the process I learned that I could force myself to concentrate for a few minutes in a row, and I learned that I could be successful. This was a good thing to learn at that moment because before the end of fifth grade I was to find myself abandoned by my family and living in a large institution for “emotionally disturbed” children.
People usually say at this point that “that must have been terrible,” but really at the time it seemed an adventure--all of my childhood seemed an adventure. It had emotionally tough aspects. I really didn’t get that I had been abandoned until my dad told me to stop calling him. I cried for a while and beat my head against a wall (because it made me dizzy and that felt better than thinking). But the next day I was myself again. Not being nearly as crazy as most of the kids there, I was able to keep a pretty high position in the social hierarchy of my peers. This was a lot of fun for me. I had never been a leader before. Toward the end of my two years in this institution, I was beginning to disappear for whole days at a time, spending the day walking the beach or hanging out at the university that was a couple of miles away. It was clear to everyone that I wasn’t “disturbed” enough to stay there. I was finally placed in a foster home and finished the last month or so of sixth grade in a public school (a year older than my school peers).
During the early teenage years, my numbness regarding my family turned into hate. But in God’s mercy, during the same period, I was beginning to develop an interest in God. As I slowly became a Christian, I slowly began forgiving. Now by forgiving, I mean forgiving not to forgive. At first, all I knew about forgiveness was that God forgave my sin and that I had to forgive everyone who sinned against me. I could say the words, “I forgive” (at first only because I had to), but what those words meant changed over the years. After a couple of years, strong feelings of hate (including homicidal fantasies) gave way to mere anger. Anger took many forms. Sometimes anger was self righteous, sometimes self pitying, sometimes just broken and helpless. I got to know anger pretty well, and I came to realize that it was not a friend I wanted to hang out with. Anger’s the friend who takes over your life: you lose yourself and there’s only the anger.
I eventually learned that I could let go. One meaning of forgiveness is to no longer have to figure it out, make it fit, or even the score. One meaning of forgiveness is just to let it go and move on with your life, wounds and scars and all. This stage of my life involved a certain amount of intentional denial. I looked forward, not back. I trusted God with my life. I trusted God that if I gave Him everything and just went forward as best I could, God would guide me and take care of the rest. And God has. In fact, overall my adult life has been very sweet.
Throughout my early adult years, the past interrupted the present only every now and then (at least that’s how it seemed to me). Now I understand that the past colored everything, yet at the time (in God’s mercy) I thought that I was free from my past except for scattered and occasional interruptions: a memory and a flash of anger would appear in my heart; an overly harsh response to my wife or children would, upon reflection, connect me to something from my past; a rare letter from a blood relative would appear evoking a terse, unreasonable response. Whenever I became aware of anger, I forgave again, I let go again, I shut it down again. I had gotten anger on a chain of sorts and I wasn’t about to let it off again.
As I moved through my late thirties and forties, I came to realize that I was my parents and my parents were me. What I mean is that I realized that given the exact same circumstances in life, I might have made exactly the same choices they did. I began for the first time to be able to see all of life (and particularly my life) from my parents’ perspective. Anger was slowly replaced by pity. When I thought about my parents (which, admittedly, was not often), I felt sorry for them. I realized that theirs was a tough lot--in many way tougher than mine had been. I felt like I understood. I didn’t understand something, I just understood.
I was beginning to think that I had reached the end of the forgiveness road, but my father confessor--lightly, occasionally--would not let me think this. There are still stages of forgiveness to go through. Now is not the time to write about what may be next. Maybe in ten years I will be able to write about a stage of forgiveness that I now only see from afar. God knows. The same God who forgives me and forgives my parents and forgives all the parents of parents of parents will teach me what's next. Stay tuned.