What does it mean to forgive your father?

10 years ago

Whether the wound is small or large, we all have father-wounds. Parenting leaves some scuff marks, even with the best of parents.

Forgive him. Give him and yourself the finest Father's Day gift and forgive him.

First, let's say clearly what forgiveness is NOT. Forgiveness is not saying that what was hurtful is OK, and it does NOT result in putting oneself in harm's way over and over again. Practicing forgiveness, however, is an opportunity that fundamentally changes the terms with which we encounter the world. It is rigorous and freeing. It is like letting a wound be exposed to the clean air so that it can heal.

Not all of us had fathers where there is an unblemished history of parenting. The key thing is -- what is it that we do with those wounds, especially if they are big?

We have a few choices -- we can live in and out of them, seeing the wound over and over, communicating from The Land of the Wound, looking for others to fill the gaps left by the wound, telling the world about it, letting the wound color our days as sad or angry or chronically disappointed with men. Or we can squash down the pain and try to cork it up with food or sex or alcohol or drugs or jogging or work. The problem is that when we are not doing those things, the old wound reasserts itself, and we are off and running.

I had a few years where I should have carried a sign : "Look at me. I am a mobile Father-wound." Not good years.

Developing and honing the spiritual muscles of forgiveness, I am convinced, has to be a conscious task, a true discipline. Our world reinforces not forgiving at such a level of intensity that we must deliberately focus on forgiveness.

Groups proclaim loudly and arrogantly thatthere are no victims, only volunteers. Equally damaging are those who wear their wound like a medal of pride, using it to distinguish themselves as in some way special. I contend that the truth is between -- that hurtful things have been done, ut that we do not haveto let those hurtful things determine our life or our relationships.

Every time that I mention Fathers who are not ideal on my blog or here, women tumble out lots of pain, and lots of hope. So I hope you will indulge me mentioning fathers and forgiveness once again.

First, if you feel comfortable or hopeful about talking through old issues with your father, please do it. Some moments can really be redemptive, and worth the risk. I'll pray for your success.

Here is a story about my Dad, taken from an old blog entry of mine:

My own father could be nasty and brutish, with a temper that was primitive and terrifying. When I was a little girl, I remember a night he and my Mom were arguing. I was upstairs in my room, but I could hear them downstairs. There was a lot of yelling. Then my father was clumping loudly up the stairs; and then there was a loud almost Olympic shot-putting shout from him, followed immediately by a thunderous noise. It sounded like lightening had hit just hit my room.

My father called my mother upstairs, and told me to get out of my room and into the hall. He showed us what he had done. He had driven his two fists into the hard plaster wall about 4-6 inches in, leaving two deep fist marks in the concave fist-blasted plaster.

He said "I want the two of you to see this." His voice got ominous. " Next time it could be you," and he walked away.

He never hit us, but he refused to let my Mom plaster over those holes for many years. I walked by that grim reminder of my father's lurking rage every time I went to my room for a long time.

A few years before he died, with him in his 80's and me in my 50's, I asked him if he remembered that day. He said, dismissively, "Sure, but that was just rage. Everyone feels that." I calmly told him that actually everyone really does not feel that, and that in some homes it would be entirely foreign.

He looked at me as though I had dropped into his kitchen from Saturn. "Then they are lying to you," he said with utter certainty, and got up and went into the other room.

Conversation over.

Rage was what my father knew. Like Jake laMotta in the film, Raging Bull, to him the words "life" and "rage" were indistinguishable.

I decided to forgive my father for that time. That one isolated time. Two nights later, I wasn't done -- three nights, not done; four, not done. The event still held a charge for me. (It clearly still does, as I can recall it vividly and in great detail. )

I do find a way to se and forgive pieces of things - the knowledge that his rage wasn't about us or anything we did - the history in his own childhood of violence - the fact that he was not educated and had never been exposed to real gentleness before my mother - and I throw piece after piece of it at my memory, but with no full luck....until...
It starts to dawn on me that he also did great violence to himself with his own temper.

Also, some less than pleasant things dawn on me - ways in which I am frightened to forgive -- afraid it would open me to more rage, more abuse -- even though my father is now dead there are ways I cling to his wrong-doings. There can be absolutely irrational protection around a wound. But here is the secret -- the protection can irritate the wound so that it does not heal. (Read that twice if you have to.)

Now I'm coming to understand that forgiveness is a journey, a way of being in the world -- not an event. It is not a magical eraser. It is a way of unfolding the past differently.

It is not about restoring things to some magical place where the reality of our lives did not happen.

It is partly about establishing a spiritual practice where I can let go of the parts of myself that are still living in the past.

It is also partly about finding the similarities between the part of myself that cannot release that memory, and the part
of my father that could not let go of his rage. This is the tough stuff to face. This is the legacy of a wound.

Here is a section of an old email I sent to a friend:

Forgiveness (at least in part, the part I understand) is the putting down of a burden of bad feeling. It is a Great and Holy Unraveling. It is saying "I will no longer see the world through this piece of pain." It is, for me, a way to freedom.


Eyelet has a great post about forgiving her father:

My dad was sick. And though it would be egotistical of me to think I had the right to be angry in the first place, I forgave him. I let go of the past, and recognized that it was what it was, and there is no way I can change that now. All I can do is make a new start for myself in this moment, with a pure forgiveness, from the heart, for any old "hurts."

I knew I had made mistakes as well. Perhaps all these years would have been different, if I had seen the whole picture long ago. If I had accepted my father for who he was, and who he wasn't. If I was able to look past my selfishness and realize that in a family, it's not just the parents who provide for the children, it's a team effort. I apologized to my father, and he forgave me with pleasure.

And I realized that this might even be harder than forgiving him. I began the road to forgiving myself. Realizing that the only way to make up for all those lost years is to do what's right in this moment, and avail myself to the relationship I never let us have.

Rose writes about forgiving and has this advice:

I realized that forgiveness begins with your decision to forgive, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, I find I need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.

Hoping that the other person will change their actions, behavior or words isn't the point of forgiveness. In fact, the other person may never change or apologize. I learned that forgiveness is more about how it will change my life by bringing me more peace, happiness, and emotional healing.

Gail, in her blog,Crosses to Bear struggles with forgiving her father until she finds a way. Click on the above link to see her resolution.:

How do you forgive someone who has hurt you so badly? That was the question I grappled with on the day of my father's funeral. I would continue to ponder that question many times over the next few months, always coming back to the same thing...what, exactly, does it mean to forgive? By forgiving him, would I be throwing myself away and discounting all of the pain I had suffered at his hands? He had never suffered any penalties for the things he had done to me and I had received no justice for his deeds. Shouldn't there have been penalties? Shouldn't there have been justice? My emotions alternated between self-pity and justifiable anger. Yet, a little voice, way in the back of my head, kept whispering over and over and over, "Forgive him".

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