Thursday, April 24, 2008

When you forgive....

I remember when my parents got divorced, people used to tell me, "Time will heal your pain." I hated that rhetoric. Why should my dad and his new wife get away with wrecking our family by virtue of time's ability to heal, to make us forget, to help us move on? So I vowed that time would not heal, that I would not forget, that, in fact, the pain would last.

I knew then that a vow like that was supposed to be dangerous to my own soul. I wasn't quite sure why, though. It just seemed like the universe was letting my parents get away with selfishness, 1970s style, and since the law, religion, and our tennis club friends all seemed perfectly content to overlook my pain when they moved along and accepted the devastation to our family, I decided to take it on myself to mete out justice. I did it by holding onto resentment and an unwillingness to ever forget that my dad, his new wife and my mother made terrible choices.

I didn't know then that these adults were choosing a path for their lives and I was merely collateral damage. No one told me I didn't have to adopt a posture of judgment and anger as a way to cope. It would have been startling to have someone suggest to me that I could simply focus on the pain they caused and work to create a better life for myself, without also focusing on how to make them pay. In fact, I felt I'd be betraying the moral fiber of the universe to love them, to find likable qualities in my dad or his wife, to forgive my mom for her abandonment. So I held them all at this "I love you, but that's in spite of..." arm's length distance.

To move on without judgment—that just didn't seem like the right thing to do. I would be aiding and abetting the cosmos in its indifference to what was clearly unjust! I didn't want to accept the idea of yin-yang, of pain leading to growth, or good and bad coexisting. I didn't want to believe that good could come from evil.

I've been more about linear progress, getting it right, not making mistakes, paying big attention to your impact on your loved ones, and so on. The idea that you could "move on" from making such powerful mistakes deeply troubled me... so I didn't.

The night of the Gilbert-Lamott evening at UCLA, I found myself jarred loose from my usual thought processes. I had already spent half the day in panicked arousal. Now I found myself unraveling my past while sitting in the place where my identity had been formed, for better or worse.

As a college student, I spent plenty of energy adjusting to the new reality that my family home no longer existed for me, that Christmas vacations would be spent on a pull-out couch at my mom's apartment where she lived with her boyfriend. I rarely, if ever, saw either my brother or sister (who lived with my dad). I spent summers in my apartments, not at home visiting high school friends or hanging around my siblings. In many ways, my college years were characterized by an unacknowledged loneliness. I had loads of friends, I participated in Campus Crusade, I belonged to a sorority. But at the end of the day, I had lost my family and had forgiven no one.

Sitting alone, writing in my little blue notebook, these memories swamped me. So unexpected. My young adult self walked right into my pencil and journaled herself onto paper.

The next morning, I went out to breakfast with an online girlfriend. We talked about midlife and marriage, painful choices and taking ownership of one's soul, one's life. Her honesty in revealing her journey to me led me to find new compassion for my dad (something I have not allowed myself to ever feel). I wondered what it might have felt like to be my dad, making choices or allowing them to be made for him. I thought about how he violated his own self-image in having an affair... what it must have taken for him to reconstruct a self he could be proud of and how I've been unwilling to let him ever do that.

I imagined each of my parents not wanting to create a mess in our lives, yet making a huge one as they fumbled forward into their truths and lies, not aware of what the long term consequences would be to us, but certain that the status quo had to be upended; that no matter what, they both were going to reclaim happiness and companionship because They. Had. To.

I joined Campus Crusade in the usual way: within minutes, I was sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with unbelievers. I had determined in college that I'd do it all differently, all rightly, all better. My Bible study leaders taught us about sin. I wanted truth. They tried to get me to see my own sin. All I could see were the sins of others against me.

It would have been incredibly helpful, in looking back, if someone had simply mentioned that Jesus died not just for my sins (sins I couldn't see, identify or feel), but that he died for the sins against - for those sins committed against victims. It would have been even more helpful if I hadn't been admonished to forgive my parents, but had rather been told how important my pain was to God, how proud God was of me for caring that much about truth, justice and suffering... and had then shown me a way to use that pain to create a more just and compassionate world (not just a tiny, in-grown sense of personal revenge-as-justice that I had adopted).

I don't blame anyone for this oversight. It's taken me twenty-five years to tease apart all the threads that make me who I am today.

Later in the afternoon after I said goodbye to Westwood, I drove to my dad's to watch UCLA beat Xavier in the NCAA basketball tournament. My dad and I have always connected around sports. We rarely ever get time alone together. We sat, side-by-side on the couch, hardly sure of who to root for; after all, it was like watching me play me, since I'm an alumnus of both schools. I wanted UCLA to win theoretically, but I was attached to the Xavier seniors who we've watched play here in Cinci. When Xavier lost, I felt I had lost too, even though my team, the one I was rooting for, had won.

My life has been a similar emotional tug of war. I love my parents, both of them. I'm proud of them for all kinds of accomplishments and gifts they've given to me, for the ways they have created stability in spite of the chaos of those earlier years. But I also really loved my family of origin, that original formulation of the five of us that I lost, forever. It's been hard to know which team to root for - the first family that holds my dearest childhood memories, or this new, reconstituted one, born in pain and violation.

After twenty-eight years, after all this time, while sitting with my dad in the home he and his wife have made together, I finally let it go. I'm going to accept, love and root for the family I have. I started that afternoon.

19 comments:

my15minutes said...

Wow Jules. Thanks for sharing that process. Loved the UCLA/Xavier analogy.

Kansas Bob said...

A really great post Julie. I excerpted from it and linked to you at my place. We all so need the this message from your heart.

AmpersandToo said...

amazing and wonderful. in every way.

jeff said...

you make me cry. beautiful. why do these realizations take so damn long? growing up is a lifelong process I suppose.

dali

paragwinn said...

Beautiful, heart- and thought-provoking.

rmkton said...

Julie,

Sitting here in my office and reading this post...I had to close the door so that no one would see the tears coming. My wife has a very similar story and I see some of the same threads of pain, anger and injustice...and acceptance and peace in both your's and my wife's stories.

Thanks for writing...

R. Michael

Carrie said...

but that he died for the sins against - for those sins committed against victims. It would have been even more helpful if I hadn't been admonished to forgive my parents, but had rather been told how important my pain was to God, how proud God was of me for caring that much about truth, justice and suffering...

Well said. Thanks for continuing to share the journey. Even though my parents never divorced, I find much in common with your story, both what's been done "to" me and what I've done to others.

But what I really have come to understand in the past few years is that my pain, and the pain of others, really does matter to God.

kimmy said...

Julie, that was a very powerful and wrenchingly honest entry. I think that I have yet to truly acknowledge that the divorce of my parents had any effect on me.

You certainly had a momentous trip to Cali.

Carol said...

Thanks for sharing your heart. I love you.

Yours Truly said...

(((Julie))) I am grateful for your breakthrough in healing.

Susan

Colleen said...

Love following along here, Julie. I'm a better person, a more honest person, with you in my life. Thanks for that, and for sharing your journey. xo

T. Michael W. Halcomb said...

I've always been bothered by the statement "time heals". I don't think time heals. I think self and God do the healing, even if over a period of time. Thanks for sharing.

Ted M. Gossard said...

A wonderful post, Julie. I especially like the way you end it. And your words about Jesus' death for sins against as well as for all other sins.

Amen, and may this next part of your journey will see some real shalom and blessing in your family you're rooting for now.

theophobe said...

As a divorced parent watching my own children process my humanity as they search for their own idenity, your words are of a lifepath they have yet to walk. I only pray that they will seek a perspective of forgivenss rather than resentment as will I. Thank You for not keeping this inner dialogue to yourself

julieunplugged said...

theophobe, how old are your kids?

One of the challenges parents face is that when they divorce (particularly if infidelity is involved), the children lose their natural trust in their parents' explanations, description of events, understanding of right and wrong. That means the kids feel on their own, that they must figure things out without a parent's guidance. That creates resentment and a feeling of mistrust toward the whole universe.

In my case, I latched onto religious faith to protect me from that chaotic world. My parents receded into the category of "unsaved" and "unenlightened."

It's taken me time to see that even the "enlightened" fall and that rules and boundaries don't often address the complexity of life's circumstances, emotional encounters and internal pains.

My mother did offer me one gift. She made it clear that there would never be a day in her life that I couldn't come to her to say that the divorce was causing me pain... even thirty years after it was over. She would hear me, would hug me, would share in my suffering with me and never ask me why I hadn't gotten over it. That space and freedom to be real about the consequences of divorce made my relationship with my mom heal much faster than with my dad. Fwiw.

I share your sense of loss and hope you find your way with your kids.

Hannah Im said...

Thanks for the very moving and convicting post!

M said...

Read this as a link on another blog! Thank you God, for not only contentment and peace you have given this woman, but for giving her the words to share with me.
Missy

eclexia said...

Thank you for this post, and also for your words in the comment above. They really touched me deeply and on many levels.

Karen said...

Thanks so much for sharing this Julie. You are helping us all with your experiences and insight. You are a blessing in my life!