For many, the Mother’s and Father’s Day tradition is a welcome way to celebrate the meaningful lessons your parents taught you by deed or example. For those who are estranged from parents, this can be a time of tension and unhappiness. It can also hinder the grief process when someone harbors unresolved issues with someone they have lost.
Facilitating Love and Forgiveness Conversations for the Fetzer Institute, I saw time and again the far-reaching impact of the ability, or inability, to forgive. Fred Luskin, PhD, author of Forgive for Love, states, “If you are in a relationship that needs healing, the first thing you need to understand is what forgiveness is and why common misconceptions of forgiveness get in the way of truly practicing it.”
Luskin further explains that the act of forgiveness does not mean forgetting or giving up your right to be angry about a hurtful situation. It is actually taking responsibility for how you feel. Forgiveness is the choice to regain control over your feelings. It enables you to “rewrite” the story of being the victim to being the hero who forgives.
In my Healing Power of Reminiscence workshops, I often witness how unhappy memories can shape a person’s sense of who they are and what they can accomplish. Whether it is an unresolved issue or scars from emotional or physical abuse, when an individual is able to forgive, they are able to move on and feel better about themselves. Instead of attempting blanket forgiveness, this should be done in small bites. One of the most effective ways to do this is to look for the lesson.
Take for instance, Estelle (fictitious name), an elderly woman in one of my life-writing workshops in Ohio. As an ice breaker in the first session, I asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves and talk about where we grew up. Everyone shared happy memories until it was Estelle’s turn. With arms folded across her ample bosom, she grumbled, “I have no happy memories about my childhood. My mother was a task master and I got married at 16 to the first man that asked me just to get out from under her roof.”
Estelle’s story resonated with me and the situation in my own family. Although I shared wonderful memories of my mother in my book, In My Mother’s Kitchen, my older sister’s perspective about many of the same incidents was quite different. Where I saw myself as a recipient of my mother’s love, my sister always saw herself s a victim of her disregard. How did that happen?
In his book, The Seven Deadly Sins of Memory, Dr. Daniel Schachter, states that our memories do not, like Polaroid snapshots, record a moment in time. Not only do we fail to recall events accurately, we also tend to change how we remember the way things happened according to how we presently feel about that person or event.
In order to deal with unpleasant events, children will often explain away any hurt or blame by creating a different story about what happened. The more they repeat that version to themselves and others, the more they believe that it actually occurred that way. By not letting go of that childhood story as adults, we can harm ourselves and our ability to have healthy relationships with those involved as well as with others.
With that in mind, I encouraged Estelle to tell me about her mother. She explained that her mother grew up in an orphanage where she sewed denim work jeans that were sold to support the institution. A farm family eventually took her in, but she was treated more like an indentured servant than a part of the family. Working on the farm during the day, she did not share a bed with the other children but slept alone on the floor by the kitchen stove. Marrying one of the farm hands her mother raised a family and worked a small section of the land as tenant farmers.
“Things got really tough during the Great Depression and Daddy just lost his mind,” Essie said, finally raising her eyes to meet those in the group. “I remember the day they came to take my father away to the insane asylum. We all had to pitch in with the weeding and planting and all the household chores. I hated the weeding most of all.”
As she told her mother’s story from an adult perspective, Essie’s arms slowly unfolded and her face became more expressive. She finally said, “Now that I talk about it, I realize all my mother ever knew was work, from the time she was a little girl. No wonder she expected us kids to pitch in and help when Daddy left.”
With one foot in the door of forgiveness, I gently nudged Estelle a little further and asked if she had learned any lessons from her unhappy memories. Her whole demeanor brightened as she related proudly to the group about how she had raised her sons differently. “I taught them everything they needed to know to take care of themselves, from chopping wood to sewing buttons on their clothes, but I always made sure to have fun with them, too,” she grinned.
Noting how proud she was of teaching her sons how to take care of themselves, I asked her if there was anything that her mother taught her how to do that she really treasures. Blinking as if to clear away the pages of the old story she had been telling herself for so long she said, “Well, I never thought about it until just now, but my mother did teach me how to sew. You see, I do not have a standard built body so it is hard for me to find clothes to fit right off the rack or from a catalog so I’ve always made my own clothes. All my life, I’ve received compliments on those dresses. I guess I have my mother to thank for that!”
The whole group let out a collective sigh as the last bit of tension left the room and Estelle was finally able to not only forgive her mother but to value something about her. It’s just too bad that it took her 93 years!
In another workshop thousands of miles away in New Zealand, I encountered a much younger woman named Rita, who was struggling with memories of her abusive, alcoholic father. I read my story to the group called “Learning to Walk” in which I shared how my mother decided to correct my severely pigeon-toed feet. Making me walk on the outside edges of the linoleum squares in our apartment, whenever my toes strayed into the square, she would slap me on my back and say, “Walk the right way!” Rita wrote me a letter about how that story inspired her to forgive her father.
Since meeting you and listening to you talk, life has changed somewhat for me. My father passed away 8 years ago, and my memories of him are painful, as he was very cruel to my mother and brothers. With your advice, I am working my way through the awful memories and finding the good in them instead of just the pain. I have reread your chapter, “Look for the Lesson,” and your story about learning to walk is not unlike mine having to change from a natural left hander to a right hander. If my father caught me using my left hand, it ultimately ended in a surprise good hard hit on the back to make me use my right hand.
As Rita looked back on those unhappy childhood memories with adult eyes, she saw her father’s left hand in her mind’s eye, gnarled and missing two and half fingers from accidents caused by using to farm with machinery made for right-handed people. She then recognized how it was out of his love for her that he did not want her to suffer as he did.
I was able to find the lesson in that story quite easily. In fact, in a matter of hours I was able to go back over dozens of childhood traumas, remembering things I saw my father do, and get the same result as the left hand memory. Absolutely amazing!
Although her father may have been very hard on this left hand business, Rita says she has him to thank for the ability to use all of life’s instruments, including those that are made for right-handers. She is proud of her beautiful handwriting and the ability to be ambidextrous. An even bigger bonus is that her son, who is also left-handed, did not have to suffer as she did as a child to learn how to use his right hand. Instead of buying him a special mouse, she learned from her experience to gently encourage him to become ambidextrous by playing computer games with the right-handed mouse.
As you can see from these two stories, one of the most powerful keys to forgiveness can be to look for the lesson. Finding a way to be thankful for what that negative event has taught you can help you to recognize that they did indeed love you. Ultimately, it may help you to feel better about yourself and to establish healthier relationships with others. It may also brighten an otherwise unhappy Mother’s or Father’s Day.