My father abandoned our family when I was four years old, leaving my mother, my two sisters and me to fend for ourselves. My brain wasn’t sufficiently developed at the time to fully understand the impact of his leaving. I had no way of knowing that my sisters and I would be consigned to being members of the 1 billion people raised in poverty, with little adult supervision and even less guidance and direction – that statistically, our lives would be short ones filled with poor nutrition, reduced educational opportunities, great pain and suffering. That one or all of us siblings would subsequently enjoy a greatly increased probability of ending up in jail, or worse.
We were fortunate in one respect, however, and that is our mother accurately assessed and reported that our father was seriously ill and unable to carry out parenting responsibilities. She encouraged acceptance and understanding, if not outright compassion. When friends or school officials asked about dad, she instructed us to simply say: “Parts Unknown.” Although I don’t recall my mother ever directly saying it, she seemed to feel that his leaving was the best thing that could have happened under the circumstances. She was probably right, but that didn’t make it easy for me to forgive him. It would take a lot of work on my part to neurobiologically, psychologically and spiritually get to that place.
Forgiveness Job No. 1
Over and over again I had to make the connection that how my body is feeling is directly related to the thoughts my mind is generating. My thinking mind constantly operates on my neurobiology. For example, thoughts like, “My father was a dumb cracker and a coward. He was a quitter,” could not be thought without serious consequence to my body and brain. What those kinds of thoughts do is elevate the stress hormones required to generate and sustain such feelings.
How such thoughts do this is by making several muscle groups in my body contract – muscles in my abdomen, in my throat and across the back of my shoulders. The next thing I feel are waves of anger arising – small at first and then growing larger. Without dear old dad there when I was a kid to help contain, direct and express this energy in constructive ways, it headed in the opposite direction – hunting and killing rabbits, squirrels and lamprey eels for sport, vandalizing neighbors’ homes and school property, getting into fights with kids I knew I could beat up. Where the path of loss and non-forgiveness is heading without guidance or intervention becomes crystal clear to those familiar with its trajectory.
It’s About Me Mostly
Kathleen Singh, in her book, The Grace in Aging details a neurobiological developmental path that she extracted from years spent at the bedsides of people at the end of life. It essentially describes the healing process that must unfold in order for many of us to genuinely reach a place of authentic forgiveness:
We can see the psychological part of our path as wound healing – an important step, as stable growth beyond ego can’t occur without a healed foundation. The path goes beyond psychological when we begin to let go of the stories of the wounds. The path enters depths of spirit when we begin to let go of the teller of the stories. In a beautiful synergy, the telling of the stories, the healing of the wounds, and the letting go of the stories work together to release the teller of the tales. It is a process that can occur in a microsecond or over years of mindful work. It’s a necessary process.
We share the story first as story. Each of us can find a trusted other with whom to do this. We share the story, conscious of it as story, but honest about the fact that we still believe much of it, and that we will continue to, until we have grown considerably in wisdom.
Having the courage to share our stories, to stop hiding both from ourselves and others, allows the healing experience of feeling understood and known. It allows connection through our vulnerability. We become spiritual friends, kalayana mitra in Sanskrit. We become soul friends, anam cara in Gaelic. We encourage each others’ boundaries to become more porous in the healing space of undefendedness and acceptance. ~ Dr. Kathleen Singh, The Grace in Aging, pg. 235
Forgiveness Job No. 2
I believe the main reason most of us struggle to forgive is because, unless we can afford to hire professional listeners (psychologists, social workers, counselors, hair dressers), there simply aren’t enough people on the planet willing, trained and able to hear the stories of our wounding as many times and as many ways as they need to be told and we need to tell them. Forgiveness Job No. 2 then is to begin the work of training yourself in the art of becoming a spiritual friend. But first comes the creative requirement to work on our own forgiving – of self and other. Both are, above all, Listening Arts.