by Chas (Chip) August
There’s a lesson in “The Course in Miracles” that I think about frequently. “Forgiveness is the key to happiness.” What is forgiveness? Are there some actions, some behaviors so heinous and venal that they are unforgivable? Why should I forgive anyone who knowingly hurts me? How will that make me happy? I have the right to my upset, why should I let the perpetrator off the hook?
My Dad was an alcoholic and alcoholism is one of those diseases that affect the whole family. When sober or just a little high my Dad was warm, funny, a great singer, a good dancer and the life of every party. When drunk, he was mean and spiteful and prone to ranting and raging, threatening, belittling and humiliating.
Over and above all this, drunk or sober, my Dad was a man who added a criticism onto every sentence. “Nice to see you, you look like your getting fatter.” “Great school play, I wish you had known your lines better.” “It was nice to meet your new girlfriend, it’s a shame she’s so quiet.” By the time I was a teenager I believed all the criticism and no longer heard anything else. And I knew I deserved to be treated better than I was getting.
As the years went on the hurts and humiliations piled up and I grew further and further from my Dad and the rest of my family. I grew angrier and angrier. I lived my life as an attempt to prove to my Dad that I was smarter, better, more talented than he was giving me credit for. I kept trying to change our history, to heal the past hurts, by “performing”, by winning my Dad’s respect. And, of course, nothing I could do changed my father’s behavior.
And what kind of life did I create for me? Always trying to prove something to a man who was drowning in his own disease. Trying to get approval or acceptance from a man who didn’t have it to give. Today this all seems so clear, but living it at the time I felt trapped.
Then, in my mid thirties, I found AlAnon and HAI and began to learn that I was OK, perhaps even magnificent. I learned about the family disease called codependency. I began to develop better boundaries about what was my problem and what was my father’s. I discovered I had nothing to prove. I could choose love, joy, and happiness instead of the suffering that I learned so well in my youth.
So I tried to pushed aside all my anger and hurt about my Dad. I severed the connection. I stopped calling or writing or visiting. But with him or away from him, the Dad inside my head didn’t go away. Pretending I didn’t need my parents’ approval didn’t actually make me any happier.
One day, when I was expressing my pain and upset about my Dad, for the umpteenth time, Stan Dale asked me “When are you going to let your Dad off the hook? You’re right, he was a lousy Dad and didn’t give you what you wanted and needed. So when are you going to stop blaming him and get on with your life?” (You know, I have no idea what Stan actually asked me, but this is what I remember hearing.)
I was furious. Didn’t he understand my pain and suffering? Was I supposed to condone my father’s brutality? Just write it off? Didn’t Dad owe me an apology at the very least? Shouldn’t he make some kind of amends? What made Dad deserve my forgiveness?
Actually, it turns out that nothing makes anybody deserving of forgiveness. Or, alternatively, we all deserve forgiveness because to be human is to make mistakes, and to be in relationship with humans is to sometimes hurt them and sometimes be hurt by them. The point is that forgiveness is not for the other person, the perpetrator, the transgressor. Forgiveness is for the one who is doing the forgiving.
If holding onto the hurt and pain of my relationship with my father is causing me to suffer, then the only path out of that suffering is to let go. And if I’m the one letting go then my father’s past or present behaviors aren’t really that important.
Forgiveness could be defined as giving up all hope for a better yesterday. Letting go of my need to have someone else behave differently for me to be OK. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, condoning, letting the other person “get away with something”. It’s not about them at all. Forgiveness is for me.
Who suffers when I choose not to forgive? Perhaps my Dad suffers because I’m withholding myself from him. But whether he suffers or not, I suffer. I harden my heart. I hold onto past hurts and humiliations. I recreate my “father wound” with every boss, and in every new family I create. Who suffers? Me.
Who is freed from suffering when I let go of my belief that Dad has to change, make amends, and apologize? Me.
Ah but how does one let go of a burden one has carried for a lifetime? I’m sorry to tell you there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Here’s what I did.
I decided to try to guess at what motivated my Dad to behave the way he did. I knew that he was aware of the pain and suffering he caused me (because I’d told him innumerable times). I believed (and still believe) that I am a lovable human being and a “good son.” So why would Dad persist in his bullying, humiliating, disrespectful ways?
As I thought about it I came to see that my Dad was a hurt little boy who covered over his low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority with this “tough” exterior. I came to realize that my Dad and I both wanted the same thing from each other — unconditional love and respect. It was obvious that my Dad was incapable of offering it to me. How could he give me what he didn’t possess?
So my process of forgiving, of letting go was to reframe my history with my Dad, to see it differently. And, from this new perspective I was able to give up all my hope about changing the past, and focus my attention on creating a present that did not perpetuate my suffering.
I began to offer my Dad the very words and behaviors I wanted from him. I stopped criticizing and complaining and began praising and acknowledging him. I treated him as I would treat a difficult but beloved son. And I transformed our relationship into one that included hugs and the words “I love you.”
And on the days that I resented my situation, I turned to friends and lovers for my support. I stopped asking Dad to give what he didn’t have. I let go.
There’s an old story about a man who seeks audience with a Sufi master. He tells the master that he is in great pain about his adult son. The boy does not visit often enough. He refuses to participate in the family business. He often shirks his prayers. And in this way is causing his family much pain and suffering. He asks the master for advice.
As the man ceases talking the master jumps up off his cushion runs to one of the pillars supporting the roof of the building, throws his arms around the pillar and begins screaming as loud as he can. “The pillar has got me! Help me the pillar has got me!”
People come rushing in from all over the building as the man yells at the master. “What are you talking about? Are you mad? Just let go.”
The master smiles, let’s go of the pillar and says “Just so.”
About the Author:
Charles “Chip” August is a personal growth coach and HAI workshop leader. From 1990 through the present, he has facilitated the Love, Intimacy and Sexuality workshops produced by the Human Awareness Institute (headquarters in San Carlos, California). In 1991 Chip developed the “Free Your Passion Workshop”, originally named the Healing Anger Workshop, which he leads worldwide. Chip is a certified Instructor of PET (Parent Effectiveness Training) leading adult education workshops to teach listening, conflict resolution and communication skills to parents.