Monday, December 10, 2012

Complicated Forgiveness from My Own Journey

I've decided to offer a real life example of a very complicated relationship wherein forgiveness also becomes complex and difficult. Please keep in mind that I've chosen to keep many details offline and that I'm not soliciting advice. It's just my description of my vantage, offered here to illustrate the more problematic aspects of forgiveness as a process. As you will note, the issue is one of reconciliation for me, but the other parties understand reconciliation and forgiveness as synonymous. In an upcoming post or two, I will also discuss aspects of how I worked through to a place of relative peace with the relationship, though anything less than the ideal in this proves to be a sad disappointment, something of a colossal understatement. I ask the reader to bear these considerations in mind.

Disappointment and Rejected Forgiveness

A few years ago, I wrote about my parents' disdain (primarily my mother's) for my temperament and my natural abilities because they didn't match their preferences. Hillary McFarland used to link to it from the Quivering Daughters blog, as it expresses the same kind of disdain and cookie cutter expectations that many fundamentalists often hold for their children who don't easily fit in a rigid mold. The Oxford English dictionary defines disdain as the feeling that someone or something is unworthy of one’s consideration or respect; contempt.” Contempt expands beyond this definition of disdain to include the deserving of scorn.” I find these definitions remarkably fitting, because that is how I feel: disregarded, unworthy of basic consideration, and a cause for shame to my parents. And I really don't understand why, apart from their unwillingness to let me “be” outside of the confines of what they want me to be. They also attach deep moral meaning (moral betrayal) to things that I honestly see as banal differences or just personal preference conflicts.

The whole conflict is very complicated for me because I know that my parents do love me and deeply, but the problems come in the expression of that love. As their only child, they have given me all that they could and have expressed what they had the ability to express (and I “call them blessed” for this), but the virtue of their basic motive makes this conflict even more difficult to discern their actions. I have come to have compassion for my parents as very damaged people who were never shown due respect by their own parents. As something that they've failed to confront well in their own lives, they behave with me in many of the same ways that their own parents did with them, perhaps just out of habit. I feel as though they never learned how to express clear messages of love, offer approval, or deal with their own shame. I understand their messages to me as ones mixed with love, shame, and disdain together. I believe that this speaks of their own felt shame which filters down to me when I remind them of themselves. Their expression of love is contingent upon my performance and how well I attain the standards that they expect of me (or what they want for themselves. Where they stop and where I begin was never clearly defined.) Adding to the confusion, I know them well as the most caring, compassionate, generous, kind Christians that a stranger or just about anyone outside of our family could hope to meet.

That said, living great distances apart from them for the better part of two decades, I feel like I completely lost the ability to perform for them in order to solicit their expressions of love – or perhaps avoid their expressions of disdain. Their expectations have become very fluid as well, and I feel like I cannot even anticipate what it is that they expect of me. (As a nurse, I also attribute some of that to age appropriate social development when young adults age and shift away from a primary relationship drive into a stage of a primary interest in work and creativity as they approach midlife. See Erickson's theory.)

A few years ago, I faced a set of very difficult, overwhelming life challenges which provoked an unavoidable confrontation and impasse with my parents. I developed physical and emotional limitations (debilitating health problems, piled on PTSD which was compounded by my own emotional growth deficits/wounds), all of which severely limited my ability to tolerate or adapt to my parents' responses of disdain.  As a consequence, I developed some difficult and disturbing behaviors strongly associated with complex trauma, some going back to and emerging from deep, early childhood abuse at the hands of someone outside our family.  These behaviors are not all that different from many of those described in the appendix of the book, Quivering Daughters.  I should also note that a daily, grandfather-like caretaker and the young daughter of my godparents both died in close proximity to one another when I was a young school-aged child. All of these things profoundly affected me as I lost the ability to cope when I was still a little girl.

My parents don't understand that their rejection significantly triggers these behaviors and thoughts in my adult life and continues to do so.  Because they don't understand them and feel offended by them, they deny that they exist. My mother once held up her hands so that she would not have to look at me when I tried to explain what I was experiencing.  At the time, I didn't understand why she was not moved with compassion for me but pushed me away instead, crying out to me to stop.  I think that she was more terrified than I was broken, fearfully unable to take in what I was trying to express.  , I could not cope with much contact with them at all after that because of the pain of rejection.  Because of all of the challenges that I faced at the time, I asked my parents to refrain from discussing certain topics as a boundary that would maintain our relationship but would not create intense pain for me while I healed. Caught up in their own pain, they were unable to understand.

Setting a Boundary

Discussion of my health was one big “off limit topic” that I established because my parents attributed my illness and the affects of PTSD to demonic influence, even before open conflict. When I asked them for compassion and patience, my parents interpreted my request as bitterness, accusation, and lack of forgiveness. They accused me of lying about my distress and of telling creative lies about some of the old root causes that caused these behaviors to resurface.

They believed I was completely cutting off communication in order to “punish” them. (That would be erecting a wall which is effectively what I have now, to be honest.)  They understood my off-limit topics and boundaries as an arrogant and cruel manipulation which was said to be motivated by malicious intent to harm them.  But to me, they seemed to say “It's our way all the way or the highway. Your 'stated needs' are nothing but lies of bitterness.” I know that they don't understand, but I don't understand why they seem so unwilling to even try to learn.

We have exchanged letters since that time, and I asked repeatedly for their cooperation through very practical ways in which we could communicate in order to have safe and meaningful contact. Primarily, I explained that what has hurt me more than anything was (is) the assumption that I'm evil and how everything they don't like gets automatically attributed or some disturbing lack of virtue in me. I ask for very specific considerations, too (e.g.,“When we have this type of conflict, could we agree to do this new action rather than what we have been doing?...”). My parents have never addressed these specifics, but they do offer manipulative, very global blanket apologies ("I'm sorry for whatever it is I ever did.").  I see them as empty because they're also accompanied by shaming accusations that I am bitter and hateful, along with their own self justification.  Everything for them reduces down to me bearing the burden of the conflict as the black sheep with a black heart.  What I express as heartache and an inability to cope effectively with their current, ongoing accusations and rejection, they only understand as hateful unforgiveness towards them.

To them, forgiveness means that they will have license to continue to treat me with disdain in word and deed. Their last letter to me used spiritually abusive tactics questioning my salvation, suggesting that I would not see heaven because of the unforgiveness in my heart, though all I've asked for concerns how they plan to relate to me in the future or in the present. Some of the letters also claim license to treat me the way that they do because that is how their parents treated them.  All of that self-justification and accusation completely discounts any feigned contrition they might express, and it suggests that I lack compassion out of some kind of motive of sinful self-interest.  Their letters definitely don't convey any kind of compassion for the fact that I've expressed deep suffering.  That seems to mean nothing which I must assume because my specific concerns for our relationship today as well as my feelings are never addressed.

The Sin of Anger, Tone, and the Family Code

I must add that when we've confronted the situation over the phone and in person, though I start out well controlled, as I became increasingly frustrated as the conversations unfolded, they interpreted my tone as harsh and hateful. The previous post explains more about this process and where I believe much of the communication difficulty originates. (Also recall from an earlier post that anger and even assertiveness were forbidden in my home, and I broke the non-negotiable family code by expressing them.) They heard the tension as I would struggle to speak through so much sorrow and fear, but as I would grow more incredulous and shocked, I became more deliberate. (Recall the role of anger in the grief process.) My tone caused them to stop processing the actual spoken message, because according to their family rules, the “sinfulness” of my tone cancels it out. I automatically lose my status as a family member by failing to “play by the family rules,” so they feel that they are not obligated to listen. I haven't actually sinned in Biblical terms, but I've violated the commandments of the family.

What happens on their end is not much different than what I discovered as a hospice nurse when I admitted new patients to our home care service.  Patients would get so overwhelmed with emotion upon hearing that they were dying, they wouldn't even remember being told so by their doctors.  Days later when doing their intake visits, when I talked about their terminal status as part of hospice services, they would claim that they were never told about their prognosis.  The truth is that they were just so overwhelmed that they don't remember any details.  This is a form of cognitive dissonance wherein disturbing emotions suspend rational thought, an effect that is similar to what happens to people in cult recruitment. Something very similar happens when I express any frustration or even assertiveness with my parents because it is my role in the family to remain passive and happy. Anything else cannot be comprehended.

The Long Path of Forgiveness and Obedience

I've spent many years and have clearly read every book on forgiveness that I could find (as some of these posts indicate) in order to resolve the conflict with my parents. I had to forgive them for the shame, blame, fears, and limitations that they instilled in me, believing in a skewed way that it was the best thing for them to do as parents. I had to purge much pain from my own heart. I have labored long with counselors and EMDR and with God to forgive them and have released them from duty as I labor at purifying my heart in a continuous process of diligent effort. And after many years, I also came to have great compassion for them, considering the struggles they face, learning that they are struggling with many of the same difficulties that I do. They are shame-based people who have been grossly mistreated and need compassion. They are human and have loved me to what appears to be the fullness of their capacity, and I am grateful and humbled by all of the good that they've done for me.

I have resolved my anger and a good portion of the grief, and when they emerge from time to time, I deal with the emotions I feel, reaffirming forgiveness.  Any hard feelings primarily come through as my own feelings of toxic shame, triggered by the manipulative letters of accusation. Sandra Wilson notes that when we think about forgiveness, it stirs up additional grief. I can attest that writing these posts, particularly this one, brings back memories of the injustice I have suffered – things that will likely go forever unresolved. They do stir up anger and grief and terrible sadness, and it attests to the fact that forgiveness is an ongoing journey . When revisited by the pain, I make the choice of obedience to surrender it to God, choosing again to follow the Path of Healing. Some anger remains because justice is never served, and for all my tears and trying, there is no resolution. That frustration can be a source of anger, so that I must also surrender to God and affirm loving kindness and patience. (That certainly didn't happen overnight but has taken many years of faithful dedication to doing what is right in a spirit of love.)

Letters from my mother still derail me to some degree in every area of my life, so I now just have someone else read them to see if there's anything new or different in them when they arrive.  I would have hoped that I could have "thicker skin" by now or a heart so full of divine love that no injury would hurt me, but after many years, I still don't tolerate the pain well at all. My heart is still tender and easily wounded, but not for lack of doing deep emotional work, self examination, and much intense prayer. I've learned to have respect for my own limitations. I've had to. I chose to.

What I have described to my parents and what seems to go on misunderstood has been that I have forgiven them freely, but I do not feel safe enough to reconcile with them. I've essentially just followed the most basic rules of assertive communication:
I feel....
I want....
I need....

I essentially have said to them, "When certain things are said and done, I feel this way, and I need your cooperation and consideration because I'm not strong enough to cope with those things."  I believe that what my parents actually say through their actions is that they are not strong enough to listen to my needs or the idea that anything they've done has resulted in my pain.  But I don't believe that they are self aware enough to understand those thoughts and feelings consciously, let alone wrap words around them to express them in a way that I can understand. They lay all of the burden and responsibility for the relationship on me while they remain free of any duty.  I wish I could set my own emotional needs aside out of respect for them, because the conflict would only amount to frustration and inconvenience. But I have not been able to conquer those difficult and disturbing trauma behaviors that contact with them triggers in me, and that hasn't been for lack of trying, either.


So what do you do when your forgiveness is rejected, or someone determines that your forgiveness is disingenuous? What if they hold you responsible for all of the duty in a relationship which should rightfully be shared? What if one area of the relationship is wonderful, and another is terrible? I have found that after this impasse with my parents, any attempt to communicate results in the same thing over and over again, and it actually becomes a secondary offense. I find it beyond painful to listen repeatedly that I'm considered to be vindictive and malicious, undeserving of both God's grace or theirs – that is, unless I jump through their hoops, returning home to bear the shame and punishment for things I haven't even done and motives I've never had. It is offensive to be told that I don't mean enough for them to try to honor my needs. I need to become a person who doesn't exist with no needs, no feelings, and no wants so that I can show duty to people who think I'm a horrible person. And I don't even know how to begin to do that. I can't. I choose not to do it. It would be wrong for me to do so.

To draw an analogy, I've asked my parents to stop kicking me because it hurts and causes me very specific difficulty that has become a disability. Rather than apologizing for the things that they do with me now that I am an adult and working with me to find ways to stop, they almost do the opposite. They tell me that because they never intended to kick me, I haven't been kicked, and then they tell me that I don't feel pain. They tell me there are no bruises. And having used this analogy with my husband many times over the years, he says that they not only justify why they have the right to kick me, they look for new ways to do it (through new behavior that express more rejection and new types of rejection). And he says that it really is hard to understand because they really do appear to be “such exemplary Christians and truly good people. Just not to you.”

Remaining in that place of pain almost has a hint of that old joke in it about the guy who goes to the doctor and says “It hurts when I go like this.” The doctor says, “Well don't go like that!” It also reminds me of Portia Nelson's poem, Autobiography in Five Chapters, If I stay in this place, I'm going to continue to suffer hurt, over and over. That actually gives more opportunity for the growth of bitterness and unforgiveness because it promotes offense, not only because of repeated pain but because of the perverted message that pain and injury somehow mean love. This actually destroys love and intimacy, turning it into duty and deadness.

There is nothing that I can do, save to make an idol of my parents by admitting to a version of my life that never happened and lying about things that have happened to me. I've exhausted every avenue to change their hearts, believing for a long time that I could, but their hearts are very much out of my control. That's God's territory, and it's been my lesson to understand that I can't do anything to merit their love and approval anyway (Read about locus of control). I would have to repent of sins I didn't commit or feelings towards them that I don't have anyway. Even if I did and accepted wrongful blame just to have some semblance of what would seem like reconciliation, I believe that nothing between us would change. I have already tried it, over and over. I have also tried to destroy my personality, too, just so it would have only the qualities that my parents found most comfortable. I believe that even if I succeeded, I would still be the object of their disdain. And I would have to serve them before I served God, and I would have to deny who I am. I just can't do that anymore, and I can't do anything to help them understand that. I can only meet them half way. At the moment, they remain unwilling to meet me in the middle to own their part in the cooperative effort that a relationship requires.

To move through the pit of hopelessness of impossible attempts to earn their love, I have to give up on the fantasy that I can earn it or that I can do anything to affect it. This is that radical realism in forgiveness that Sandra Wilson writes about. We have to abandon our fantasies of what we wish would happen and what we wish others were capable of to embrace the reality of what is. I have to stop following that carrot on a stick.

I have to accept what is, releasing my parents to God. Instead of looking to them to honor me as a fellow creature created in the Image of God, I derive that honor from God instead. In an upcoming post, I'll explain a bit more about how I've worked to move through this less than ideal process on the Path of Healing.

In the next post, read about why and how to
release someone to God when ideal forgiveness
is impossible or unlikely,
looking to God for justice and recompense.

Additional Reading: Link HERE to an excellent article refuting the abuse of “touch not mine anointed,” a Biblical phrase that is used to protect unjust authority figures.