Tuesday, December 4, 2012

When Your Family and Loved Ones Offend You

Both offending and forgiving our loved ones poses one of the most difficult challenges in the Christian life. We never intend to hurt those whom we love, and because we love them, sorting out offenses amidst that love becomes quite complicated. As the old saying goes, however, the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Hurting those we love can be our worst nightmare, especially if we did all that we could to work the opposite.  Voicing those offenses to resolve them and move into forgiveness and greater love and intimacy can even offend the person who caused the first offense.

The next few posts will examine situations of conflict that seem unresolvable – particularly those with family. For a host of reasons, offending parties can refuse to repent of the wrong that they've done or the harm that they've caused. Some believe that they are entitled to behave in any way that they want, as if they have license to sin against others. Others believe that their offensive behavior actually constitutes love, so they become confused and defensive if anyone says otherwise. And some people are just so damaged and wounded by life that they aren't capable of truly loving others in a healthy way. Some people are just difficult to love on a pragmatic level because they are consumed with their own pain. They don't love themselves because of their own shames and wounds, so they can't offer a healthy kind of love to others.

Joyce Landorf Heatherly wrote an entire book about forgiving people who fall into this category – those whom she calls “irregular people.” Before delving into how Landorf Heatherly defines the irregular person and how to live with these conflicts, I wanted to highlight where the term originated. Landorf Heatherly lifted it from Bette Greene's book (and made-for-TV film), Summer of My German Soldier.

Ruth's Wisdom About Irregular People

The thirteen year old protagonist, Patty Bergen (Bette Greene), lives in a small town in Arkansas during World War II. Her Jewish parents who run the local general store lavish attention on their younger child, but they show disregard to Patty, often treating her as an annoyance. Patty does receive much love from the family's domestic servant, an aging black woman named 'Ruth.' Anton Riker, one of the English speaking POWs escapes from the camp, and Patty hides him for a time. If you're unfamiliar with the story, I won't give you any spoilers, save for the origin of Ruth's term 'irregular people.'

I've pulled the pivotal, powerful conversation between Patty and Ruth from both the book and the film. I suppose that I love Esther Rolle's depiction of the Ruth character so much that I've listed the film version here first.

Dialogue from the film adaptation of Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier (1978),
[time mark approximately 1:30:00]:
PATTY: “How come my mother and my father...”

RUTH: “Look here. When I goes shoppin', and I sees somethin' marked 'Irregular,' I knows that I ain't gonna have to pays so much for it. But girl, You got yourself some irregular folks, and you been payin' top dollar for them all along.”

“So just don't go ways ten up your life wishin' for what ain't gonna be.”

PATTY: He [Patty's father] said I was a bad person, ever since the day that I was born – and that I was a dead person, too.

RUTH: “You ain't bad and you ain't dead. Mr. Riker knowed it. And I knows it. And I'm tellin you, Miss Patty Bergen, we is the only ones that matters. Cause me and him ain't irregular.”

. . .“You is a whole person of your own, a creature of God, and a thing that matters in this world. . . . [Stand] straight up, girl. You've got person pride from this day on, and I don't nevah wanna see you sloppin your shoulders nor your soul again. Not nevah.”

. . . “There ain't no judge 'sept the one on high.”

Excerpt from Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier:

[Ruth] said slowly, “but your folks ain't nevah gonna feel nothing good regarding you. And they ain't the number one best quality folks neither.”

“They shore ain't. When I goes shoppin' and I sees the label stamped, 'Irregular' or 'Seconds,' then I knows I won't have to pay so much for it. But you've got yourself some irregular seconds folks, and you've been paying more'n top dollar for them. So jest don't go a-wishing for what ain't nevah gonna be."
. . .
“Was it God a-speakin' to you?” asked Ruth, her eyes wide.

“I never thought about it being God. What would God be wasting his time with a twelve-year-old for? I don't think,” I said, “that God would whisper, do you?”

Ruth pressed her lips together. “The ways of the Lord are filled with wonder and mystery.”

“Well, just the same, it didn't sound like God. I think, actually, it was truth. Truth growing inside like a baby, and for a long time it was just too little, too weak to say anything. But day by day it gains strength.”

Irregular People's Attempt to Keep the Offended Silent

Note what Bette Greene wrote in her Affidavit in the book version. Those who struggle with offenses within their families will be able to relate well to her words. I believe that it points out well how many families expect people to hide secrets about offense and abuse, and how the offended are often expected to just accept such behavior and excuse it. They will often do anything and manipulate in any way to heap their own shame on people like Bette, asking them to carry both the burden of the abuse and the secret blame as well.
Throughout my career, I have felt the need to protect my parents from being seen as the abusive people that I portrayed them to be in the pages of Summer of My German Soldier. The surprising thing, though, was that most of my family did not seem particularly upset by the constant physical, verbal, and emotional abuse that I withstood. What they were upset with, in their collective agreement, was my “exploitation of the family.” . . . “Couldn't you, at the very least, have had the decency to wait until we were dead?” I thought this was too difficult a request.. . . So was my mother really telling me to wait an additional twenty-six years to begin writing the book that had, for so much of my life, flamed and flickered within me?

Honoring Parents

I would like to conclude with a quote concerning the honoring of parents from Dr. David Stoop's book, Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. In the passage, Stoop defines the term “honor” as it was used in Greek and Hebrew, meaning that we should “assign weight to” the things that our parents say, but it does not mean that adult children should never mention mistakes made or the pain that a parents' mistakes have caused. The command to honor parents does not give them license to offend or abuse, and it doesn't mean that adult children are bound to deny offenses that they suffer.

Excerpt from Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves by Drs. Stoop and Masteller, pages 298 - 299:
One way to understand this is to imagine that you are in a banquet hall. Part way through the banquet, your city mayor walks in. Now, let’s suppose that you are not particularly fond of this mayor. You didn’t vote for him in the last election, and you think he has made some bad decisions. Even so, when he walks into the room, you stand up with everyone else to greet him.

Why? Because he is the mayor, and honoring him is the appropriate thing to do. You assign a certain value, or “weight” to him because of the position he holds. This does not mean you now have to start liking him, or even respecting him, as a person. It does not mean you have to start pretending that you agree with everything he has done as mayor. The honor is accorded to the position he holds, not so much to the individual.

In the same way, we can honor our parents – accord them an appropriate degree of “weight” – because of the position they hold in our lives as parents. Similar to our example with the mayor, the fact that we honor them does not mean we have to pretend that they have never done anything wrong or hurtful to us.

It is healthy, not dishonoring, to acknowledge that our parents failed us, hurt us, damaged us in some way – especially if we are doing so for the sake of forgiving them. We do neither our parents nor ourselves any honor by denying reality, eliminating the possibility of forgiveness, and locking ourselves into dysfunctional patterns of thinking and acting.

(To explore more about issues with 'irregular parents,' please visit Overcoming Botkin Syndrome.)

Read more about irregular people
in the next post.