09 Feb Empathy, Forgiveness, Freedom
Here are a few photos I found of my parents last night as I was scanning negatives for a project with my music related photos. These are from a roll I shot while on tour with my band. Our engine had died and I stayed with them for a few days while it got repaired. Often when I was hitting the road they would come out to say goodbye, which meant they were often in their bathrobes.
There’s a picture from another journey, of them kissing that’s on the poster for All The Rage. At the bottom of the poster I’m in the rear view mirror taking their picture- observing their odd rituals and behaviors;) in the picture at the top my father is biting my mother’s lip, on the poster he is barely accepting her exuberant kiss. My parents clearly loved each other. They also fought a lot. My mother often explained to me that it was good because they were getting it out instead of bottling it up. I tried to help her understand what those fights felt like from the perspective of a five or 10 year old, and how damaging that was. I can imagine that was difficult to hear because she had a hard time accepting responsibility for things;) She didn’t ever really hear it, or apologize in a way that communicated empathy. That was hard, and it often made me angry, and left me feeling unheard. Only when I recognized that she was wounded herself, and doing the best that she could, I found the space to forgive her. This meant that I could discuss it with her without the energy of anger, which meant she was less defensive, and was more able to acknowledge the pain I was trying to communicate. That forgiveness created space for both of us to heal considerably. It was a complex dance of boundaries and it required that both of us were working on finding balance within a difficult relationship. I had to give up the anger to make the space for that. It was hard because it felt unfair- she was the adult right? She “should” have taken the responsibility! Years of anger never made her take responsibility, but a little forgiveness helped her to.
My mom was not a cook, but she made a few things including deviled eggs. My daughter was disappointed that I didn’t make deviled eggs at Thanksgiving this year. The lack of them made her miss her grandmother even more. This morning I’m thinking a lot about my mother and about empathy. While I believe it’s important for healing to acknowledge the ways that we have felt hurt, it’s also important to recognize that holding on to blame for that pain is not healing. It’s a complex dance though, because if we try not to feel anger, but don’t truly let it go, then we end up holding that anger in our bodies in unconscious ways. That anger then becomes a hidden poison. Unfortunately, when we do the work to reconnect with that anger that we’ve hidden from ourselves, we often make space for that anger to bloom, and in many ways, consume us. Here is where the power of empathy comes in. When we can recognize that the people that we believe has caused us harm have not done so intentionally, but instead because they too were harmed in some way that left them wounded, it’s much easier to find forgiveness. This act of consciously forgiving allows us to let go of that anger without repressing or hiding it from ourselves. I woke up this morning thinking about both of my parents, and how badly they wanted to be the best parents that they could, while also acknowledging that they were not up to the challenge in many ways. One way that they both chose to deal with their wounds was to devote their life’s work to helping others to heal. At the same time they didn’t fully lean into their own need to heal from the wounds of their childhoods. This failure led them to repeat some of the behaviors and patterns that harmed them. As you might imagine, these were then harmful to me. I have, at times, been angry about this, partly because it led to me internalizing some of those same patterns that were difficult for my children. Leaning into empathy, and truly forgiving both of my parents, has made space for me to forgive myself, which has made room for new awareness and growth. Over time I’ve become a better parent, a better partner, and a better friend of myself. From this experience I can communicate that the process takes time, but it is quite powerful. Radical acceptance of where we are at is a powerful tool.
When I talk about forgiveness I’m not talking about giving someone else a free pass to do unacceptable things, or accept abhorrent behavior. Instead I’m suggesting giving ourselves a free pass to move on without the heavy toll that anger takes on us. Forgiveness does not imply not having boundaries. Instead, it gives us more freedom to set them. For example if we feel responsible for someone else like a parent, and that makes us angry, we will like act in ways that express some of that anger even as we try to carry that burden of responsibility. When you turn that around and look at it carefully, it sounds like we might then act in ways that feel abusive to the person we feel a responsibility for. So, it’s important for us to examine where we feel responsible for others and why. This kind of introspection helped me to be able to slowly repair my relationship with my mother. It wasn’t easy, or smooth, but we continually made progress, which spilled over positively in other areas of our lives.
Clearly, it is much harder to forgive deeply embedded patterns of abusive behavior, especially behavior from people with vastly more power than we have, like parents or other authority figures. However, once we have gotten out from under that power. Holding onto anger no longer keeps us safe, but in fact keeps us connected to that relationship in ways that harm us.
What I’m talking about is a process rather than an action. I’m talking about going deeper into what we feel, and why we feel it. What ideas of right and wrong do we carry around inside us that guide our sense of judgement about ourselves and others? It’s important to ask if they serve us or harm us.
There is so much about my parents that I am thankful for- so much. They also did some things that made me feel hurt and angry. They were complex, like all of us. The more I’m able to forgive them for those complexities the more room I have for being grateful for all of those good things, which also makes it more possible to both forgive myself and love myself more all the time. As this happens I’m able to move into all my relationships in healthier ways. The more room I have to forgive myself, the more I’m able to unwind from those patterned behaviors that led me to do things that I feel like I have to forgive myself for. I also gave more ability to see why and how I fell into relationships that were not good fir me at times and how to change those patterns by becoming aware of them.
I love finding photos like these because they carry forward secret messages from the past. In closing, one thing I want to communicate very clearly is that while I am writing about working towards forgiveness and empathy I don’t intend to paint a portrait of myself as a saint who no longer gets angry. Instead, as with yoga, I continually work to push myself into slightly more uncomfortable areas in a manageable way. If I push myself to go to far to fast, it causes problems. I have to work to accept where I’m at and make room to do better. I also have to toe the line of recognizing where I have let go and be wary of to repressing rage. Sometimes, this means creating boundaries and separation. These can feel wrong and difficult, but in the end they are necessary so that we can do the work we have to in order to be able to safely put those boundaries back down. I am far from perfect, but I’m happy to be able to report that I find myself steadily improving. there are ups and downs, but mostly ups. Sometimes awareness brings on confusion and pain in uncomfortable ways. Thankfully, a more structural awareness of how this plays out makes this a little safer to handle.