The Air I Breathed | Part 3 of 3
Of all the things I listed in my initial observations about Part 1, one troubles me most–my inability to blame Daddy. I’m used to blaming myself, or at least wondering whether I’m to blame for things that happen to or around me. This seems to be one of my favorite default modes. However, given the nature of the air I breathed back then, I’m surprised at my internal response: I blame myself! I don’t blame Daddy.
I don’t have any reason to think my behavior is blameworthy, yet I seem willing to accept blame for my father’s behavior toward me. This fits in with my habit of protecting him—and myself, of course, in case someone somewhere decides to argue that I’m the problem here; he is not.
This may sound like an absurd fear. Even paranoid. Yet all I need to do is listen to the evening news and hear about the latest rape or domestic violence victim who is now being accused of ‘asking for it’ or being a ‘bad girl.’ I rest my case. I don’t hold it against myself for taking the safer choice as a child and teenager.
At the same time, that was then and this is now.
A Short Book Report
During the last three weeks I’ve been reading a book by one of my seminary professors, Lewis Smedes. It’s called The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How (1996).
Professor Smedes’ writing is engaging, mercifully easy to read, nuanced and clear about topics such as what forgiveness is and is not, who is entitled to forgive whom, and why forgiving doesn’t erase, delete, or ‘fix’ what we cannot change or forget.
Smedes deals with the challenge of forgiveness in complex cases such as child abuse–when trauma has radically changed the direction and nature of an individual’s life. The book isn’t about everyday difficulties for which a sincere ‘I’m sorry’/’I forgive you’ is adequate. And it isn’t for cowards.
Here’s how Smedes puts it on page 85:
Forgiving is for the tough-minded. It is not for the soft-headed who cannot abide people who make judgments on other people’s actions. If we dare not blame, we dare not forgive. Forgiving is for people who know their own faults but who recognize a wrong and dare to name it when they feel it done to them and have the wisdom and grace to forgive it.
Back to Blaming
I thought about this all week and came to an unexpected conclusion: I don’t have a clue what it means to blame someone.
I’m usually an expert at blaming myself—out loud or by way of voices in my head. The voices never let me forget how many faults I have.
Sadly, I still don’t know how to blame another person clearly, unmistakably and without hedging or tempering my language so that I’m not clear. Especially if that person is close to me or has a position of power. I tend to give with one hand and take back with the other, probably in a futile attempt to be liked. Or in an attempt to protect myself, my reputation or my position.
Yet if blame is necessary before I can forgive, I have more work to do before I can think about forgiveness. I’ve never thought about it this way.
From childhood I was forced to beg for forgiveness from my father for sins that in his judgment merited repeated beatings. In 1993 I broke my silence of many years to tell my parents what I thought about my father’s harsh punishment and how it affected me as an adult.
At that time I had the beatings in mind, along with all the Good Girl Rules. In my statement to them, I didn’t mention the air I breathed. I knew it was there, but I also knew talking about it would get me nowhere—in the unlikely event that I would even be able to get the words out of my mouth.
So in 1993, I simply stated my perspective on what my father’s harsh punishment had done to me, why it was unfair, and how it affected me as a child and teenager, and as an adult. I didn’t blame him for anything. That wasn’t my goal.
Instead, I took responsibility for stepping up and doing what I needed to do to break my silence. I spoke in my own voice about things I chose to speak about. I’ve never regretted it, and don’t regret it now.
An Uncomfortable Topic
Yet I know my work isn’t done. There’s this thing called forgiveness. People often ask me about forgiveness. Sometimes they ask indirectly; other times they’re direct, almost blunt.
- Indirect version: How could anyone ever forgive someone who did this to them?
- Direct version: Elouise, have you forgiven your father?
I can think of any number of reasons this question comes up—in addition to the fact that it’s a big part of Christian faith. Here are some possibilities:
- The person asking the question is actually thinking about him or herself and the trauma endured at the hands of a father, a mother, or an adult caregiver.
- Sometimes this person may hope I’ll say No, I have not forgiven my father and I never will…with all the reasons spelled out. This person may be looking for reassurance that it’s OK not to forgive someone who traumatized her.
- Every now and then someone may just want to nudge me beyond the unhappy issue I’m addressing and find the happy ending. Sometimes this person is uncomfortable with sad stories about trauma or tragedy. So let’s get to the most valued part—the happy ending. This person wants me to be happy, and wants to go home happy and hopeful instead of sad or disturbed.
- Then there are others who feel it’s time for me to come to a conclusion and get on with my life. They have good intentions. They may not, however, understand the complexity of the damage done in my childhood or teenage years. Or they may fear for my soul.
When things like this happen, I understand why the issue of forgiveness is raised. Yet it’s never comfortable for me. I may be a theologian, but I don’t have all the answers to life’s complexities, much less my own.
God Gets It!
Professor Hendrikus Berkhof, a theologian I once studied, helps me with this. He suggests that God sees us in all the complexities of our particular social/historical contexts. Always. No matter who we are.
In other words, God sees and understands the significance, the magnitude, the shape and intention of what is done or not done to each of us, what we do or don’t do, what led up to the present moment and, I would guess, exactly who is the perpetrator. God sees and understands all of it, in a compassionate, clear-eyed heartbeat only God has. God gets it! I do not and never will.
This comforts me. It doesn’t take away my need to deal with my father’s behavior, but it does comfort me to know that no matter who I am and no matter who my father is, God sees the Big Picture. All the time.
This also frees me. It allows me to practice compassion toward my father—to the extent I’m able and willing. Even more important, it allows me to practice compassion for myself, still not easy for me.
Finally, it allows me to get on with the messy work of unpacking and examining the baggage I’ve carried on my back since childhood, dragging it behind me like a boulder. What do I want to keep? What do I want to discard? How will I know I’ve finished? And how might blaming my father fit into this process?
That’s where I find myself today.
Thanks for listening and responding if you’d like.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 May 2014