“Forgiveness is this world’s equivalent of Heaven’s justice.” ~ A Course in Miracles
When I was in my 20s I often imagined some kind of showdown with my parents in which I would nail them with their child-raising crimes and failures. After I’d read out all the charges and pronounced a guilty verdict, I would not allow them to escape from some kind of justice I would then exact—although that’s where the fantasy got fuzzy.
Their crimes were clear enough: my mother had been often hostile and punishing, undermining the well-being of my two sisters and myself instead of giving us the consistent loving support she should have. In between her undeniable acts of cruelty, she was either so depressed or so drugged with a wide array of prescription mood-altering substances that she was effectively absent for days or even weeks at a time.
For good measure, she often blamed her children for her own unhappiness. True, she had a “manic-depressive” diagnosis from her psychiatrist (nowadays called bipolar syndrome). But in my fantasy trial, that was rapidly brushed aside as just another failing of hers—a failure aided and abetted by my passive, quietly compliant father, who would rather see his own children suffer than stand up to his wife’s insanity. Even if she had some kind of disorder, they should have gotten it fixed before they had children.
(Yes, I was going to be a tough prosecutor.)
In my fantasy showdown, both parents had to face the music about their abysmal performances as parents, with no excuses allowed. Then I would bring down the iron hammer of justice… somehow or other.
When my showdown with my folks finally came to pass, the circumstances were not at all as I imagined. By age 32, I was seriously ill, with a phalanx of mystifying symptoms that had just received the equally mystifying diagnosis of “chronic fatigue syndrome” (CFS)—a malady that was even less understood than it is today. In a seemingly rare act of caring, my parents had flown 3,000 miles to see just what was the matter with me, although they’d already let me know that they suspected I had AIDS or a drug habit, and didn’t want to confess. (I did have to admit that “chronic fatigue syndrome” sounded like a classically Californian excuse for something else.)
On top of all that, even stranger things had been happening. Desperate for a cure and not finding one in either conventional or alternative medicine, I’d ventured into psychotherapy, and then into the even more questionable realm of spirituality. In my very vague cloud of unknowing, I’d picked up and begun to study an utterly bizarre modern teaching, self-contained in one book known as A Course in Miracles, which mixed a heavy-duty Christian terminology with Eastern metaphysics and proposed an extreme and relentless discipline of forgiveness.
The sum total of all these circumstances was that by the time I’d sat my parents down in the living room of my apartment for a big showdown, I had none of the righteousness that I’d always expected to bring to this encounter. In fact, I was in a totally opposite state, feeling physically weak, mentally confused and utterly uncertain of what to say.
First, I found myself thanking my parents for coming all the way across the country to look after my health, and said I hoped they’d been reassured by the explanation of my condition given to them by my physician (which, in fact, they were). Then I told them that while I thought my illness had probably been triggered by some kind of virus (which I still believe), I’d had to face some deeper questions about why I wasn’t getting better after months of steadily worsening symptoms, and what I could possibly do next in the absence of any effective medical approach to CFS.
I told them, briefly, about being in therapy, and then tentatively mentioned that I’d begun working with a spiritual teaching which suggested that forgiveness was a very good idea. Then I got to the hardest part, the part that I had always thought would be easiest: I told them that I had been very angry with them for a long time because I thought they’d failed as parents, and to be perfectly honest, I simply couldn’t imagine why they’d had kids at all, if they were only going to treat them the way they’d treated me and my sisters.
(The prosecution didn’t go on quite as long, with as much damning detail, as I’d once envisioned—I was chronically fatigued, after all.)
Finally, I told them that while I might well be losing my sanity along with my health, the Course had influenced me to consider that I’d be better off just giving up my anger, lock, stock and barrel… without conditions, without them saying or doing anything differently, without anything really changing, in fact, anything besides my attitude. I ended by sheepishly admitting, “Maybe I’m just too tired to be mad at you anymore.”
At that point I closed my eyes and waited for the hammer to fall on me. After all, what the hell was I saying? This was certainly not the capital case I’d outlined in my mind for so many years. Instead, this was little more than a craven admission of surrender. They’d won! They’d gotten away with everything, and now I was saying I wouldn’t even be mad anymore?!
With my eyes closed I could easily imagine my mother rolling her eyes, or harrumphing at my outrageous complaints, and my father looking hurt or confused, as he usually did in our family’s rare moments of open confrontation. I fully expected them to rise from their seats and walk out, shaking their heads. When I summoned the courage to open my eyes and peer across the room at them, my parents instead did what I would never have expected them to do.
My mother already had tears in her eyes as she said, very softly, “Son, I know I’ve always been eaten up with hatred inside, and I’ve taken it out on everybody I know. I’ve had lots of drugs and therapy and it doesn’t seem to do any good. I guess there’s just something wrong with my brain, but I can’t seem to help it.”
With a look of genuine compassion, and a steely tone in his voice that I’d never heard before, my father took my mother’s hand and said, “Janie, I’ve never understood why you had to be so hateful either. And I’ve never known what to do about it.”
Then they fell silent, and little more was said between us that day. The big showdown was over in less than 15 minutes. I was reeling inside, even more dizzy than usual, not quite able to believe what I’d just heard. My folks seemed beaten-down and sad. They left to return to their hotel, and I went out for a walk, hardly noticing that I suddenly had the energy to do so. In fact the walk consisted of little more than staggering from tree to tree in a semi-wild grove, weeping uncontrollably and trying to grasp what had just occurred.
Despite my parents’ confession of exactly the failings that I had always wanted to pin on them, I did not feel especially vindicated or victorious. Instead, I felt strangely shattered inside, as if an iron hammer of forgiveness had fallen on my own sense of self. Because at that moment I realized that the self I’d grown into was heavily identified with being a victim.
First I’d been the victim of my cruel and crazy parents, and then I’d become the victim of a cruel and crazy illness, and when you got right down to it, I was the victim of a cruel and crazy world. But if my first oppressors, my parents, had confessed, what was I going to do now? I knew I couldn’t go on identifying myself as their victim, but if that was not me anymore then who was I? Suddenly I didn’t have a clue, and the total effect was both frightening and disorienting.
“I am not a victim of the world I see,” suggests Workbook Lesson #31 in A Course in Miracles. I’d read that lesson before, but now it became the starting point for a new exploration of who I might actually be.
It would be nifty if I could report that I awoke the next day totally cured of CFS. In fact, I would get sicker for a few more months before beginning a slow, halting recovery that would require about five more years. But I did fully recover about seven years after onset, and today, I look back on that paradoxical showdown with my parents as the day I began healing.
I’ve since gone on to research and write extensively about forgiveness, and I’m always a little amused when I hear people dismiss this powerful discipline as a means of caving-in, letting other people off the hook, or just being spiritually correct. That’s when I know that these folks have not experienced the iron hammer of forgiveness smashing their old, sad self to smithereens.
To this day, that’s the only form of violence I can wholeheartedly recommend.
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