By Liz Macdonald, Arbinger-Trained Life Coach
When we came into this world, this life, this state of being, we inherited a certain legacy. It is at once universal and deeply personal. It came with generations of both blessings and pain. One of the subtle and unspoken and terrifying questions I often hear in my practice is this: ‘Can we change the legacy we have inherited, choose something better for ourselves, and leave something different for those who follow?’ This question is rarely spoken aloud, but is always hovering in the air during my conversations with clients. Here are three examples of what this question looks and sounds like in my day-to-day work:
A young father came into my office one day, looking for peace in his life and his home. He wanted to do better than his parents had done with him, and he was already a vast improvement over both of them as a parent. When he was small, his dad would beat him. His mom would often beat him as well, trying to ‘spare him’ the more severe beatings he would get from his dad by taking it upon herself to join in the abuse. In his memory, his selfless mother was sainted. His father was a demon.
A teenage girl came, hoping to find a way of living just a few more years with an unstable, unreliable, narcissistic parent without losing her mind or devolving into shouting and chaos whenever this parent came around. Her self-image was battered to a heart-breaking degree and she was in a pattern of seeking love and approval from all the wrong sources, as children will when they don’t get what they need from the right sources.
When I discovered that my first husband had some addictions that I knew nothing of, my world quietly imploded without a sound. After months of reading, I found that I looked for all the world as if I had been raised by alcoholics. Interestingly enough, there is a feisty little strand of actual alcoholism in my extended family, and many families and hearts (and livers) have been broken in consequence. But my own parents are loving, engaged, and don’t drink. So what gives?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a beautiful little book called “The Book of Forgiving”. In it, he describes sitting for months in tribunals for war criminals who contributed to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa. He describes the temptation to look at these human beings who have committed such unthinkable atrocities as if they were monsters. Demons. But he explains that the danger of doing that is that it actually removes them from accountability. Unless you can maintain in your heart and mind that they are every bit as human as you are, then they cannot be expected to behave as humanely as you would. How can you hold a monster accountable for acting like a monster?
The responsibility that follows the humanizing of people who have hurt us or hurt others, is to know, to feel, and to deeply understand that they are JUST LIKE US. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” We get to thank God and the Universe for the set of circumstances we have been born into that has enabled us to make the choices that we have made, that have precluded the possibility of committing war crimes or abusing children in our everyday lives.
When we have been hurt, the temptation to vilify, to demonize, to make ‘less than’ or ‘other than’, to think ‘I would NEVER’ can be overwhelming. We seek to reassure ourselves that we would never willfully inflict pain on another person. We would never torture. But we cannot heal our hurts or our generational patterns when we are looking at it from that position, because it is impossible to truly forgive from that position.
Forgiveness is the inevitable outcome of deep understanding. It is not something you can DO. It requires no exertion, no work. Understanding the pain of another person and how it has resulted in their acting out, their hurtful decisions, CAN require some degree of work and effort and mental and spiritual exertion. But forgiveness is the natural and inevitable consequence of such work. Forgiveness WITHOUT such deep understanding will only ever be superficial and therefore temporary. And it places us in the damnable and dangerous predicament of pretending we are better than, or somehow different from the people who have hurt us.
The young father and the teenage girl who came to me seeking freedom from the pain inflicted on them by their parents misunderstood something vital about the abuse cycle. To paraphrase Thomas McConkie, their parents were not the authors of their pain. They were characters in the same painful saga that was their family history. Every parent has the responsibility to break the cycle of abuse or addiction, but not every parent is ultimately able to do that. If you want to be a chain-breaker for your family, your duty MUST be first to seek to understand and to forgive the people who have hurt you.
The young father who came to see me hated his father with a deep and abiding sort of loathing that tainted their every interaction. He thought that this energy would keep him safe from making the same mistakes and hurting people the way his father did. Instead, that energy was so narrowly focused on his father’s flaws, he was drawn toward them like a drunk driver toward tail lights, setting him on a collision course with the very thing he was trying to avoid.
The teenage girl knew in her head that her mother had good reasons for her bad behavior, and when she was clear of her own pain, the girl could move toward forgiveness and compassion. As she matures I have every hope that she will be able to break some patterns and cycles in her family if she is able to understand and forgive her parents. Otherwise she will likely repeat many of the same mistakes (including early and unhealthy marriage, ambivalent early parenthood, etc.) and become the very thing she hates so much.
I’m still discovering the parts of my own family’s patterns which live on in me, and they revolve around the archetype of the righteous martyr. Self-sacrifice and unspoken desires result in resentment that can poison relationships and, if suppressed long enough, people can become so disconnected from their own needs and desires that eventually they’re not even sure what they would choose if they ever HAD a choice. I’ve been fluctuating between frustration and intolerance with these patterns when I see them in the people I love, and occasional compassion and understanding. I KNOW that I’m only triggered into frustration and intolerance because I have yet to forgive MYSELF for these traits. Others simply mirror them back at me and that is why I feel pain, frustration and intolerance. Here is a terrifying truth: we do not generally perceive things in others unless we are already well-acquainted with them – to some degree — in ourselves.
I’ve been struggling to learn to express my needs and desires in the moment rather than suffering in silence and assuming that what I want isn’t important. The beauty of a second marriage to an astonishingly healthy and integrated human being is that I finally get to see what issues are MINE. In a marriage to an addict it is all too easy to put all of the issues over on the other side of the street. Their issues are so glaring and enormous and overwhelming, it’s easy to feel pretty perfect in comparison. Turns out there’s a reason that a marriage to an addict that would inevitably be free (safe?) from intimacy was so appealing to me at twenty-one. I CHOSE THAT.
The astonishing thing about true forgiveness, is that without exception, it leads to accountability for OUR PART in the cycle. I have engaged in the struggle to understand people who have hurt me, and every single time I have been shocked to feel that in the end I had nothing to forgive, and was moved instead to go ask forgiveness of the person whom I had been so intolerant of.
Archbishop Tutu once said “We learn from history that we DON’T learn from history.” The kind of forgiveness that results in breaking cycles of abuse and pain cannot take place on a ‘learning’ or mental plane. Repeating the mistakes of our own personal and generational histories is inevitable without real and deep forgiveness. Fortunately, this great saga that we are all taking part in is so infused with goodness and mercy that we GET TO keep learning from the same mistakes until we have actually LEARNED the lessons we need from them. This is not the wrath of God, or even bad karma. I don’t believe in bad karma. I believe in the goodness of God and in good karma. It is all good. If God gave up on us we would be stuck in a state of stagnation, stalemate, or ceased progression. Because of the goodness of God and the goodness in the world, we get to keep trying. Generation after generation, we get to keep trying.