A couple of days ago I inquired as to what readers might feel angry about, because anger can contribute to depression, which is in turn hard on kids because the influence of a depressed and disengaged parent can be to suggest to a child that he or she is worthless, invisible or depressing.
A response I heard from several readers, and which is also one of the most pervasive patterns I see in my clinical work, is a feeling of long-standing and pervasive anger toward parents (dead or alive) whose cruelty, alcoholism, narcissism, abandonment, control, etc. has deeply wounded, and continues to vex and block happiness. While we may or may not have children, we all have (or at least had) parents. If we hope to individuate—in the service of our children and ourselves—we absolutely must come to terms with our parents, particularly the internalized images and voices of our parents that we carry around with us in our minds.
While the case in favor of forgiveness, even if the parent won’t or cannot apologize (i.e. due to being ashamed, limited or dead), is that it frees us to give to others what we ourselves did not get. People cling to their misery like barnacles to a rock, and trust me, not a lot of random fun befalls a barnacle. Once we focus on giving love, rather than trying to get love from others, we are empowered because our “locus of control,” our sense of agency, becomes rooted within ourselves and not in others. Then it no longer stops us if the other is a barnacle, we realize that we are human beings. Free of trying to please others and somehow get them to like or love us, we are liberated to be authentic, and to do the liking and loving, imbued with a sense of personal power; this way of being tends to be liked by others and draws people to us. Then it becomes a self-reinforcing pattern of getting more out of giving more—not as a calculated strategy, but as an opportunity to learn the way love and healing operate.
As to why people are so loathe to forgive “bad” parents, even though it would help them, several reasons are worth contemplating: Firstly, if we were treated “unfairly” by our caregivers we may feel so indignant that we confuse our forgiveness with the universes’ forgiveness. Some people feel that if they forgive the rotten scoundrel it would be a miscarriage of justice—that the “perp” just gets to walk. Perhaps this is better left to karma. The lone avenger, at least in movies from Eastwood to Bronson, virtually never seems like a happy or well-adjusted person.
A more subtle, but powerful, block to forgiveness is the possibility of an unconscious wish to remain close and bonded with an otherwise consciously reviled parent. The hated parent was obviously miserable if they were cruel or abandoning, etc. and yet we may unconsciously remain close and connected with this otherwise detested figure by secretly becoming them—this is narcissism (see “How is Narcissism Like Footed Pajamas?”) in that we really do not yet know who we are, and our power and passion get entwined in our parents’ living-deadness, and later, in their tombs. In a sense, we must fulfill the unfulfilled dreams of our parents in order to put the ghosts to rest (maybe that’s why we feel pushed from within to write, paint, etc.). If we do it, perhaps then we can be free to live as our authentic selves (and thus NOT burden our children with having to live out our unfulfilled dreams, i.e. the over-wrought coach hollering at six-year-old on the soccer pitch or the baseball diamond).
Individuation is a tough journey, and we lack formal rituals of initiation (or rather I should say that our rituals have become tepid and empty for the most part). What sort of true ordeal of profound change is really to be found in a modern “graduation?” Primitive cultures had us out in the forest, having to kill a bear or an elk or something; then you honored that creature and took its spirit as your guardian spirit; you returned to the tribe with a new name—you were a different person, ready for the next chapter of your life journey. How is a modern bar/bat mitzvah, or a “sweet sixteen” party, or a job as a “summer associate” at a law firm truly about becoming a man or woman?
Often we feel depressed because we are STUCK. We know that our spirit or soul or deep Self has some things for us to do, but we feel scared and ill equipped. If we have had parents, or grandparents, who now seem to be our obstacle, one of the most powerful things we can do to free ourselves—maybe metaphorically by freeing the spirits of our miserable and unfulfilled ancestors (and there are an awful lot of those swirling around our planet at the moment)—is to truly step up to being our best Selves as parents (of our kids, others’ kids, animals, etc.). By parenting we solidify our ego selves (see “The Bowl and the Colander”), and we also make our soul-selves. Soul-making is a key task of true grown-up life.
So let’s honor our “depression” by letting it kick our behinds into better parenting gear. As a therapist I am well aware of the beast of black despair, and if it has you in its grip this morning it’s going to take a lot more than a blog to do the trick. But the Torah (a word that simply means “teaching”) says that the sins of the parents will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation (ouch) but the blessing will be visited to the thousandth generation. Just maybe something in this cosmos wants you to be alive and reading this at this moment; if nothing else has worked, ask your distant ancestors for a little help in the service of your kids, and all our children. If anything great happens, report back—it might help other parents. And if it’s a total failure, report back—we’ll try to think of something else.