How to Begin Forgiving Our Parents: Becoming Human
Today, an author, friend, another mama of 6, living not off land, but sea, a woman of deep wisdom and whom I hold in the highest esteem — Leslie Leyland Fields is on the farm’s front porch with a needed story on forgiving our parents:
My father had a stroke. Three weeks later, I flew down from Kodiak to be with him, just the two of us. He was in a rehab facility by then. I flew into Orlando, rented a car, and drove to the facility, wondering who I would find, what would be left.
The last time I saw him, a few months before, he had all his faculties. He walked painfully slowly with a walker, but he was upright and cogent, though he never said much.
He barely spoke to me my entire life, or to any of my siblings. I had seen him three times in 30 years. I knew something was wrong with him, though I had not yet found the name for his detachment, his inability to love others, even his own children.
What would be left of him? And was there any chance to build a relationship even now, near the end of his life?
I inched down the hallway as I approached his room. I peered around the doorway and saw it was a room for two. A figure lay curled on the bed, and then, through a half-open curtain, I saw another man in a wheelchair. I entered tremulously.
My father was lying on his side, curled knees to chest. He was wearing shorts. His jaw hung open, all his teeth gone now. He was much thinner, yet his legs were solid still, muscular.
What do I do? What do I know about this—visiting the sick, the elderly, a father?
I felt as if I was supposed to know, but I didn’t.
Do I wait?
I had come five thousand miles, and my time was short. I didn’t want to wait. I inched closer to the bed, deciding . . . yes, I would wake him, if possible.
I touched his shoulder through the thin jersey, lightly, and watched his face. I held my fingers there for a moment, and he blinked; then eyes opened.
He looked directly at me without moving his head. Seeing me, his eyes filled with tears and, still looking, he began to weep, a silent, shaking weeping, his whole body shuddering as he sobbed, his head still lying on his hands.
I froze. I had never seen my father weep—or even teary or sad. He seldom showed emotions.
I was torn in half. My face crumpled.
I kept my hand on his shoulder to comfort his racking body, and there we were, bodies touching, both shaking in silent sobs, our faces lost in sadness and grief. I knew he could not speak or name the sorrows that shook him, but it seemed to me we wept, the two of us, for his life, for his long, sad life, for his breaking body, his tangled mind, and a tongue that was now nearly stilled.
I cried that I had not seen him sooner. I cried for thirty years of absence from his life. We were crying for all that was lost to us both.
Later, I could not but wonder at this: the stroke had rendered him more fully human than I had ever seen him. I had not expected this: I saw my father through eyes of mercy and kindness. And I was sad as well.
Did it really take a stroke to render him worthy of pathos?
Look across now at whatever terrain separates you from your father, your mother, your mother-in-law, your stepfather, even your grandparent. Is it possible that someone is there on the other side of the road, someone like you, stripped, knocked out, unable even to ask for help? Might that person be wounded also?
I am not insisting as you look that you feel a flood of emotion, as I did in those moments. I am not even insisting on warm feelings. Instead I am inviting perspective.
As you look into your parents’ lives, consider the words of Jesus on the cross as He struggled for breath, His body so bloodied He was unrecognizable. He had done no evil, no wrong at all, ever.
Yet He was executed as a criminal. Jesus hung there, pinioned like a dove, and uttered the most startling words ever: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
You may not be able to pray that prayer right now, but consider where it leads us.
It schools our hearts in empathy and “trains our spirits in compassion,” as Eugene Peterson has written. More than this, he continues, it allows “for the possibility that ‘they know not what they do.”
How many of our parents intended the harm they caused? How many acted in ignorance and are ignorant still? How many are stuck in their woundedness, unable to see, to move?
This is what we’re doing now. We are training our spirits in compassion.
When we do this, we discover or remember again the frailty of our parents, the burdens they bore, the weight of their own parents’ sins upon them.
We discover their inherent worth as human beings. And we’ll find something even larger happening. When we truly see them in all their fullness, we become more alive, more awake, more fully human ourselves.
My friend Leslie Leyland Fields is an award-winning author of eight books, a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a national speaker, a popular radio guest, and a sometimes commercial fisherwoman, working with her husband and 6 children in commercial fishing on Kodiak Island, Alaska where she has lived for 36 years.
She knows how many of us struggle with the deep pain of a broken relationship with a parent. Through compelling personal stories from Leslie Leyland Fields and Dr. Jill Hubbard, combined with a fresh look at the Scriptures, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate illustrates and instructs in the practice of authentic forgiveness, leading you away from hate and hurt toward healing, hope, and freedom.