Nov 9, 2008

Forgiving our parents: revisiting our self-concept

I had a very helpful dream about a month ago. I was having lunch with a friend when I noticed my father and his wife entering the restaurant. He saw me from the distance and rushed to greet me. He was visibly happy to see me. From a bag he pulled out a photo album and handed it to me. “This is for you,” he said and walked away.

The album was filled with photos that captured a moment from every encounter we’ve had since I was born until I moved out of Argentina when I was seventeen. It wasn’t very thick since my mother and father separated when I was 10 months old and I didn’t see him at all between the ages of two and sixteen.

As I leafed through the photos, what stood out was the love that I saw in my father’s eyes as he looked at me. As a child, though I tried not to think about it, the feeling I had was that if he loved me, he would make the effort to see me. Even though I had a happy childhood with an excellent mother, a part of me felt abandoned.

At the back of the album there was a scrapbook where my father had pasted articles that appeared in the paper about him including a very favorable eight page biography with photos highlighting his accomplishments. As I began to read, he appeared next to me. Looking into my eyes with a sweet, innocent smile he said: “Can you see me from this perspective?”

The thought that occurred to me as I woke up was that for most of my adult life, I didn’t know who my father was. All I was intimately familiar with were my thoughts about him. For a long time I looked at him and interpreted his actions through a thick layer of beliefs that I had developed about him as a child. Once we have a belief about someone, unless we are willing to re-examine it, it colors our view of them.

His actions only confirmed what I thought I knew about him. Our mind has a way of only noticing what validates our beliefs. Everything else, we literally don’t see. A Course in Miracles points this out early on in the preface:”What perception sees and hears appears to be real because it permits into awareness only what conforms to the wishes of the perceiver. (Preface X.)”

Though I had a fairly good relationship with my father, a part of me blamed him for having abandoned me and assumed that his having done so had a damaging and permanent effect on me.

Sometime in my middle twenties I began to notice what I thought was the effect of my father abandoning me. I saw that though I outwardly appeared confident and outgoing, I was dependent on people’s love and approval. I needed to be noticed and appreciated and it was difficult to open up to people. I unconsciously feared that once they knew who I really was, they would reject me, just as my father had rejected me as a child. I blamed my father for the fact that physical touch from people I didn't know well felt uncomfortable, almost painful.

It is not uncommon to blame our faults, our reactions, and behavior to the way adults in our lives treated us when we were children. Many other factors like order of birth, social situation, education, religion, also seem to have an effect on who we become. This is obviously true at the level of form – we appear to be; both physically and emotionally, the product of our genetics and our upbringing.

But as long as we blame our parents, or the environment we grew up in for our feelings, defects, shortcomings or our unhappiness, we are tying ourselves to a limited self-concept that roots us in the ego-thought system of separation. The gradual building of a self-concept is the ego’s purpose. The Course tells us that “The building of a concept of the self is what the learning of the world is for.” (T-31 V.1:5) From the moment we are born, we learn who we supposedly are. It’s that identification with the self that prevents us from ever knowing who we are in reality. As long as we continue to ‘learn’ who we are by looking at our past and blaming others, we will strengthen our identification with a false sense of self and continue to live in an illusion. As long as we think we know who we are, the ego is safe.

Forgiving our parents is a first step in the direction of letting go of deeply rooted self-concepts that color the way we see. In the dream, my father urged me to look at him from a different perspective. Forgiveness always involves looking at a person or at a situation from a different perspective. As adults we have the opportunity to re-visit every assumption and interpretation we made as children and look at it through more mature, forgiving eyes.

After a fairly insignificant event, anger which until then had been masked as mild annoyance, surfaced one day in 2002. Before then, I thought I had a good relationship with my father. All the beliefs that I had been unconsciously holding about him rose to the surface and poured out. The pain felt like an open wound that keeps bleeding and does not scar. I knew exactly why I hated him. A trial took place in my mind. My interpretation of every one of our encounters was used as evidence against him. The verdict was that he did not love me and he was responsible for the way I was. If anyone cared to listen, I was able to come up with all the evidence that would prove him guilty beyond doubt.

For a while I paid lip service to wanting to forgive, but the resistance was like a granite wall. A part of me did not want to let go of the pain. That was the first time I became aware of how the ego wants and needs to suffer.

Eventually, I noticed a tiny desire to choose against the pain and the process of forgiveness began. I prayed daily for a change of perspective. I asked the Holy Spirit, which is the memory of God in our minds, for a new interpretation. A six year journey began in which I looked at every assumption, interpretation and story I had made about my father and let it go. I began writing this blog one night last year after one of the many opportunities I had over the years to practice forgiving him.

Over time, it became clear that the reason I felt abandoned was not because my father left, but because I interpreted his leaving as irrefutable evidence that he did not love me. Through the forgiveness process, I saw that the reason my father chose not to see me was not that he didn’t care about me, but that he was dealing with his own set of difficult emotional problems that prevented him from being there for me when I was a child. I understood that he was doing the best he could. He himself had had a very difficult childhood.

As I forgave my father, I became free from the belief that I needed him to appreciate me and love me in order to be happy, self-confident, or at peace. It became clear that neither his words nor his actions could have an effect on me. It was always my choice to give him that power over me.

Sitting at dinner last week with my father, his wife and their three adult children, I experienced freedom for the first time. We had a delightful evening. My mind was quiet – there was no reaction to anything my father said or did. On the contrary, I felt this gentle loving sense take over me which felt almost impersonal, but thoroughly loving and compassionate. When I spoke, the words came out of this love so I spoke kindly and without effort. I was uncharacteristically interested in what they were saying. I was in the moment, celebrating every story, every joke. We sat around the table having the best time until after midnight. It was as if time stood still.

I was aware of the incredible freedom that comes from being in the presence of someone from whom you don't need anything. As I sat on a stool in the kitchen watching my father cook and later at the table seeing him laugh and talk, I saw only love in his eyes. There were no interpretations, no second-guessing. The fog had lifted and I saw him as he is.

My actions were natural and free. I didn’t need to impress him or do anything to earn his love. I felt loved, not because he loves me, but because love was in me.

“Salvation is nothing more than an escape from concepts” (T-31 V. 14:3)