Forgiveness Is Not a Pass

One of the themes in my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter, is forgiveness. I talked about this in my Fox TV interview and the reactions have run the gamut. Some agreed and others railed against it, thinking forgiveness is a pass, excusing a person’s bad behavior. It’s not. But I get it. Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness can feel like you are giving in and saying the other person was right, and if they weren’t right, then by forgiving, are we allowing ourselves to be a doormat?  Also, it seems like we are becoming less tolerant – of slights, of mistakes, of differences of opinion even.  If we can’t forgive the little things, then forgiving a bigger transgression becomes mission impossible.

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I cannot say why I am able to forgive my father and when that feeling even surfaced. For sure, in college, when he first told me not to come home, I was pissed. I didn’t forgive him then and my anger ruled me. His anger ruled him, too. We were both being stubborn. The anger felt better, stronger than the hurt – a nice protective shell.  But I didn’t like the person I was becoming then: hardening my heart to my father meant I was also hardening my heart to others. I laughed less and barked more.

The sociologist Renee Brown talks about how much we numb ourselves to such hurts. That’s why we drink more, surf the internet more, use drugs more. It’s so much easier to numb ourselves, at least in the short term it seems. There’s a reason too that some are called workaholics, and not just “hard workers;” excessive work can be their drug of choice.

During the second rift with my father, I wasn’t mad at him; I just didn’t understand him. During college, we had reconciled for two years and during this time, I tried to do everything to please my father. This included getting back together with the Swiss boyfriend, the only boyfriend my father ever really liked. When my father said he wouldn’t come to our wedding, it hurt. A lot. It hurt more so because my father had promised never to shun me again. In the days and years that followed, I didn’t think about the need to forgive him. I could only ask, “why?” Eventually, I blamed myself for all our problems, because that made more sense than a father turning his back on his daughter for no reason. I figured I must just be unlovable. (Yes, that feeling sucks.) It would take another ten years for me to start to wonder what was wrong with my father, to think perhaps the problem was with him all along.

Here, then, is what I see as one of my father’s faults:  he did not forgive. He never really forgave me for my mistake in high school and held onto this as a justification for never speaking to me again. My father’s temper is legendary. People loyal to him say how much he helped their careers and made their lives better.  With people who crossed him or disappointed him, he wrote them out of his life, no matter if a professional colleague or an extended family member.  He nurtured his hurts and grudges, letting them ferment into a potent cocktail. Some who know him blame my step mother for fanning his anger and for blowing any slight out of proportion; this seems too much of a cliché to me. She was a catalyst but not the spark. Instead, I place more of the blame on his own childhood trauma. Understanding him has been part of why I could forgive. Cherishing the good times is the other part. He was both a fabulous father and an awful father. Of course my father would say he didn’t need forgiving – he had done nothing wrong.

Forgiving does not mean we forget. There’s a reason we study history in school, in the hopes that we can learn from the past. There are times when I think, “I could never forgive that – be it sexual abuse, murder – things way worse than what I have dealt with.” And yet, I hear from people abused by a parent, and they have been able to forgive. This doesn’t undo the wrongs. It doesn’t take away the pain. It doesn’t excuse the behavior. It simply means we will not let the anger and bitterness rule us.

Probably the hardest thing for me to forgive him for is his dying on Christmas Eve, without saying goodbye. I understand he thought he had more time and that he was afraid. So I can only go with the subtle messages he left behind, and this coincidence from that 2009 Christmas Eve church bulletin:  a story from Henry van Dyke, the same Henry whose poem I found when I was eleven years old, rediscovered in my diary after my father died, and read at his makeshift memorial. “If you truly believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate . . . then you can keep Christmas.”

 

Dad and me at Christmas, 1987
Dad and me, Christmas 1987

 

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