Friday, June 25, 2010

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. - Forgiveness Means Giving Up All Hope for a Better Past

My father never wanted kids. He was 36 when he married my mother (who was 32) and was nearly 40 when I was born. My mother really wanted to try again as a mother (she had a son at 19 in her first marriage, then had to give him up for adoption when she divorced her abusive husband - her twin brother adopted the boy), but she was a smoker.

My father said he would only have kids if she quit smoking, probably thinking she could not do it. But she did, and never smoked again.

Growing up, it was pretty clear that my father did not really enjoy kids and didn't really have time for us (my mother insisted on adopting a little girl after I was born - she really wanted a daughter). He worked six days a week as a mail carrier, with an hour-long drive each way to and from work. On Sundays, his literal "day of rest," that's exactly what he wanted to do - rest. And who could blame him, he was up at 5 am everyday and didn't get home at night until 5:30.

Due to a series of heart attacks, he was forced to retire at age 50, so he moved the family to Southern Oregon. For the first time in my life, he had time for me - and seemed to actually want to get to know me. We never played ball, and he never went to my soccer games, but we played horseshoes almost daily, and we worked together in the garden and taking care of the animals.

Then, when I was 13, he had another heart attack - he was taken to the hospital late that night. By the next morning, he seemed stable, but they held him just in case. Then another heart attack, in the hospital, and he died. I was notified by a family friend on my way home from school.

Let's just say, to put it plainly, I was pissed off at the world, and at him. How dare he die when I finally felt like I had a father. So I acted out, got high, crawled into a bottle, and raged for the next five or so years.

* * * * *

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. recently posted an article at Huffington Post called, Forgiveness Means Giving Up All Hope for a Better Past. The title alone is one of the truest things ever said. Too bad no one said that to me when I was young. It took another decade to figure that out - in therapy and on the cushion. Oh, yeah, he got that quote from Lily Tomlin.

When we refuse to forgive, it's as if we're holding onto the past and saying "see past, I'm not going to let you have the pleasure of me letting go of you." Meanwhile, the past is the past, it's not happening right now in the present moment -- or is it?

We keep the past alive by holding tightly to it, so perhaps it is occurring in this present moment. Now, I'm not suggesting we forget the past for the past is our teacher, however, I am suggesting that we loosen our grip on it a bit.

In a past post I asked you to consider this experiment:

"Think of someone in your life right now (maybe not the most extreme person) who you are absolutely holding a grudge against right now. There is no way you are willing to forgive this person right now for their actions. Picture that person, and hold onto that unwillingness to forgive. Now, just observe what emotions are there. Anger, resentment, sadness? Also notice how you are holding your body right now, is it tense anywhere or feeling heavy? Now bring awareness to your thoughts; are they hateful and spiteful thoughts?"
This is what lives inside of you by holding so tightly, so the question is always: who is suffering?
~ Adapted from a publication on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy at Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is Co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. You may also find him at
There's more at Huffington Post or at PsychCentral.

A lot of men I know I have not yet been able to forgive their fathers (or others) for things that happened to them in their childhood. Certainly, this is not just a men's issue, and I don't mean to imply that it is - this is simply a blog for men (and the people who love them), so I am addressing this topic to men.

One buddy has a father who is bi-polar and was not yet on meds for it. He was erratic and sometimes gone for days at a time before his mother divorced him. They have a relationship now, but there is still a lack of forgiveness. I understand how he feels, but I also think he might find some peace if he were able to forgive.

Another guy I knew came out to his parents as a teenager and was kicked out of the house - a common story in the GLBT community. He has no contact with his family, but he also does not hold the anger and hurt anymore. As long as he held onto the pain and did not forgive them, he was tied to them psychologically in a way that he felt as unhealthy. He no longer wishes for different parents, although he misses and mourns the loss of his family.

Dr. Goldstein goes on to say:

There is an understanding at some point that we are all human beings capable of all kinds of atrocities, depending on our genetic makeup, the environment we grew up in and the events that have surrounded and influenced our lives.

This is not a statement meant to excuse or condone an aggressive or violent action committed, however, it is a statement meant to help cultivate understanding and compassion in order for the ones who are suffering to come to terms with the way things are, and slowly let go of allowing the atrocity of the past to still be occurring in this present moment.

We can begin to forgive, even though we will never forget.

This is the crux of it - developing compassion both for the person we have not forgiven and for ourselves is so important. In realizing and accepting that the past can never be any other way than it was (as obvious as that sounds), we can begin to feel compassion for our loss, for our pain, for the past we wanted but never had.

As much as we can know intellectually that the past is done and immutable, accepting that at an emotional level can be challenging. Some part of us was wounded and is living in that past as though it is still happening - part of us is stuck and the only to get unstuck is to release the past.

One last quote:

Sincere forgiveness isn't colored with expectations that the other person apologize or change. Don't worry whether or not they finally understand you. Love them and release them. Life feeds back truth to people in its own way and time.~ Sara Paddison

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