Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Fathers and Forgiveness

One of our readers was inspired by Sharon's first post to tell her own story about applying skepticism in difficult emotional situations. She requested that we post this anonymously.

Father's Day used to be difficult for me. I would stress about it: Should I send my father a card? Just ignore him? Call him on the phone? Send a present? I had a very difficult childhood because of my abusive father. As an adult, I've tried to reconnect with him, and he has proved, again and again, that he has not changed at all. In fact, he feels he should have been “tougher” with his children. I can't imagine how he could have been tougher without killing us. Indeed, he came close a few times. (His stepdaughter even took out a restraining order against him, after he had "disciplined" her child.)

Happy Holidays?

My religious upbringing instilled the notion that we must “forgive” people that have caused us pain. I was taught to “honor” my father and mother. The guilt that I couldn't even like my father, let alone love him, was crushing. Now, I no longer fear him, and I'm no longer angry. But I don't want to forgive him. What makes my father the person he is, I will never know, and I really don't care. Maybe one day he will get some kind of help, but he doesn't see that he needs any. In his mind, his children need the help.

People pressure me to forgive my father, to visit him and include him in my life. My own mother, who left him and has since claimed that his treatment of her left her with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), has been the most vocal about my needing to include him in my life. The only good thing she has ever said about his role as a father is, “You and your brothers were so afraid of him, you never got into any trouble.” And yet she says that if I don't forgive him and reconnect, one day he will die and I will be sorry I never made the effort.

New Age therapists also promote “relive” and “forgive”. I was watching a show about Naomi and Wynonna Judd, the mother-daughter country & western duo, who had brought their therapist on tour with them. He encouraged them to revisit places where they had experienced horrible stress and abuse, and insisted that Naomi should reconnect with her mother. He said, “One day she will be dead,” "It's good for you," and "You need to do the right thing even if she doesn't.” Naomi reluctantly invited her mother to a concert, and of course, she didn't show. Naomi was devastated by this; she had done the right thing, and felt like crap. I felt like yelling at the stupid therapist, “Leave her alone!"

Even my skeptic friends have been on the “forgive” train. Not only do I have to feel guilty about not loving or liking my father, I have to feel guilty because I cannot forgive his behavior. They tell me that this inability to forgive harms me more than him. As a skeptic, I want to see evidence for this. I can find no studies that prove that not reconnecting with my father, or not saying that I understand his behavior, will somehow harm me. I have thought this through, and decided that keeping this man away from my children, and out of my life, is far safer than giving him chance after chance.

The pressure from my friends and family, combined with the guilt I was already feeling, led me to see a therapist. Fortunately I found one who was a skeptic like myself, and didn't pull out New Age/recycled Christian dogma. The therapist was smart enough to say, “Your dad is a jerk.” Does that mean I can be a jerk to my dad? No. But do I have to put myself on an endless emotional roller coaster for the rest of his life? Nope.

I have a very happy life. My siblings and I had other really wonderful role models in our lives, which more than made up for the father we feared so very much. We have all had therapy, and have benefited from it. But my greatest joy is seeing how my own children have a healthy, strong and loving relationship with their father. I love so much about my husband, but the thing I love most is what a wonderful father he is. He always puts our children first -- when they are in trouble, he is the first person they call. They know their father will love them no matter what.

As a skeptic, I try to remember to apply critical thinking to everything -- even highly emotional issues. When someone tells me that it isn't right to avoid my father, and to try yet again to put effort into him, I remind myself of the great thought that led to my decision. I refuse to feel guilty about it any more -- there is no good reason to. Not forgiving him was the best choice I could make, for me, and my family.


  1. It's interesting how there are different takes on forgiveness. I'm not sure you ever have to let someone know you forgive them. If we forgive others to heal ourselves, why do they even have to know? In the case presented in this post, I think the writer has taken the wisest course of action.

    If you can learn not to care about someone from your past who was horrible, you need do nothing else.

  2. I had a family member who was very mean/cruel to me for years. I finally realized that I didn't have to put up with it, which was a very liberating feeling. We don't pick our families - and an accident of birth is no justification for a lifetime of exploitation.


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