Presidents’ Day. Sometime before or after we have shopped, we are supposed to think about those who founded or led our great country. Perhaps try to imagine their courage and foresight and realize how fortunate we are.
This might also be a good time to reflect on our personal founders: our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Many of us could talk about grandparents who came over here on steamers, escaping lives of terrible economic or political adversity for the purpose of finding a better life for their families. Even slaves who were brought here against their will devoted their lives, generation after generation, to the pursuit of freedom and the protection of their children. What incredible courage and tenacity that must have taken.
Today, parents still devote themselves to trying to make life better for the next generation. The care for our children’s future is clearly a biological imperative, not just a conscious choice. Of course, that imperative does not mean that parents will necessarily do a good job.
The great director Ingmar Bergman titled one of his autobiographical films Best Intentions, which described his family’s motives. I’m sure the title could also describe the motives of most families. We come together with love, hope and best intentions.
And then life happens.
People, including parents, are genetically wired to act in certain ways under stress; relationships fracture, children sometimes make parents feel out of control. And sometimes innocent children get hurt. Some carry wounds silently, some drink or do drugs or starve themselves, and some come into offices such as mine.
Understandably, they complain about what did or did not happen to them. Then the emotions frequently come flooding in – anger or sadness or shame or loneliness, usually a combination of all of them. Many feel trapped by the injuries received from their parents. And many are.
But the prison is not built by our parents’ behavior; it is built by our reaction. Rabbi Harold Kushner once said that resentment was like mud-wrestling with a pig: “You will both get dirty, but the pig will enjoy it.”
Intentions, when parenting, are genetically driven. But how children react to their parents may not be. Some are able to honor the gifts that go with our parents’ intentions, and some get lost in the injuries that may have come from our parents’ behavior. And, in time, many are able to make the transition from getting lost to honoring the gifts.
Several years ago, I treated a woman whose childhood had included an alcoholic, unpredictable mother. This woman had looked to her father for protection, and because he didn’t drink and was stable, she felt safe with him in her early years.
But as she grew, he became more withdrawn and angry. One evening when she was 16, her boyfriend dropped her off at the house 30 minutes past her curfew. Her father slapped her in the face, called her a tramp, and didn’t talk to her for weeks.
She spent 20 years struggling with her sense of abandonment and rejection. Eventually, she was able to tolerate the hurt and spent a long time assuming he didn’t love her. In time, as her defenses softened and she could tolerate more of her emotions, she came to understand that her pain was not because he didn’t love her; it was because he didn’t return the love she felt so deeply for him.
As father and daughter both grew older, she realized how difficult it had been for him to spend a lifetime with an alcoholic wife too sick to be a companion. She realized he had stayed in a painful marriage because of his loyalty to his wife and daughter. She grew to appreciate that he might not have been a very good father, but he did have the best intentions.
Letting go of resentment is one of the most difficult things we can do. But, after all, wouldn’t we want our children to forgive our mistakes and understand our motives? Very few parents want to hurt their children. And few children want to carry a lifetime of resentment toward their parents.
And how do we make this transition? Whether or not they are alive, spend some time imagining your parents and their intentions when they were young people. Try to imagine their wishes and fears. And then try to imagine being free of resentment and feeling love and gratitude toward your parents. That would be a way to honor our founding mothers and fathers.
And if you don’t do it well, that’s OK. Remember, it’s your intentions that count.