Presidents’ Day. We have the day off so we can think about the gifts we have received from our courageous founders.
This also might be a good time to reflect back on our personal founders.
Most of us had forebears who left another country to come to an unknown place and find a better life for their families. Even slaves, who arrived in bondage, devoted their lives generation after generation to pursuing freedom for future generations. What incredible courage, tenacity and love.
Today, parents still devote themselves to making life better for the next generation. Caring for our children’s future is not just a conscious choice; it’s a biological imperative.
Of course, that doesn’t mean parents will necessarily do a good job. Director Ingmar Bergman titled his autobiographical film Best Intentions to describe his dysfunctional family’s motives, not their behavior. I’m sure that title could encapsulate the motives of most families. We come together with love, hope and best intentions.
And then life happens.
Stress, illness, colicky babies, lost jobs, infidelity, depression, spiritual malnutrition, too much work, too little fun, and lost love: Eventually those intentions get lost in the fog.
And innocent children can get hurt. While some are relatively unaffected, others carry their wounds silently and seek solace in getting stoned, smashed, or deprived of joy. And some come to offices like mine.
Understandably, they complain about what did or didn’t happen to them and the injustices they endured. Many feel imprisoned by the injuries received from their parents, and many are. But while the emotional injury may be caused by the parents, they did not build the prison. It’s the child’s reaction that does that.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” Maya Angelou wrote in a poem, “but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” We cannot change what our parents did, but we can change how we tell ourselves the story.
Several years ago, I treated a woman whose mother was drunk and out of control for much of her childhood. So, like most children in that situation, she looked to her father for protection. 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 But as she grew, he became more withdrawn and irritable.
One evening when she was 16 years old, her boyfriend dropped her off at home 30 minutes past her curfew. Her father slapped her in the face and called her a tramp.
She spent 20 years struggling with feelings of abandonment and rejection. Eventually she was able to tolerate the hurt and spent a long time assuming that for some reason, he had stopped loving 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 grew older, she realized how difficult it was for him to spend a lifetime with an alcoholic wife who was too sick to be a companion, and how loyal he was to stay in this very painful marriage. She came to appreciate that although he might not have been a very good father, he did have the best intentions.
Releasing 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 intentions? Very few parents want to hurt their children. And few children want to carry a lifetime of resentment toward their parents.
This might be a pretty good day to honor all our founders.