Friday, September 4, 2015
We are closing in on the High Holy Days – a time of reflection, celebration, and forgiveness. It is a new year that is filled with possibilities and it begins with the Ten Days of Repentance. As a Jew by Choice it’s this time of year that is pregnant with meaning for me. I do not have a long history of Hanukkah celebrations and Passover Seders. Nor did I have the privilege of listening to my grandparents talk about putting carp in the bathtub or building a sukkah. The large family oriented celebrations have no back story for me – none beyond their biblical context and their historical significance. But the High Holy Days make it possible for me to connect with Judaism in a way the other holidays don’t – in a deeply personal and reflective way.
But they are also problematic for me. I struggle with forgiveness – forgiving. And I admit that I struggle with knowing when I should ask for forgiveness and of whom I should ask it. As a child who grew up in a highly dysfunctional home where violence was the norm, I struggle with my responses as an adult to that past. I struggle to find the line between forgiving my mother and step-father and the necessity of not allowing their dysfunction back in my life. I struggle too with their deeply held, but extreme religious beliefs that center on paranoia, fear and disdain of gay people. Do I forgive them? Do I ask forgiveness – and for what – for being me? For being angry that they will “stand with Kim Davis” in Kentucky but not with their gay daughter at her civil union? How and what should be the scope of asking and receiving forgiveness on Yom Kippur? Do I ask forgiveness for demanding a place at the table? Or for wanting to be accepted “Just As I Am?” I don’t have the answers – and even at 49 – almost 50 – I struggle with the ways in which the dysfunction in my past have, in many ways, colored my present – often in ways that I don’t even realize.
The key to gaining forgiveness from someone is by asking –and I admit that my step-father asked me once – almost twenty years ago. At the time I was not ready. Many things had been done and said in my childhood and young adulthood that were too big for me to simply brush away with an “I forgive you.” In many ways, I was (and perhaps still am) that 12 year old girl whose arms he pinned to the couch as my mother slapped at my face. I was 12 – and had flipped over a coffee table so my step-father would stop hitting my two younger sisters. It worked, because he chased after me as I ran to the bathroom, flipped me over his shoulder and threw me against the sofa. As he held me down, my mother hit me. And from that key moment in my life I felt – and continued to feel – as if my mother had taken sides – and had chosen the perpetrator’s side over her own child. She had always come to my rescue before this – if she couldn’t physically intervene, I could always hear her voice of protest. But that was now over. Things like this loom large – and restrict the relationship I have with my mother and step-father. No matter how hard I try to overcome these things, I cannot obliterate them – possibly because they have never specifically apologized for them. Whether it was my step-father hitting my mother, my younger siblings, or tying a garbage bag over the head of our dog and beating him, he has never said, "I am sorry for causing you pain, for creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, for blaming you for my marital problems, for not loving you enough to stop the violence."
And for my mother it was the same, her harsh words and ability to deflate hopes and dreams was unparalleled, Whenever I chose to say, “this is what I really want in my life,” she was quick to stick a pin in it and downplay the importance. She continued to choose the perpetrator, the religion, the politics, over her child. And she continues to “stand with Kim Davis” and to leave her child on the opposite side of the divide. That’s her right, I suppose, but it’s not something I can understand. And I’m not sure it’s something I can forgive. She has repeatedly demonstrated to me that her choices and her loyalties lie elsewhere, not with me – and so I struggle with – do I forgive her? How do I forgive her? Should I forgive her? Is it possible to forgive her?
Perhaps these things cannot be forgiven, forgotten or obliterated. Maybe they have to remain in place – a barrier to reconstructing a fictionalized account of my life. My growing up was largely one of fear, self-hatred, violence, and anger. In my teen years I tried hard to cultivate a deep spirituality which was always undercut with a well-timed “You need to get your heart right.” from my step-father. It always left me reeling and unbalanced – unsure of who I really was or what I was really doing – I tried to change - to be better – to do more – but always, without fail, was met with “get your heart right.” I would, in the language of fundamentalism, “walk down the aisle” – repeatedly seeking to be relieved of the false mask – to finally find that sense of spiritual acceptance. But no matter how many times I left it at the altar, my parents were there to hand it right back to me the next day or week. Emotional, physical, and spiritual insecurity was what they offered me – their enduring bequest to me.
But as an adult – able to make choices for myself – I have to be ready to acknowledge that these things place me at a disadvantage but cannot define me forever. And perhaps I also have to learn that I cannot re-create a relationship that never existed – or at least one that was broken beyond repair. I cannot make them accept me anymore than I can wish my past never existed. And so I have to choose to move forward and not backward. I have to take that broken part of myself and use it and grow from it. But I know from watching the world and from watching far more successful people that these “parent” issues never really go away – and so I have to be prepared to live with the brokenness – as Jacob had to learn to walk with a limp. A symbol of struggling with the limitations of being human.
And so as I approach the High Holy Days – and the Days of Repentance, I think that perhaps this year I should finally ask forgiveness of myself. And I should be ready to forgive myself. I should forgive myself for not being what others think I should be – because it’s okay to just be who I was meant to be. I must ask forgiveness from myself for constantly questioning my own self-worth, my value – and basing it on what others say or think of me. I must ask forgiveness of myself for belittling my own pain and seeing it as something that should be simply brushed aside for the greater good, rather than as a valid response to dysfunction and hurt. I must also ask forgiveness of myself for not seeing my own intrinsic goodness. I am a good person—who has worked hard, put herself through college, and has done all the right things. I did this without the help of my parents, and should be proud of that. I should also be prepared to forgive myself when I still feel the pain of a dysfunctional family. It is right and normal to feel the pain of loss - even as an adult. I should forgive myself when I am imperfect and hurt – and when I long to be loved on my own terms – even though I know it is not always possible. I should forgive myself – because – I am still human after all.