I didn’t write this. It hits the spot for me right now. Thanks to Allyson for passing it on to me.
The last line mantra is good and I thank all those great friends and smart people that are in my life!
A ghost at the window
Transitional time of year, this, days and nights when the ancestors hover and come knocking at unexpected times. Voice murmuring in the wind, shadows at twilight, old regrets andÂ longings stirred like autumn bonfires.
For some of us, making our peace with the past is easier than for others. In part that’s because for some of us, the past is gone, the parents dead and buried, theÂ siblings reformed characters or sober,Â the adults who bullied or neglected us can’t hurt us any longer.Â For others of us, the past is very much stillÂ with us andÂ the question of making peace with violent or abusive family members still hangs in the air. Time after time I’ve seem well-meaningÂ adult children forgive parents orÂ siblings and let themÂ back into their lives only to find the dynamics haven’tÂ changed andÂ the abusiveness recommences again. This is why it is soÂ crucial toÂ reflect and discern andÂ become aware of what we can’t change, what we can’t alter, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. , I’ve been sitting with Emily Yoffe’s The Debt and probing these questions.
Loved ones and friendsâ€”sometimes even therapistsâ€”who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.
Eleanor Payson, a marital and family therapist in Michigan and the author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, sees some clients who feel it would be immoral to abandon a now-feeble parent, no matter how destructive that person was. Payson says she advises them to find ways to be caring while protecting themselves from further abuse. â€œOne of my missions is helping people not be tyrannized by false guilt or ignore their own pain and needs,â€ she says. Setting limits is crucial: â€œYou may need to keep yourself in a shark cage with no opportunity to let that person take a bite out of you.â€ Itâ€™s also OK for the conversation to be anodyne. â€œYou can say something respectful, something good-faith-oriented. â€˜I wish you wellâ€™; â€˜I continue to work on my own forgiveness.â€™ â€
Because sometimes people choose not to change. And we think that because we ourselves have changed, we canÂ help them to grow orÂ becomeÂ kinder orÂ more insightful. We want to be generous, weÂ want to forgive and be able to forget. We want toÂ be with them and start all over again as if we wereÂ new shiny bright strangers with aÂ new shiny bright future. Somewhere in the back ofÂ our minds is the injunction that we should forgiveÂ 70 times seven.
We won’t believe theyÂ choose not to change and that is often because deep down somewhere we still want theÂ approval that was always withheld. We still hope forÂ the kind of unconditional love that was always withheld. We want them to say sorry and mean it. We think that because weÂ can now identify and label their mean outbursts andÂ craziness asÂ bipolar orÂ narcissistic or hypochondriac, that it won’t hurt us as itÂ used to do. WeÂ want so badly to believe there is room for us in theirÂ tunnel-vision universe or that frozen wasteland that is their emotional landscape.
Often it isn’t as extreme as this and here we are talking about dysfunctional but loving people trapped inÂ bad circumstances orÂ mental illness. There isÂ some rapprochement, aÂ place to meet. Some realism, some hopefulness.
But sometimes when the tapping at the window may not be just a stray branch, it may be time toÂ close the shutters, draw the curtains andÂ send the ghost away. There is nowhere safe enough to risk encounter, no meeting over the tableÂ for a festive meal, no reciprocal exchange of gifts. That long-ago childhoodÂ is beyond repair and so is theÂ family relationship.
Richard Friedman in the NYT talks about the bad news and the good news:
Research on early attachment, both in humans and in nonhuman primates, shows that we are hard-wired for bonding â€” even to those who arenâ€™t very nice to us.
We also know that although prolonged childhood trauma can be toxic to the brain, adults retain the ability later in life to rewire their brains by new experience, including therapy and psychotropic medication.
My mantra for each dreadedÂ festive season: It is never too late toÂ makeÂ great friends andÂ inviteÂ smart people into our lives.