A Compassionate Father’s Day
Reading excerpt from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
“When we are born,
we have curses and gifts from our parents and ancestors
[that] come from way back, and generation after generation,
we work on them, with them.
They are curses because there are terrible
problems and hardships…
the most difficult questions of humanity, such
as ‘why war?’ and ‘what is love?’….
They are also gifts, because we
have the opportunity to come up with
the most beautiful answers.
Music: Change is Gonna Come https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZCO_8G4-ak
In a paper called “Shaping Change in a Changing World” by Rev Marlin Lavanhar references a Psychology Today article.
Picture this – it’s the holiday season – it’s December, right after 9/11 – there’s a man wearing a Santa suit on the sidewalk – kind-faced warm eyes – Santa. This particular season, after 9/11 – as parents approached with their children, parents would not let go of the hands of their children as they walked by.
Now this man, playing Santa, whose name happens to be Maurice DeWitt, noticed this difference in behavior. Kids sense that, he said, it’s like water seeping down. The kids can feel it… There is an anxiety, [even though] they can’t [necessarily] [articulate] the connections.
The article goes on to comment on this double message: “Consciously and verbally, the message was ‘Here’s Santa. Love him.’ Unconsciously and physically, it was ‘Here’s Santa. Fear him.’ The unnamed trauma of 9/11 was communicated to the next generation by the squeeze of a hand.”
Psychic legacies, the article concludes, are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between child and adult.
We get all kinds of things from the people who raise us – if we’re lucky we get love & affection and guidance – but we get other stuff too – passed as innocuously as a squeeze of a hand.
Soothing words said, or not said. Applause or appreciation or frowns or denigration.
We learn and absorb and we carry that heritage. We are formed by that heritage.
Formed before we even know we are being formed.
A lot comes to us from the people around us and the people who raise us.
Just as a lot came to them, as they were raised. They too were shaped by the people and the circumstances in their lives, as they were growing up.
I travel in a number of spiritual circles where we talk a lot about the challenges in our lives so I hear a lot about the ways our parents’ strengths and struggles impact us. Like my friend whose father was a good man and, his literal biblical focus didn’t leave my friend a lot of room to discover how to think for himself.
My friend whose immigrant parents worked so hard to lift them out of poverty. But that hard work meant they didn’t have the time or the attention to pay to her – leaving her to figure a lot out on her own, from the perspective of a 5 yo or 10 yo or 15 yo. She has told me she’s still trying to undo those ways of handling things that she came up with at the time.
But our close people – even with whatever struggled they might have also give us gifts. I’m thinking of a couple of Connection group facilitators who gave permission to share two of their stories. One, has a beloved uncle who happens to be a priest and so is unusually busy. When she calls him she always asks if he’s doing anything. And he will always say: I’m talking to you, and he says it like nothing else matters. The way she told this story I get the sense just thinking about it lifts her spirits. She knows she is seen. And valued. Another facilitator in the group talked about a time she took it upon herself, as a child, to completely disassemble a bicycle. Like, completely. Her grandfather happened to walk by, the whole thing in pieces. Rather than scolding her or giving her a hard time he simply left it up to her – his demeanor instilling a quiet confidence. When he came by again, the whole thing was reassembled, completely. And, it worked. His kindness and patience were significant to her, she said, in that any other adult in her life would have lost their cool about the bike being apart in the first place. I got the sense from the way she shared this story, that this man was a touchstone in her life. Someone she knew she could count on.
As adults we sometimes paint this idyllic picture of what it’s like to be young. But when we look closely we’ll remember that it’s just not easy to be small in this big and sometimes difficult world. Not for anyone.
A couple of years ago my mom told me a story about my aunt, her middle sister. During the war, WW II, there wasn’t enough food in the Netherlands where they lived. After the war, some children were sent away, to farms in the countryside, in hopes that they would gain some weight and gain some health. That was what happened to my aunt. She was maybe 6? 7? So young. She had terrible asthma growing up, and got sick a lot. After the war, she was sent to a farm in Switzerland – a long way away.
I imagine my grandfather, at the train station, in this country just ravaged by war, not knowing much about where she was going, not knowing exactly what she needed, not knowing when he would see her again… Scared, surely he must have been scared, seeing her off, as he likely did, with a squeeze of the hand.
I wonder sometimes how the terror of that war lives in the bodies of my parents who were children at that time. And I wonder how the traumas of the previous generation lived in their parents. And I wonder what was carried by their parents parents, and their parents parents parents before them and on up through my forebears. And then, back down to me, I wonder how, now, all that lives in me.
I think about how I get agitated over some things that seem innocuous, for reasons I don’t always understand.
I think about how I’m sensitive to certain situations and get shut down when I am in others.
I think about how urgent I get to fix some things. And how I do not always want attend to things that I know are good.
And I notice when I meditate or practice leaning in, when I practice going other way, refraining from things I know don’t make much sense. When I practice doing the things that line up with who I want to be but that I can’t yet tell I waaant to do…I feel it right in my body. Agitation. Fear, Resistance, Uncomfortable energy. Some unnamed feeling I don’t wanna feel.
The energies that make it harder for me to consistently be who I want to be: caring, loving, flexible, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and brave.
Those energies are in my body.
In his book, the body keeps the score, author Bessel van der Kolk makes the case that trauma, whether from our own experiences, or passed down through the generations, trauma lives on in the present – in the body. Where it can operate beneath our conscious awareness, but shape our behavior all the same.
In his book, my grandmother’s hands, Resmaa Menakem, suggests that racism, the blight that plagues our world, its source is trauma, and it is carried in the body. Its source is trauma, he suggests, passed down from a time we call the dark ages, a time of unusual violence and brutality inflicted by white people, on white people from 500-1500 ad, which came before these same people landed in the so-called new world, where the scourge/ow terror of slavery and genocide began. (victims of domination and control)
And down the ages, this savage legacy been passed on, changing in form, and substance, but wreaking devastation, generation after generation. Right on into today.
Hurt people, hurt people, as Marlin notes in his paper.
And the more I understand how this thing works, the more I see its echoes in me and people close to me. Bias, denial, confusion, desire to control, desire to avoid, desire to stay comfortable by talking about other things. Van der Kalk notes that the most painful traumas are most likely to be denied or ignored. Yet still, the energy is there, in us, dividing us, keeping us small or silent or limited so that the violence continues. Patterns of behavior passed on as unawarely as a squeeze of the hand.
Music: Come Healing by Leonard Cohen
Hurt people hurt people.
And those hurt people create dysfunctional culture and systems that keep the hurt in place. Systems of domination and control. Ownership. Utility.
We see it in how we treat the earth, like it’s there for us to use, and we see the impact of that attitude. It’s in our relationship with everything. It plays out in sexism. A pattern which, contrary to some beliefs, does not necessarily benefit men. A friend of mine told me he grew up with the message to dominate or be dominated – what kind of choice is that? It left him feeling like he can’t be vulnerable, it makes it harder to connect, harder to have compassion for himself, even. And of course the dysfunctions in our culture have been keeping this massive system of racism, and its associated poverty, health implications and violence, in place for centuries.
And hurt people, keep passing it along.
But here’s the thing. Healed people, can heal people.
When I was in seminary, I was given a book called the Wounded Healer.
Now, one thing any seminarian will tell you is that we spend a lot of time talking about what’s wrong. About what’s broken, in the world, in ourselves. The idea is exactly this – that what we aren’t aware of, we’ll pass on. But what we’ve looked at, acknowledged, accepted, worked through, what has been healed, can become a healing balm for others.
But the first piece is the acknowledgment. You have to see it, whatever it is. Look at it, understand it, acknowledge its size and scope. When it comes to racism, the more I learn, the more I see. When I was growing up it was barely visible, a speck on the horizon that was mostly relevant to other people. As I’ve come to understand more about how this society was formed, as I’m seeing how much of the wealth of this country, and also the Netherlands, where I’m from, was built on slavery and racism, I’m starting to understand the brokenness at our foundations. And I’m seeing the impact everywhere – in who lives in what neighborhoods, who goes to what school, who ends up successful and who ends up in jail. I’ve started to see the lies bound up in racism – that some people are worth less than others, or not worth anything. That it’s okay to use people. That people are worth what they produce.
I see how it has all shaped this country’s culture. Resmaa Menakem suggests that culture is shaped, in part, as a response to unhealed, collective trauma.
And it affects all of us.
Marlin Lavanhar suggests that unhealed trauma leaves a hole, in our souls. We have a collective hole in our souls. We know something’s not right.
How many of us struggle with feeling like we’re not enough, not good enough not doing enough, not smart enough, not successful enough or whatever.
And this culture tells us the answer is to fix yourself. Read self help books. Lose weight, take that class, learn new skills, do better, be better, feel better.
We get offers daily of ways to fill that hole in our souls, in every way except the one that would actually heal it.
When we turn toward this greatest of unhealed wounds in this country, I think we are literally getting at the root of what ails us. All of us. We are pulling up, by the roots, the broken message that anyone is not okay as they are, that any person is more valuable than any other, that people need punishment rather than compassion. Not to mention healthcare and a living wage.
This movement we’re are in, and it’s calling us. It’s calling those of us who are white to join our siblings of color who’ve been in this fight for so long. It’s calling white people to show up, to learn, to take action.
There is a movement we’re in, and it’s saving all our lives.
And it’s calling us to build – to build relationships, and deepen relationships, within and across racial lines.
It’s calling us to heal, which begins with facing what’s hard. Which means, white people, being open to ideas that challenge us. Which means, white people loving and challenging other white people – both. Its so easy for white people to fall into being hard on each other. Blaming each other. But that doesn’t heal the trauma. Just leaves it in place, to take new forms. How can we bring compassion for ourselves and each other?
I heard the term emotional labor recently, and that sounds right.
There is a movement we’re in, and it’s saving all our lives.
From “May I Suggest” by Susan Werner
There is a hope
That’s been expressed in you
The hope of seven generations, maybe more
And this is the faith
That they invest in you
It’s that you’ll do one better than was done before
Inside you know
Inside you understand
Inside you know what’s yours to finally set right
And I suggest
And I suggest to you
And I suggest this is the best part of your life
May we hear the call, listen, respond and learn and grow.
This movement may be the most important part of our lives.
A Father’s Day gift, to the next generation.