Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Humanist Recovery: A Post Mother's Day Reflection

A middle aged man, undergoing psychoanalysis, returns to his therapist’s couch after a long holiday weekend where he visited his estranged mother for the first time in 20 years.

“How did your Thanksgiving dinner go?” The Therapist asked his patient.

“Well, I think I had one of those Freudian slips that you guys sometimes talk about.”

“What do you mean?” The Therapist asked.

“At one point during dinner I turned to my mother. I meant to say, ‘please pass the mashed potatoes,’” he said, “But, instead I said, ‘you ruined my life you fucking bitch’”

This joke describes my relationship with my own mother except that I have yet to make such a Freudian slip. I also have never undergone psychoanalysis. But, the general attitude of hatred and hurt expressed by the patient has been part of the burden I have carried around for decades.

This morning I found myself having a rather rare “post mother’s day” reflection. It comes on the heels of a warning that she will be visiting my sister’s family in Colorado Springs and a subsequent plan for me to meet up with everyone for lunch or dinner here in Denver.

I realize that I no longer hate my mother. That isn’t to say that I am not still angry or hurt. I am most definitely not letting her off the hook for her abusive behavior throughout my life. I rankle at our emerging post modern spiritualities and pop psychologies that decry blaming anyone but ourselves for the state of our lives. That type of thinking is garbage. It invalidates the damage that people can do to others and forces us to “forgive” our perpetrators long before we are ready, capable and even willing. We have to deal with the hurt and the deep wounds first or forgiveness is not possible.

Forgiveness is a process. It can’t be rushed. I blame the Judeo-Christian tradition and many New Age gurus for perpetrating this anti-human thinking on the world. Many people believe so called spiritualities without putting it to the test of critical analysis simply because it sounds good or some charismatic pastor, guru or therapist espouses it.

Certainly, take responsibility for your life. It is your life after all and no one, but you can live it. But, I am an adult. As a child my life is at the whim of my parents, schools, churches and we are sometimes left coping with the consequences of their poor judgment. Many rarely deal with these childhood wounds. We try and “let it go” and “put it behind us” at the encouragement of well meaning, but poorly enlightened friends and loved ones. At best most of us push these to the bottom and suppress these hurts, ignoring them. Even worse we continue the cycle and perpetrate the same abuses, unaware and unintentionally, on our progeny. That is the power of denial for you.

Naturally, continuously blaming others for what they did to you or what you perceived they did to you will have some negative consequences for you. Slowly, over the years of my life I have learned to make distinctions between recognizing what others have done and what I can do now. I can’t change anything in the past. I can’t undo what others did to me and they certainly can’t either. But, the “blame” stage is part of the healing process and it can’t be rushed either.

Rushing past blame to forgiveness will leave unresolved anger festering in your heart (not to wax poetically in a new age fashion myself). Unresolved anger often turns to rage and rage destroys lives. As a recovering alcoholic I can confirm that, anecdotally at least, from my own experience. My unresolved issues with my mother led to a lot of frustration where I simultaneously sought the approval and unconditional love of the women in my life and hated them for it at the same time. Paradoxically, I elevate the women in my life on pedestals and my thoughts about femininity obsess on ultra positive archetypes. I set myself up constantly for bitter disappointment when the important women in my life prove to be as human as me.

Thank god I am both a Humanist and an atheist. Forgiveness is not about following god’s commandments or about following Jesus’ example. Jesus got himself killed (if a historical Jesus exists at all) and his so-called moral teaching leads to an anti-human selflessness that serves no healthy purpose. Even the late don of Christian apologetics, C.S. Lewis, conceded that Jesus (if he was not God’s only begotten son) was not a moral man at all. In fact, he would be a lunatic at best, a demon at worse. As an atheist I suggest a lunatic.

Forgiveness is about the forgiver. You forgive because there is a psychological and emotional benefit for you in so doing. Yes, that is hardly the attitude of a saint. But, who wants to be a saint? Most of them were nuts too. Ethically you are under no obligation to forgive anyone and sometimes the damage they do is far too great to work through in a finite lifetime. You are human and despite the new age rhetoric to the contrary have limits. When you give up the belief in divinity, transcendent or personal, you free yourself up to get about the process of healing. You can set realistic goals and expectations. You allow yourself to be human.

Another lesson gleaned from my recovery process concerns making amends. And this was a hard one. I am constantly making moral inventories of myself and my life. That’s right theists – atheists can make moral inventories. We can determine what is right and wrong just like everyone else. We don’t slip into moral ambiguity just because we live without god or supernatural beings. Far from being shallow, we have inner lives too.

By making amends to those I have hurt I begin to make it possible to forgive others for what they have done to me. Part of making amends is learning to accept the fact that I have an ethical obligation to do so, but the person whom I am making amends to do not have any obligation to accept it and forgive me. I must learn to be okay with that and do it anyway. Sometimes, even a worse blow to our ego, making amends to an individual we have hurt would be more painful and destructive than not doing so to that person. We have to be okay with that too. It’s part of facing our personal ethical shortcomings and attempting to do better.

Another aspect of forgiveness is when another person approaches me to make amends for something they did to me. I have a choice to make – forgive or not to forgive. Early on in my recovery I rushed to forgiveness before I gave it some deep thought. Often it leads to a reattachment to the perpetrator. These days I try to ascertain the motive of the person seeking forgiveness. My mother, however, is not one of them. She never seeks to make amends. Throughout my life it has been me that has sought to make amends to her for every injury, real or otherwise. I no longer make amends to her. As a woman with an untreated and possible undiagnosed personality disorder and both a pill junkie and alcoholic she has yet to make any fearless moral inventory of her life.

In fact my mother is convinced that everyone else is to blame. Her four children are all selfish, ungrateful assholes. Perhaps, we are. Perhaps, we have good reason to be. My experience is that from my childhood on my mother has ended any therapeutic relationship the moment her therapist refocuses the attention back on her. Once they no longer allow her to blame her children or her husband and so forth she leaves. She only maintains relationships that reinforce her self delusions. In the years since my father’s death her relationships have failed and changed rapidly. My father, no longer alive, was the only person who indulged her faithfully over the 45 years of their marriage.

When I was a child my mother often used me as the focus for any family difficulty we were having. I was the problem. I was causing the disruption, the upheavals and the turmoil. My siblings now share similar stories with me about their experiences.

As a child I was forced in and out of many therapeutic relationships intended to end my disruption of our otherwise happy home. However, the minute the therapist suggested that my mother might be a part of the problem that ended the relationship. My mother would often tell me that the therapist ended it because they “knew I was lying” or “making things up” and others. My mother couldn’t handle any threat to her self-image as the perfect mother.

Several years ago, while my father was still alive, she told one of my brothers that she and our father had stayed up all night talking about their relationships with their children wondering if there was something they had done wrong. By the break of dawn, sunlight piercing the edges of their bedroom drapes, they determined they had done nothing wrong at all. It was all their children’s fault. Now, that may be, but it begs the question about what kind of parents they were if all four of their children turned out rotten.

I thought you didn’t hate your mom anymore?

I don’t, but I didn’t say I wasn’t still angry. I still haven’t forgiven her, at least not for everything. Just because I am a middle aged man doesn’t mean I have suddenly “outgrown” these wounds. Healing doesn’t happen without deliberate focus and acts of will. I am suspicious of any adult who likes to pretend any different. The challenge of sustaining trauma or having a substance abuse problem is you stop maturing emotionally at the onset. I may be chronologically 44 and intellectually close to that age, but emotionally I am much younger. When I started my recovery 12 years ago I would have placed my emotional age at 22-24. Most likely I am now somewhere in my early to mid 30’s.

But, despite my anger and my stunted emotional growth I love my mother. We all love our parents even as we hate or resent them. This is the jewel of my post mother’s day meditation. I love my mother because she gave me the greatest gift any son can receive. She helped make me who I am today. Beauty and warts; I am the product of this relationship. It makes me the person whom my friends and family love and respect.

It has helped me foster a sense of deep empathy and connection for others. She helped teach me the art of introspection. An awareness of my own imperfections allows me to make allowances for other imperfect people even as I have not fully forgiven my own mother. It has given me a true passion for seeking out the true meaning of justice and compassion and to live them actively in my own life. I have even begun to learn how to take responsibility – real responsibility – for my life.

Some of you may bristle at what you might feel is the immature ranting of a petulant teen. And, once again, perhaps it is. I have a lot of work still left to do – a lifetime of it. Over the years of my recovery I have been advised as such by those well meaning friends and, quite a few, strangers who think they are more wise or complete then me. Some most definitely have been and I am grateful for their insights and wisdom.

But, largely most of them are spewing store bought wisdom gleaned from books, tapes, seminars, churches and various “metaphysical” classes (however, not one of these folks truly knows what metaphysics is). They fool themselves by thinking they have already done the work I am now doing and are much farther along. They may be wiser and more mature then me, I can hardly claim wisdom or maturity, but at least I am more honest.

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