I’ve been debating – for well over a year – how much of this I should thrash out in public. But knowing that there are a great deal of young people in the world struggling with this, and wanting to tell them how wonderful their pain can be, I think I’ve finally figured out a way to put it out there without hurting anyone.
My father abandoned my mother, brother and me when I was very young. I know now that there were many reasons – the situation he was in personally at the time, his own psychoemotional capacity, his perception of what was best for my brother and me, and his relationship with my mother. I have seen him once (an awkward and near-wordless exchange in a courthouse in 1987) in the last 25 years.
Nothing in my life has ever hurt as much as this did. I believe it was this pain that first connected me fully to the human heart. Pema Chodron put it beautifully when she wrote,
“An analogy for the bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved.”
I am blessed for feeling that so deeply and so early in my life.
When I think about the impacts his choice had on me, and what moral obligations I may have to him today, all kinds of issues crop up from mortality to grace to karma. But the one that really sets the tectonic plates of my psyche into motion is that of identity. Regardless of personal judgments about my father, he is – by chance and not by design – the human being who had the greatest impact on my core personal identity.
My mom had an enormous influence and deserves all of the credit for raising and fighting for us and teaching me about love and survival and everything that actually mattered. My maternal grandmother played a strong supporting role. Mom and grandma gave me my heart and soul – they taught me (by example) about love and empathy and humility and instilled in me a sense of morality. My mother’s inner strength, independence, persistence and faith – without question – saved our family. And a family it was; a whole one. Society likes to pretend that single-parent families are somehow “broken” when – judging from the many people I have known – you’re just as likely to meet an unhappy human from a two-parent family. Kids are often better off without the influence of one (or even both) of their parents.
Growing up without a father posed very real difficulties and the occasional bit of social awkwardness, but the primary real-world hardship was the utter economic devastation. We had lived a decent middle class life my first few years, and his disappearance forced us into a frightening poverty that affects my behavior to this day.
Beyond the emotional pain, I felt insecurity and fear unlike anything I had known before. At ten years old, I found myself wondering how I could get money for my mother; how I could help protect her and my brother; how I, somehow, could make this whole situation alright. It even extended to physical security – I checked the door and window locks at night, sometimes more than once. In several ways, I had been knocked from my emotional moorings.
He disappeared at a time in when I was ramping up intellectually – starting to feel out early versions of critical and fundamental questions about Self and the world; branching out and becoming my own person. And what he did was as fortuitous as it was painful.. from the gods, if there are any. It was almost as if the rugged independence I was learning from my mother was a seed planted in the icky soil of my father’s searingly painful disappearance. His cutting of the parental cord was a major authoring force in the person I am today – my strength; my irreverence; my thirst to understand; my knowledge that confidence, safety and security must come from within; my suspicion of authority; my willingness (often desire) to bend or break society’s rules. These have served as priceless assets throughout my personal and professional life.
Without a male role model, I created one within my psyche that was made up of bits and pieces of other men (both real and imagined) – and that patchworked role model was much harder to emulate than the real one would have been. I see these marks in how I work, how I build relationships, my entire worldview – and while I am broken and imperfect in countless ways, I now see, with gratitude, that the net impact of his abandonment was overwhelmingly positive.
Put simply: nothing made me me more than that did. The crux of it is that I spent 25 years unable to forgive my father for inadvertently giving me the only gift I’d never give back.
The questions of forgiveness are equally complex. What is it to forgive someone? Is forgiveness to say, “what you did was OK” or “let’s go grab a pizza and pretend everything’s cool”? No, not at all. Forgiveness does not require you to invite a toxic force back into your life. Forgiveness is to say simply: I love you, I wish no ill will upon you, and I want you to find whatever inner peace you can.
Because what to me has evolved into a psychological “friendly ghost” is his daily demon. It is an inner torment to which I cannot relate. I hearken back to that pain – the pain that can still break me up today – and remind myself that I am blessed not only for who it has made me, but also that it has given me the emotional capacity to want his heart to find freedom from that haunt.
So to all of you kids out there for whom this is just another (awkward) Sunday, please know that in your pain there can become light if you choose to find it. What feels like a crummy deal today may eventually feel like you won the lottery. It is up to you. If mom or grandma or grandpa is around, do or say something special for them on Father’s Day. Don’t buy something; too easy and meaningless. Stand on the couch and make a speech. Or draw something, or write a poem. Let your pain give you power, not take it away.
But most important: accept the hurt without clinging to it, gaze out the window at whatever moves your heart and know that you are whole.