Monday, July 30, 2012

Forgiveness and Gratitude

"God, mom and dad! You're so embarrassing!!"
In the Hindu tradition, Ganesha is the Remover (or Supplier) of Obstacles and has many genesis stories. The predominant story is that his father, Shiva, beheaded him when he came between Shiva and his wife, Parvati, and replaced his human head with one of an elephant variety. In the midst of a conversation about our parents, my wise friend Rebecca pointed out, "Ganesha's dad cut his head off and replaced it with an elephant's head, but no where in the scriptures do you hear Ganesha complaining about his dad. This is what separates humans from gods."

The arrogance and staunch idealism of youth demand that our parents be perfect. On a practical level, this makes sense. When we're small, soft and vulnerable, we need our parents to be perfect. We rely on them for absolutely everything for many years of critical development. If they are unable to perform their duties for us, we may not survive. It's life and death.

The tricky thing is, when we are small every need we have feels huge and urgent. There is little distinction between vital needs and non-emergency needs. We need to be fed; this is mandatory for survival.. We need love and stability, but it feeds us in a different way than food. We may not grow up to be particularly well adjusted, but as long as we're being fed, we will grow up. We can survive without good emotional care but that doesn't mean we feel any less urgent about getting it. Brilliant writer Cheryl Strayed pointed out that withholding "makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel." If a parent is unable to take exemplary emotional care of their child, the child notices. They will not know why, but they will ache and writhe with need, knowing that something important is missing.

If we're lucky, we grow up. If we grow up aching and we're really lucky, we get to dig deep and excavate the ache. This is the work we do to become healthy, fully grown adults. This is how we grow up the small, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that still stomp little feet and pout little lips, demanding the sort of love they expected from their "perfect" parents.

In the excavation, we might unearth anger and arrogance, shame and blame. Hopefully, after a suitable period of raging against the inadequacy of our upbringing, we can learn to forgive our parents for all their failures, whether vital or non-emergency. Our parents are not perfect and neither were their parents or their parents before them. Parents are not gods. They are mere mortals loving you the best way they know how. Even Shiva cut his own son's head off in a fit of jealousy and replaced it with an elephant's. I don't know about you, but nothing my parents ever did wrong was as wrong as that.

There's an ache in me that's ached since long before I understood that I was aching. I just knew that something wasn't right, something important was missing. I have spent a lifetime being angry about it, writhing crazy and desperate, trying to feel better. Up until now I didn't see that the path to better is paved with forgiveness and gratitude. Forgiveness for all the ways in which I've felt failed. Gratitude for all the ways in which I absolutely was not. There were many things about my upbringing which were far beyond adequate and for which I can be deeply grateful.

This is where we start. We can muster the grace and courage required to let go of anger and youthful arrogance. Life is not "fair" and at this point in your life no one owes you anything, even your parents. We cannot make anyone give us the sort of love we want, not our parents, nor our friends or lovers. It's our job as adults to find gratitude for what our parents did give us, forgive them for what they did not, and open ourselves to someone who is freely offering what we've always wanted.

You can keep aching. It's familiar and comfortable. If this ever becomes tiresome, know that there's another way, a graceful, godly way in the style of Ganesha. There's a big, ancient heart in you capable of weathering the pain and vulnerability of forgiveness and gratitude. Soften. Drop the angry armor. Say Thank You. After all, this mess made you who you are...and you are glorious.

And your dad never beheaded you, which is pretty cool. If nothing else, you can say Thank You for that.

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