Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Three Simple Words

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about the problems she had with her mother in the past. Knowing the mother, I could completely understand where she was coming from, yet one thing was as clear as spring water – even if her feelings were justified, my friend was not happy.

The discontent began when Sharon – the name is fictitious to protect her identity - was a small child; likely, it probably goes back even further, but her memories of times past only regress to a certain point, right around the time when she was about five years old.

Her mother was a victim of her own choices. After marrying young to escape abusive parents of her own, she had become pregnant with Sharon when she was only nineteen, and had almost immediately found herself trapped; with a much older and controlling husband, and a daughter to care for, the poor woman was stuck in a role she despised. She had dreams when she was young, and many times, when she finally laid her head down at night, she could shut out the world and live the life she wished she could have.

Her disappointment toward life turned into anger first and in control over her daughter’s life. Sharon had no choices; her mother made them all for her. That kind of smothering control triggered the opposite approach to parenting in Sharon. Terrified of growing into her mother, she had chosen to be a friend only and couldn’t bring herself to discipline her own daughter. As her daughter quickly began descending a vicious spiral of occasional drug use and bad company at sixteen years of age, her maternal instinct nudged her to take control of the situation, but her past experiences blocked her from taking charge. Indirectly, her mother was still controlling her. Sharon knew it was time to make some changes.

She felt like she hated her mother even more now, and she held her responsible for her own daughter’s poor choices. She ranted over the older woman’s mistakes almost two and a half decades earlier, and the first words out of her mouth were in regard of the fact that her mother had ruined her life first and she was now working on her granddaughter. That’s where I had to stop her – her mother, wrapped into her own anger, might have been abusive in the beginning, but now she was the one picking up where her mother had left off. It was time to let go of past resentments and focus on present problems.

Letting go was hard, as by letting go of the chokehold her mother had her in she felt she was condoning her actions. It never occurred to her that by forgiving her mother she was not letting the old lady off the hook, but she was allowing herself to finally be free from the influences of the past.

She finally did. About a week ago, she went to visit her mother and told her about the feelings she had fostered all these years. In return, her mother explained her own feelings toward her and asked to be forgiven. Sharon could not utter words of forgiveness, until her mother broke down and said: “Don’t make the same mistakes I made. I can’t change what happened when you were a little girl, but you can change what will happen to your daughter.”

Sharon went home and thought about the events of late. Her mother was right – no amount of anger, of resentment or justification could change the past, but maybe there was hope for the future. She picked up the phone and called her mother. “I forgive you,” she said, nothing else; then she hung up. Those three words suddenly lifted the weight she had carried on her back all her life, and removed the blinders from her own eyes. When her daughter got home that evening, she called her into the living room and they had a long talk. The daughter half-way listened and then got up to prepare to go out with her friends, but Sharon stopped her before she could walk out of the room. “Not tonight,” she said, “tonight you’re staying home.”

Sharon was free. Forgiving her mother didn’t make her accept her mother’s ways, but it gave her an edge to stop those behaviors from affecting her present life and her parental skills. Unknowingly, she had found the key to come into herself.