“Do you care for a parent in their vulnerable old age who did not care for you in your vulnerable youth?” In other words, is the obligation to care rooted in a history of fair, reciprocal transactions?
Emily Yoffe AKA Dear Prudence asked several months ago and now expounds on an even dicier theme: Do you care for a parent in their vulnerable old age who not only did not care for you but also actively sought to harm you or deliberately ignored evidence of harm in your vulnerable youth?
I won’t rehash her article–it’s worth the read–although I will warn that the anecdotes crush the spirit much the way that I am haunted by one story of Judith Wallerstein’s in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce that traces the life-long, debilitating reverberations felt in the life of a grown woman raised in a high-conflict family, one in which the parent’s did not divorce. As Wallerstein notes, divorce is never great, but ending a high-conflict marriage almost always benefits the children, except for when they must spend time alone with with abusive parent.
Yoffe concludes with some thoughts on forgiveness and she echoes some themes that we’ve discussed here previously:
“In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character, history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”
I agree with these more bracing views about what forgiveness should entail. Choosing not to forgive does not doom someone to being mired in the past forever. Accepting what happened and moving on is a good general principle. But it can be comforting for those being browbeaten to absolve their parents to recognize that forgiveness works best as a mutual endeavor. After all, many adult children of abusers have never heard a word of regret from their parent or parents. People who have the capacity to ruthlessly maltreat their children tend toward self-justification, not shame.
Even apologies can have their limits, as illustrated by a Dear Prudence letter from a mother who called herself “Sadder but Wiser.” She verbally humiliated her son when he was a boy, realized the damage she had done, changed her ways, and apologized. But her son, who recently became a father, has only a coolly cordial relationship with her, and she complained that she wanted more warmth and caring. I suggested that she should be glad that he did see her, stop whining for more, and tell her son she admires that he is giving his little boy the childhood he deserves and that he didn’t get.”
While there are many trains of thought to follow in the piece (one of which being to muse on the commandment to honor your father and mother–a question Elizabeth and I have been asking Gen X caregivers all last year), I kept thinking about how to cultivate a general culture of care giving in response. I know I often talk about hospice, but this model of care taught me about a culture of care-giving where the burden of care-giving is shared among a diverse group of professionals empowering a diverse group of concerned, non-professionals, ie. friends and family, of the person whose health is declining and leading to death. Ask any hospice worker worth his or her salt and they will echo a point that I’ve heard Barry D. often make in comments, which I will paraphrase, “every family is a potential school in resilience.” Each individual and requisite web of caregivers formed a unique stew of willingness and ability ensconced in pathologies of nature and nurture expressed in ceaseless scrapbooks and accompanying narratives–entertaining to observe but not so entertaining to live. Time and again, we’d hear how the person you want to care for you may not be able to or won’t. The person you wish would disappear is the only one who will bathe you. And so on and so on…the relational gymnastics were infinite as our team worked with each family to make ensure that the care needed could be provided by the people willing and able. But with a team approach, we often could discover serviceable, safe, and even sometimes grace-filled arrangements. As I mentioned in a previous piece, forgiveness may be something that is communicated and lived by the whole community when forgiveness is not a transactional reality to be expected or even hoped for between the oppressed and the oppressor. We could often express dignity to someone based in our common humanity in ways that the those who had not been treated with dignity by this person could not.
Reading Yoffe’s piece I grieved not only the stories of suffering shared but the loneliness of their voices. Where is their team?