I was talking to a friend of mine I’ve known since we were kids. I’ve known him so long, I can vaguely recollect his dad, although I haven’t seen him since I was five and neither has my friend. I remember he was tall (although everyone is tall when you’re five), and he had a beard, and in my mind he’s wearing a plaid flannel shirt. I remember he came to our Kindergarten class once and helped us paint a huge mural on the wall and that he encouraged everyone to get messy, which I thought was very unusual and very cool. And then he was gone. I don’t know what happened, and neither does my friend (I’ll call him John), because John’s mom doesn’t talk about it much. She just says his dad wasn’t able to love well at the time. That he was one of “those tortured artists” and that he thought he was doing them both a favor by leaving. She’s alluded to drug use, and she’s also encouraged John to reach out to his father if he wants to. His dad moved to Mexico, and eventually he had two more kids with someone else, and as far as John knows he’s been a good dad to those kids. He has never pursued a relationship with John, never sent birthday cards or called to check in, he’s never contacted him in any way. So you can imagine John has lots of feelings about this.
Thankfully, John’s mother is a very loving, warm, affectionate person, and so is John. But there’s a pain in his heart and a sadness that creeps into his eyes from time to time that you can spot if you know him well and are looking carefully enough. He’s had a history of longterm, monogamous relationships, but inevitably they end because John is afraid to commit for the long haul. Or maybe he’s afraid he’ll commit, and one day he’ll wake up and get on a plane, and never look back. Or she will. So he’ll only go so deep with people, only let them in so much. Not enough to devastate him if they leave. Not enough to know him completely. He told me he can remember his dad calling him buddy and playing catch with him and carrying him on his shoulders to get ice cream. He pores over pictures from when he was a kid and his family was together. But he won’t reach out to his father, because he’s also enraged. He’s enraged because he’s been living with this idea that there’s something unlovable about him at his core. Something that makes it easy to leave him even though his mother has always been there, and his step-dad has been in his life from the time he was eight years old.
Our first experience of love comes from our parents. As William Makepeace Thackery says, “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” And so is Dad. Let’s not get caught up in language and divisiveness here. I don’t care if you replace the word God with the word Love if you want to. Regardless, this is how we come to know and understand the world, and some things are part of our nature, the way we arrive here, the way we’re wired. If you don’t believe that, go hang out in the maternity ward of your nearest hospital. (I mean, don’t do that because it’s not going to be received well if you don’t have a reason to be there, but take my word for it if you need to, not all infants are the same.) Our nature will affect the way we respond to our experiences, but the way we’re nurtured is at least equally as important.
People tend to go two ways. They either repeat what they were taught, or they go in the opposite direction. If you were taught that you’re unlovable, that’s a lie, and anything you’ve learned can be unlearned. I don’t know what John’s father was taught about love. I don’t know anything about his childhood, his experiences as he grew up, the way he was treated by the people in his life. Maybe his dad or mom left him. I don’t know anything about his nature, except that hazy recollection I have of him flinging paint at the wall and throwing his head back to laugh when we all looked shocked that we were allowed to do that, too. I don’t know what drives a person to walk away from their child and never reach out, but I can recognize the perpetuation of pain, and the potential for healing. I’m not suggesting if John got on a plane for Mexico and talked to his dad everything would be rosy and they could hug and laugh and John could come home and marry the woman he loves and live happily ever after. This isn’t a movie. I know lots of people who were left by their parents and many of them never have a relationship again. Some people are wired in such a way that they can integrate that pain and move on and be at peace, anyway. They can forge a new path, and unlearn those untruths, and move in the direction of love, and give love to their children, and maybe even eventually find compassion for their own flawed parents.
If you think you aren’t flawed, have a kid, because they will hold up the clearest and most honest mirror for you. Some people run from what they see, like John’s dad. Other people get to work. Maybe John’s dad couldn’t do it then. Not because John wasn’t worth it, but simply because he didn’t have the tools yet, hadn’t healed himself enough at the time. Hadn’t grown up enough to be responsible for someone else’s heart. Maybe he was incredibly selfish at the time. It’s possible and likely that years later when he had his other kids, he was better prepared. We’re all in a state of flux all the time. Why he never tried to make things right with John is beyond me and strikes me as very sad for both of them. Maybe he’s afraid John doesn’t want to hear from him. Maybe he thinks John’s step-dad replaced him and John is fine. People screw up in all kinds of ways, they project, make assumptions, let fear rule them, live in avoidance or denial, and spill their pain all over the paths of anyone close to them. I don’t believe in “bad people,” I believe some people have been through some horrendous things and don’t heal well. They walk around angry or worse. Lonely, isolated, confused, unable to empathize. Some people have personality disorders. Different people respond to trauma differently. Some people are nurtured so well they can overcome, and some people are not nurtured well, but have incredible resilience.
What I know for sure is that there’s always the possibility to grow beauty from our pain. It’s not a level playing field, and some people will have to work harder to get there than others. You have your nature, and you have the way you were nurtured, and you don’t have to be ruled by either of those things. If you’re anxious by nature, there are so many ways you can work with your nervous system, so many healing modalities available to you. If you were taught that life is cruel and people leave or abuse you, that you can’t trust anyone and the world is an unsafe and dark place, that you aren’t worthy of love or happiness, you can unlearn all of that. You can work with with you’ve got, from where you are, and just go slowly and find a new way. Discover a new world that’s right under the surface of the world you’ve been living in. Or right over it. I know that might sound unreal if you’re in a dark place and if you’ve never known the world to be anything but disappointing, but I can assure you the world looks completely different when you’re coming from love. You might need some help to pull the curtain back. Maybe it’s not a curtain for you, maybe you’ve erected some thick walls. But you can knock them down and let the light in. You can surprise yourself, and you can allow yourself to be surprised. It takes courage, but it’s doable. Anything you’ve built to protect yourself from pain has also blocked you from receiving love. So you’re going to have to un-build that stuff. Grab your jackhammer if you need to, and let’s get working.
Sending you love,