A caveat, first. We don’t get to learn that much of great importance, the vast majority of us, in the short time we’re given here in this distracting, demanding world. I’ve learned this so far, which I’ve found useful, and which I’ll write now and post. I share it here partly out of pride that I’ve been able to learn it. I offer it also for whatever help or comfort it may give for some of what you might be struggling to understand in your own life.
Parents don’t fail their children, in most cases, out of any kind of malice or ill-will.
This simple truth is in no way intuitive or obvious, though when you read it you might go “duh…” As kids we hope for everything from our parents, and almost none of us get that. The rest is on us.
There are extreme situations, of course, where insane people do unspeakable things to their children. To the children of those outliers, I really wouldn’t know what to say that could be of use to you, having had to live through that unimaginable nightmare, outside of that none of it was your fault. I am also not talking to anyone who survived a childhood in an actual, violent, physical war zone, a truly inconceivable horror, except to wish that your parents were heroes and that you and your family were spared the worst. This piece will probably be most digestible to anybody raised by more or less ordinary, average, normal, regular parents living in peacetime.
Being born to parents, or a single parent, or raised by an adoptive parent, or a parent figure, who is able to give you exactly what you need in life, all the essential things, or even simply a life-affirming sense of being loved that never deserts you, is a matter of luck as great as any other lucky thing in the world. How were the stars twinkling the night you were born, or, if by day, where was the sun, exactly? Who can say? Even if the stars actually have anything to do with luck in the first place, which, who the hell knows?
My sister and I had painful childhoods, we watched each other suffer, gave each other what little help we could, even as we fought each other much of the time. None of it could be helped in the house we grew up in. Yet, our parents were not sadists, psychos, creeps, fools, jerks, nuts, assholes, zealots, criminals, compulsive liars or even particularly rigid people. They were both very intelligent, sensitive, had good senses of humor, and both loved us AS WELL AS THEY COULD.
That is the key there, keep it handy.
They did what they thought was best for us, always. How were they to know that at the most crucial emotional moments for my sister and me they had literally no fucking clue how to give us what we needed? Where were they to have learned that blessed skill?
They certainly had no role models. Their childhoods were MUCH worse than my sister’s and mine. I guarantee that, can see few things more clearly than I see that. And my parents’ parents’ childhoods had been worse than my parents’ childhoods and so forth, all the way back.
My father, I learned toward the end of his life, had been whipped in the face (in the face) by his angry, ignorant, religious fanatic mother, from the time he could stand. One year old, or whatever, he’s finally on his feet and — BOOOOM!!!! In your fucking face, bitch, don’t you fucking look at me, asshole (but hissed in Yiddish). It’s hard to imagine the horrors of her childhood, except that everyone left behind in that impoverished hamlet she came from was slaughtered in 1942.
My mother’s mother was charming, dynamic, loved me to death as I loved her, but even as a kid I could easily see how hard she’d come down on my mother, her only child. Countless yardsticks broken over her daughter’s ass, was the phrase I used to hear, from both my parents. I always pictured the flimsy yardsticks I knew, with the ads printed on them, no big deal, I could effortlessly snap ’em myself as a ten year-old. Years later I saw a yardstick from back then. 36 inches of solid squared lumber an inch thick, with numbers and lines carved into it, not those thin, light almost balsa wood jobs they gave away at the hardware store when I was a kid, with the numbers printed on. Not much was known about my mother’s mother’s childhood, except that twenty years after she left everyone in her large family, and her husband’s, was shot and left in a mass grave in August 1943, if they hadn’t died earlier from starvation, disease, cold or other violence, in the cruel year before the final massacre.
Do I take valuable lessons from my parents? Yes, from each of them. I carry them with me every day, wherever I go. Did I have to undo many curses they placed on my little soul as they ineptly tried to protect me, and love me, and make me not ask terrible questions they couldn’t answer, and encourage me, and discipline me, and praise me, and keep me humble, show me new things, and shield me from things, make me cautious, and brave, empowered, outspoken and submissive and the hundreds of other crucial things parents must constantly do well, in real time, with no notice, and that they receive absolutely no training or preparation for, or sometimes even a clue about? Many curses that I still have to deal with all the time. Things that in their angriest moments they never would have dreamed of wishing on me. But there it is.
Did I vex my parents? Every single day of their lives (at least until the final years of my mother’s lonely life when I’d finally learned not to, and the sudden last two days of my father’s life on the eve of my mother’s widowhood). Did I disappoint them? Too many times to count. Were they proud of me nonetheless? More than they could say. Did they love me? They loved me the very best each of them could love anybody. More I could not ask of anyone.
What did I learn? To smile at the idiotic, dependably merciless voice that was in my head year after year, repeating the vicious, undermining things my parents hissed at me when they were too frustrated and angry to remain coherent. How long did it take me to learn that life-saving trick? More than thirty years, I think. It was not quick, I can tell you for sure. The beauty part is, after enough practice, that ugly little fucker finally pretty much shut the hell up. What I learned, as that victimizing voice was fading, was to always be merciful to myself.
Do I ever doubt that I have a good heart? Never. Do I question my motivations? Only on rare occasions, and when I find myself on shaky ground I almost always try to fix what I can fix.
But, isn’t that true of every asshole, they believe they have a good heart and that they are right all the time? Yes. So doesn’t that mean I’m an asshole? Not really.
My parents, luckily, gave me the tools to work things out, though they often thwarted me as I was trying to learn to use them. I’m not proud of the grief I caused them during our long struggle, but neither do I blame them now for the grief they caused me. How long did balancing that unthinkable mess take, until there was no more pain or regret involved? I don’t know, maybe forty years, and I have to keep practicing to keep it straight, but it is quite easy to practice now.
What did I learn? That most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can, within their limitations. The only thing we can fairly ask of someone else is not to treat us unfairly. We have the right to demand the best of our loved ones, and we will most often get it, especially if we give ours to them, unless we are making unreasonably one-sided demands.
What did I learn? “What is hateful to you, do not do to somebody else.” It is easier to master that than the other formulation of the same golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We all, each of us, viscerally and instantly know what is hateful to us. Love can be trickier, even as love, is also, first and last, trying never to do something we find hateful to a person we love. And if we do fuck up, which we always do, being humble and making amends.
Do I think having finally learned that make me Jesus, or Hillel, or anything special? No. Isn’t it true I’m just another asshole? Fine. But I’m an asshole who will try not to treat other people like assholes, to the extent that I can, and whenever I act with mercy toward another I feel a certain peace and a greater sense of hope for my fellow assholes on this poor, persecuted planet. I feel like mercy for others, when I can give it, flows directly from my mercy for myself, is part of the same process.
As I told an old friend the other day, and as I spoke it surprised me to hear me saying it: I find I’ve become more patient than I ever thought I could possibly be. Those feelings of mercy and hope, and learning to nurture myself, help others when I can (and when I can’t help, not hurting), to me, are most of the ballgame, right there.
That’s what I’ve learned.