Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m 21, financially and socially independent, and happily living on my own. But my relationship with my parents can only be called distant. We only see each other once or twice a year, call once every few months. When they found out I was an atheist in high school, they freaked out (i.e. initial yelling and mandatory church for two months, complete with chilly silence every weekend) and it caused a huge rift, and a serious lack of trust on my part. In the end the congregation noticed something was wrong with me, mom begged me to start going through the motions at church, and I refused. After that they started to ignore my “sleeping in” on Sundays until it became understood that I wouldn’t be joining them at church. My dad even forgot I was an atheist until I mentioned it a few years later in passing.
My two other brothers have a much better relationship with them, one of them just doesn’t seem to think about church and the other is openly nonreligious. I think I want to reconcile, or at least try to understand them more. Their only real leverage against me is refusing to give their FAFSA tax info (they don’t help with college) but I’m still worried that if I bring up my atheism in a serious way they’ll just freak out again.
My dad is proud and confident, while my mom worries a lot about image and is emotionally fragile. She’s probably hurting over the distance between us. They’re both in their 60s. We’re from the Midwest. Any advice on how to mend this atrophied relationship?
Firstly, I admire the fortitude and integrity you showed as a youth. I think your wanting a reconciliation now is a sign that your strength is more deeply maturing. It takes energy to maintain enmity, but it takes deep strength to make peace. Sometimes the rifts in families cleaved by religion are too deep and too painful to ever heal, but much more often after sufficient time passes, it’s merely a matter of someone realizing that love is more important than keeping up a conflict that others have forgotten or would like to forget.
When we are young, our experience of time is short, and our experience of life is narrow, so the injustices done to us seem long and awful to us, and within our personal reality, they are long and awful. But every day lived is a day added to our total experience of time, so the time we spent suffering the old injustice diminishes in proportion. Every day lived also adds to our experience of life, with much worse injustices that we either suffer ourselves or witness in others’ lives. So the severity of the old injustice diminishes in proportion as well.
In short, we gradually grow bigger than the thing that upset us long ago.
Too often our resentful stance of having been hurt lasts much longer than the actual hurt we felt. We cling to our “rightness” as the one who was “wronged.” But then for those of us who are lucky, or those of us who are wise, whichever way you like to think of it, a voice begins to whisper in our ear. The voice of forgiveness whispering to you is the voice of the best of your humanity. Listen to its counsel.
To forgive, begin with empathy. Remember that in most family conflicts like this, on the surface it looks like everyone is angry, but actually everyone is afraid and hurt. Realizing this can soften your own feelings toward the other person, and can begin giving you some empathy for their emotional experience. When you see that the initial shouting and authoritarian reactions were out of fear and hurt rather than out of unkindness or a lack of love, then you can disarm your own anger that covered your own fear and hurt. It’s sort of like untying a tight knot. If you get any one part of the knot looser, that begins to loosen up the rest of it.
Ask your brothers for their suggestions, and ask to just hear about their own experiences with your parents. They may have useful insights for you.
From your letter, it sounds like the way your father and possibly the way your mother have dealt with the original upset has been to forget about it. Sometimes this is an effective way to move on and mend a personal hurt or an interpersonal conflict between people.
However, sometimes there are “things that must be said” before healing can be complete. This is an overt discussion about what they did and what you did, what they believe and what you believe, the hurt you both felt, the love you both feel, and the kind of relationship you both want. This kind of discussion carries the risk of opening old wounds as much as closing them, so one should carefully consider if the “things that must be said” are really needed for healing, or are just one more chance for a shot at the “enemy.”
So some reconciliations have to start with “the things that must be said”, other reconciliations do that later, and others never need it.
From my impression of your letter, I suggest that you first try the simpler, less confrontational approach. Just start having more contact with them, and skip any big important discussion for now. Demonstrate your love for them rather than describing it. Call them, email them, send them pictures of yourself and the things you are doing. Tell them of your successes, but also privilege them with a little of your private concerns, your disappointment about something happening in your life lately, or your apprehension about something coming up. Let them see their son again.
Most importantly, ask them about themselves and what they are doing, ask them for pictures and stories. Go beyond “How are you?” They have friends, work, hobbies, interests, concerns. There are both good things and challenging things that come with being in their 60’s. Be interested in all of it. Being interested is one of the best ways to express, and more importantly, to practice love.
They might mention their church activities. Let them describe them if that’s one of the things they’re doing. If they venture into trying to convince you to rejoin, don’t react with your old hurt, just gently say something like, “That’s an important thing for you, but it’s not for me,” and move on in the conversation.
If however, you get the sense that they want to initiate the “things that must be said,” let them. Just listen. Listen with patience and empathy, remembering that it’s all about fear and hurt and rather than anger and lack of love. Reply if you can remain calm, but you don’t have to reply if you’re not ready. You have the right to say “I want to think about this before I respond to you,” and you have the right to take as long as you need. At any time you can also call for a halt if your feelings get too tense, and say that’s exactly why you want to stop for now. The “things that must be said” can be said in small installments. Sometimes that’s better than a long, exhaustive and exhausting discussion.
Reconciliations are seldom completely smooth, free of bumps and blunders. If you keep your intention focused on your love for them, you will keep to your course despite a stumble or two. I think it is well worth trying. Please write again to tell us how it goes, and I’ll publish it. I’m sure we would all be interested.