By Leslie Leyland Fields, What Do We Do with a Past that Haunts Us? Based on Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt, Thomas Nelson, Jan. 2014)
A woman follows me out of the conference room and confronts me. I’ve just finished speaking on forgiveness. She looks at me with a mix of defiance and fear. “Do I have to forgive my father?” she asked, her eyes unmoving from mine.
I take a breath slowly, then ask softly, “What happened?” She told me about the abuse, then, finished “He died a long time ago, but I’m still angry at him.”
I guessed her to be about 75. Not long after, I meet a young man deeply bitter toward his mother, who did not love him, he tells me.
What do we do when the past hunts and haunts us?
What do we do with the particular burden of memories we’ve been given? We know intuitively that “forgive and forget” won’t do, that forgetting is a false hope, at best. Forgiveness requires remembrance. We are time-bound beings, after all. We wear memories in our faces, in the whorls and folds of our brains; we bear scars and burns on our bodies. Even when we desire to give up the memories that have formed us and marked us—we cannot. Nor should we. Patricia Hampl urges us to remember because, “we do not . . . simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with . . . the burden of our witnessing.”
Even the one, the only one, who is able to erase and heal all His past wounds will not do so. At the end of time, when all is restored, Jesus will return not healed but wounded still, the piercings on his hands and side strikingly visible. He is not a Savior without his death-dealing wounds. He is not a Comforter without the traumas he has borne. Why would we choose an emptied past over a healed, reclaimed one? It is not pain itself, finally, that diminishes us; it is our response to it that determines the kind of lives we will live, the kind of people we will be.
We will remember, then, but we are charged to remember in a certain way, to “remember well,” as L. Gregory Jones asserts in Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven.3
I wish I could find that woman, that young man again. I would tell them it is even now not too late to forgive. It is not too late to heal memories. It is not too late to “remember well.” Each time we return to our past, remembering our fathers, our stepmothers, our fathers-in-law, we have the opportunity to reclaim the past and tell a truer story, beyond the deceptions we have all woven about the guilty and the innocent. We each can tell a truer story that begins with our human failings—our parents’ and our own. A story that sees all the ways our parents were hurt. That recognizes we are sharers alike in what Jones calls the “universal disaster of sinful brokenness.” A story that finds the presence of God even in the darkest places, shepherding us toward a better love, a love that can finally disarm the haunting and the hurt of what others have done to us.
I am learning to do this with my father. He is gone now, but his story is not over; neither is mine. I am beginning to tell a truer, larger story to my children about my father. They never knew him. But someday as older adults they will care enough to ask.
I am practicing my answers now.
“What was your father like, Mom?”
“He was a loner. He did not have many friends. He loved to read, especially about sailing. He was strong. He was not a bad man. He just had to be alone. He couldn’t seem to help that, wanting to be alone. He couldn’t make friends or be friends with people. I used to be angry about that, until I saw how sad his own life was, how sad and empty it was to live away from others, to live without loving others.”
“Did he care about anything?
“He cared about words and books. He wanted to be a writer when he was young. I got my love of books from him.”
“Did he love you?”
“I never thought he did. Nor did I love him. But in the last year of his life, I saw ways that he was trying to love me. He had very little money, but he saved what he could. When he died, we each got a thousand dollars, all he had in the world.”
“Did you forgive him for the things he did—and the things he didn’t do?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did that end your anger and sadness?”
“It ended my anger, mostly, but not the sadness. In some ways forgiving him widened and deepened the sadness. I used to be sad only for myself and my siblings, but then when I came to love my father, I was sad for him. And for my mother. But I learned a better way to be sad.”
“Do you miss him?”
“I do. Even though I returned to his life just those last two years, I miss caring about him. And would you believe I even miss worrying about him? But I have memories now, new memories that make me smile. “
Remembering well is making me well.