Healing for the Holidays

Our culture’s secular holidays (and rapidly secularizing religious ones) can bring up complicated emotions when your family doesn’t look like the ones in the magazine ads, or when your feelings about them can’t be summed up by a Hallmark card. Jim Palmer’s new article for RELEVANT Magazine, “Fatherless Day”, offers wisdom for healing from a troubled relationship with a parent. An excerpt:

Separating pain and suffering

If you experienced abuse, rejection or abandonment from your father, the normal human response is to feel deep hurt and pain. But how you interpreted that abuse, rejection or abandonment can lead to unnecessary suffering. For example, I interpreted my father’s lack of involvement and interest in my life as evidence that I was worthless. I concluded that his rejection was all about me. The truth is, it had very little to do with me—it was all about him.

As a child or young person, when we first experience hurt with our father, we don’t have the capacity to reason through it accurately. For all practical purposes, when a father doesn’t express love and affirmation to his son or daughter, they conclude they are therefore not worthy of love and affirmation. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Psychology to see that a person who views themselves this way will suffer deep emotional anguish, which is likely to sabotage their life and relationships.

“Healing” means identifying the false messages you took on board as a result of the hurt experienced from your father. These could include feelings of self-hatred, irrational or unfounded fears, and all kinds of self-defeating and destructive patterns of thinking about yourself, life, God and others.

The truth is sometimes hidden within a web of lies. The reality of your value, worth and identity may be buried deep within a maze of falsehoods you adopted about yourself in hurtful experiences with your father.

Depersonalizing the hurt

I’m not talking about denying the hurt you feel with respect to your father. What I am saying is that you may only be operating with half the picture. Here’s what I mean. No little boy says: “When I grow up, I want to be a dad who hurts and wounds my children. I want to reject them, abuse them, abandon them and damage them for life.” Damaged, wounded and hurt people damage, wound and hurt others. That’s not an excuse, but it means that any child could have been inserted into your place, and the damage, wounds and hurts would have still been afflicted upon them by your father.

My father had a troubled relationship with his father. My father experienced the horrors of war. My father worked two jobs, barely keeping his head above water. Who knows all the dreams he gave up along the way. My father carried all kinds of hurts and wounds I know nothing about. My understanding of my father is woefully incomplete. There is some healing that comes when this truly sinks in. It doesn’t eliminate the pain, but it helps you to absorb it.

One of the most common miracles Jesus performed was healing the blind, which I believe was partly Jesus’ way of emphasizing the significance of seeing things clearly. In Matthew 6:22 Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light ”(TNIV). In other words, seeing things as they truly are is the bedrock of freedom.

My mother recently gave me a stack of old black-and-white photos of my maternal grandmother’s family, taken in the 1940s and 1950s. I knew some of them as distant middle-aged and elderly relatives, others mainly as characters in my mother’s stories. They were a large family of Polish immigrant Jews on New York’s Lower East Side, with all the dreams, struggles, loyalties and emotional wounds that one would expect in such a group. But it wasn’t until I arranged the pictures into a chronological narrative that I really began to see these people, not as good or bad minor characters in my own story, but as individuals with inner lives of their own–inner lives that, sadly, I’ll never know.

Like a family album on a much larger scale, the Bible can help us depersonalize our immediate conflicts. Its stories move back and forth between domestic dramas and historical patterns, all the way up to the clash of Good and Evil at the cosmic level. We learn that our personal story has resonance as part of a greater one, and this can give us more compassion for the other characters and patience to see how it all works out.