Sunday, September 21, 2008

Legacy of Pain, Part II

Some may be wondering why the title, "Legacy of Pain." Certainly, this does not refer to the loving legacy of my dearly departed brother Vinny. Of whose legacy am I speaking? Sadly, it is that of my parents. I nonetheless try very hard to achieve some understanding - not just assign blame - as I contemplate their roles as "guardians of the spirit" in raising their children.

Over time it has become abundantly clear that each of my parents was burdened with substantial mental and emotional maladies. Only this can explain the legacy of pain inflicted upon their children. The alternative is to condemn them as willful abusers, which I know in my heart would be unfair. The crude reality, however, is that abuse is quite rightly the appropriate depiction of so much of what we endured. And because they were each in their own way so very religious, I drew the understandably inescapable conclusion that God, religious faith and superstition in general were all very unhealthy ideals to aspire to. If this was where commitment to God leads one, I wanted no part of it.

My parents lives speak to a legacy of pain endured as well as imposed. My ongoing enlightenment regarding the issues of mental illness, mental health hygiene and emotional well-being has allowed me to achieve and extend forgiveness toward my parents for their misdeeds. The illnesses they themselves no doubt were afflicted with mitigate the moral culpability they own for their shortcomings.

The most profound repercussion of this legacy of pain has been the near incapacitation of its victims (we sons and daughters) with regard to accepting ourselves, accepting others, negotiating conflict and achieving intimacy in our lives. In a sad sort of irony, some of us have come to accept these limitations as the price of admission to the theater of life. But I want a refund. A full life is not without these qualities. Moreover, I would like to free myself from this burden of righteousness we siblings seem to share. Another useless gift from the emotional estate of our parents.

To be frank about it, I feel as though my siblings are laying a thousand dollars down on a near-sure thing: my mother never getting the help she needs and dying having never experienced the joy of giving or receiving love from her family the entire duration of her golden years. Whereas, I am placing two dollars down on a thousand-to-one long shot: she accepts her mental health as frail and gets the professional care she so desperately needs. I submit the payoff on my wager - here at the emotional racetrack of life - is infinitely more rewarding.

Like the unfortunate young victim who has been sexually assaulted but is too afraid to report the incident to police or seek the help of a therapist, some people cannot accept that a greater good is achieved when we are willing to pay the price for healing in the form of confronting, with a purpose, some of what transpired. It is the surest way to get beyond it. Avoiding this reality is downright unhealthy.

One thing I thought I might do to deal with my anger over this week's events was to see my therapist ahead of schedule. Fortunately, she found a time to work me in, and I was able to get centered and achieve some perspective. On the down side, I think I made the mistake of speaking from my anger in one or two phone conversations and emails with siblings prior to seeing my counselor. Specifically, I was quite unforgiving toward my sister for the way she handled things at Vinny's service. I am having much difficulty rationalizing her actions, and yet I still feel called to forgiveness. At the moment, I am an abject failure in this regard.

The big-picture view of these events speaks to the level of discrimination and intolerance still aimed at those of us who dare to reject generations of religiosity. We atheists remain quite marginalized in our societies as well as within our families. Though most people hesitate to express overt hostility with their words, their actions nonetheless reveal much about their true feelings. Ironically, had I spoken my words of tribute to Vinny at his service, those who were aware of my skepticism would have been disappointed had they been anticipating anything offensive, while those who were not would have noticed nothing but the love that inspired my words.

It hurts being possessed of so much ambivalence regarding my parents, but feelings have no right or wrong. They are valid because they exist. Our quest to understand them, however, is most certainly a noble endeavor.

Flawed though my own legacy will no doubt be, I can still think of nothing more important than passing on to my daughter the desire to succeed at this very quest for understanding. It has given me - purpose.


  1. Pardon my bluntness Bill, but I think you know my comments by now...I let it fly, and truth be told, I think there are actually a few of us who actually appreciate true honesty.

    I have thought long and hard on how to comment. And I think many of us(children who are growing older) lament on how to confront our parents. And not just on do we have mashed potatoes, or baked potatoes. I am referring to the grandiose things(things you have mentioned in this post, but change from family to family)

    I have heard it from both my sisters. Let it go Danette(real name), it's not worth the hassle. Well by God(pun completely intended) they had no problem voicing how they felt, or spouting off their feelings, so why do I have to squelch my thoughts and opinions. It just burns a whole in my gut every time my sister kicks me under the table or gives me the eyeball to keep my mouth shut. Where do we draw the line?

    It's a quandary to me why one generation came foam at the mouth, but the following generation needs to respect their elders. I never said I was going to be disrespectful, I just wanted to lighten the load off my chest just the same way they have. Fair is fair...right?

    I'm with you Bill, and your recent occurrence has me perplexed, well sort of. I read your post. It was a wonderful tribute to your brother, and I didn't know Vinny. And for your daughter to have gotten that upset( which was completely understandable), I surely hope someone apologized to her, it was her uncle too.

    I am an outspoken woman(in case you didn't know already), so I do not feel I should stifle what is inside of me, and after reading and reply to your post, I think I am going to stand up for my beliefs a wee bit more now.

    Thank you tremendously Bill. And I am unsure if my comment has given you any solace, but I do hope that it help guide you in a direction that will eventually give you peace about this entire ordeal. This would have frazzled me beyond all known belief. And what would Vinny say if he were here?

    Rest in peace Vinny!

  2. Red, Your words have not only provided solace, they have lifted me.

    I just dropped my daughter off at school an hour ago; disbelief and anger have driven her to immobility. I cannot wait to show her your comments tonite. My hunch is they will be just the kind of healing words she could use right now.

    Her feelings - as well as my wife Jami's - need validating, and knowing that a friendly blogger can help in that regard will do them both so much good.

    I'm glad to know this story will encourage you to stand up for your beliefs "a wee bit more" as you say. This is my very message to my daughter. Don't be silenced. Never be afraid to say what you feel - just try to speak for your anger and not from your anger.

    Many thanks.

  3. I like reading your posts even though the opportunity doesn’t arise often. You are very expressive and passionate. Here are the thoughts that well up inside me when I read this post: Even the best of things, even perfect things can be used for harm. It is my opinion that Jesus' actual, straight gospel and his church is set up perfectly and will not harm you (although people skew things, mix in their own opinion, start their own churches, declare war under the pretense of religion--all unrighteously/detrimentally). I wish I could share this with you. I hope for your pain to be diminished and for you to have learned good things from it. I hope one day that the idea of God won’t bring back that anguish you feel from your childhood. I know that God can bestow his love, his eternal perspective onto us if we truly want it, try for it, pray for it, be willing to change our lives for it which can actually give you appreciation, understanding and even love to the people that hurt us so. I hope the best to you.

  4. William,

    There may be a day when I can talk as objectively and clearly about my own mother and father. I know there are dysfunctional elements that led me to a less than perfectly healthy adult life, but on many of the issues I feel it is too late to blame them and time to forgive instead.

    I could say my Dad's compulsive type A personality made me slightly neurotic, I could say my mother's choice to never hold a full time job was a lack of a completely functional role model----or I can concentrate on the great things they gave me like empathy and caring and a desire to intellectually solve problems.

    I loved your post. Thanks again.

  5. I can completely understand where you are coming from in many parts of these last two posts.

    First, I am so sorry about how things were handled at your dear brothers funeral, I can't even imagine...well, yes I can. YOur family sounds very familiar to mine in many ways. My mother was very much as you describe yous. I finally was able to make my peace with her in the end, but it was alot of effort, it didn't come easily.

    I grew up surrounded by adults who were Christian in name only. Some were the best darn church goers you ever did saw! They sure talked the talk, but they were far from walking the walk! Men who were deacons and respected at church, who came home and beat their wives and assulted their children.

    Needless to say, as a young adult I turned my back on the church. It was only later when I met people who truly lived what they claimed to believe that I was able to return. For me it was the people who claimed to be of God, but not God himself though that left a bad taste in my mouth. It took many, many, years before I would again step foot in church.

    Even today, I still have a hard time dealing with other so-called Christians.

    As far as mental illness and religion....I do know from personal experience(my daughter has severe Bipolar disorder, part of the reason I am raising my grandson) that sometimes people who suffer from delusions, can greatly suffer from religious delusions . While well meaning Christians want to surround those suffering in His love and His word they don't realize that it can cause more suffering. This was a hard one for me when I went to take my daughter her favorite religious books and Bible to her in the hospital and was given a lecture on religious delusions. I was as a Christian offended, but now, many years and episodes later I do understand, though still struggle with it.

    All that to say, you may be correct that your mother does need help and maybe she does suffer religious delusions. Of course as a Christian, I don't believe all religious people are delusional....

    I do hope that your family can find healing. And while as a Christian I believe we must forgive those who hurt us, it doesn't mean we have to allow ourselves to continue to be hurt either. You can forgive, yet set limits to keep yourslef emotionally whole.

    Again, I am sorry for the loss of your brother. And I am equally sorry your family treated you so terribly on a day that was equally hard on you as it was for them. Some people only think of themselves and their own feelings. I am sorry your daughter was hurt too!

  6. I'm blown away by the empathy I am receiving from my blogger friends. This was not an easy thing to write about.

    Asia: Most importantly, I believe you are being honest with me and speaking from the heart. For this reason alone, your words have much value to me.

    I'm glad your personal belief system brings you the comfort it does. Mine brings me tremendous comfort as well - even though it does not involve a supernatural entity. I find that kindness, compassion and love are more than ample tools to help me achieve my main goal in life which is to learn how to better love and understand my fellow man. Maybe that's one thing we have in common.

    To my friend who hosts his very rich blog questionsaboutfaith, thank you for reminding me about the power of forgiveness. And, you are also right about somnething else: my parents gave me many wonderful things to treasure and it's only fair to acknowledge that fact.

    Tara B. : Interesting parallels in our experiences. And of course I draw a clear distinction between having a healthy, functioning faith in a higher power - a noble thing - and religious delusion.

    I'm sorry to hear your daughter has bipolar disorder. After a couple of major crash-and-burns about 9 years ago which landed me in a psychiatric hospital, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well. I understand completely the hell it can bring. I have been on medication and in therapy these last 8 or 9 years and my life has done nothing but steadily improve. I am working part time. I am there for my family now. I can tell you there is much reason for hope.

    As for this not "walking the walk." I was beaten regularly by my father as a child. In high school when I went to see the school psychologist for help, my father excoriated me for going to this person saying, "What the hell is the matter with you? What were you thinking going to the psychologist? Just shut the hell up, do your goddam work and be a man." And - you guessed it - he was a very "religious" person. Never missed mass on Sunday, etc. (His alcoholism didn't help either.)

    Thank you for your wise words, Tara. And I hope your daughter is getting the care she deserves for her illness. If she is, she may one day take back her mothering duties - happily. This is my wish for you and her.