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The Tragedy of Growing Up

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

“I don’t know what to do. They wonder why I don’t visit but when I do it’s so painful.” My friend, just cresting her forties, was dealing with a difficult relationship with her parents. They refused to accept any responsibility for—or attempt to change—the behaviours that she’d found hurtful since childhood. She was struggling to find forgiveness, to be able to maintain some connection with them, but every interaction reopened old wounds.



It seems that where there should be, or even is, the greatest love, there is also the deepest rancour and hurt. I remember vividly feeling much as my friend did—angry and frustrated with my parents, who met my challenges with defensiveness and dismay. To address things was awkward, to seethe inwardly was poisonous. Relations might go smoothly for a while, but our issues lurked beneath the surface, time bombs waiting to explode. 


Eventually, as a matter of self-preservation, I learned to look beneath the anger to find my sense of hurt, and to look beneath that to a resigned sorrow. I enjoyed repeating the world-weary phrase “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of having had a better past.” I told myself I’d reached acceptance.


And then my parents lost their minds. 


At first I was angry when those who’d corrected me all my life kept getting things wrong. But as dementia deepened, I watched layers of their personalities peel away to reveal their childhood fears and insecurities. I saw them naked and vulnerable. Where were the towering adversaries by whom I’d been so wounded? What did this make of the drama of our conflicts, of the nobility of my “acceptance"? I was humbled and aghast.


And then my children began to raise their issues with me, and I heard myself responding with defensiveness and dismay, just as my parents had. Suddenly I knew exactly how they’d felt! Once again I was humbled and aghast. Who needed to forgive whom?


When we’re children our parents are as gods to us; we depend on them for everything. I’m afraid as I got older I continued to ascribe god-like power to my parents—the power to define me for good or ill. My criticisms of them disguised a hidden belief on my part: that they if I could get them to see my side of things and admit their wrongs, they had the power to declare me right and worthy, and this would, in turn, wash away all my own insecurities. I’d chosen railing against them rather than admitting that they were only human, that their sins against me were the result of ignorance rather than ill will or arrogance. Because if they were as flawed and confused as I was, who would save me, heal me, make things right? 


This was the tragedy of growing up. I was left unprotected, robbed of the drama which had saved me from the job of saving myself. And when my own children’s complaints unveiled my delusion, I felt the tragedy of having grown old— without having really grown up.


But every tragedy carries the seed of its redemption. When my parents came to depend on my siblings and I, we did our best to care for them as they had for us. Their vulnerability aroused compassion, the great healer of all wounds. And when my children challenged me, that compassion, extended to myself as a parent, made me able (after a while!) both to to learn and grow from their youthful insights while holding on to my own, slightly older, wisdom.


I have learned that dealing with the hurt of not having been perfectly loved—and not having loved perfectly— is a task none of us can escape. But it is one we can help each other with, extending forgiveness, humility and compassion in every direction, because we all need it. 


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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


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