The only story any of us can truly tell is our own . . . and yet all our stories are part of another’s story. The chapters of our lives are chapters in the lives of others as well. This is my story of how I learned about forgiveness. It involves the story of my father and his father also. My grandfather died two years before I was born. I tell it so it might become part of your story. Most of us have a chapter or two from our lives that involve forgiveness. Or at least we should. Maybe this will help you write yours.
My father was an alcoholic. During the years that I and my siblings were at home, Dad drank on a regular and excessive basis. The alcohol was a true demon for him. It brought out anger, cruelty and bitterness. There were many a night that our home was filled with voices yelling and threats being made. Once, when I was seven years old, I remember my teenage brother and my Dad screaming at each other and a butcher knife being held in my brother’s hand. I buried my child’s head in the couch. I do not remember how it all was resolved. I do remember the sound of the yelling, the smell of the liquor, the rage in the eyes, the hot air as I cried into the couch, and the knife.
We were all hesitant to have friends over because we didn’t know what kind of shape Dad would be in. If it was not a good day for Dad, it was not a good day for anyone. There were nights after work when he didn’t come home, nights when his entire paycheck was lost on drink and losing at the pool table. It was only many years later that I realized how hard all this was for my mom.
As you can imagine, Dad’s alcoholism affected our family in numerous ways – the efforts to keep it hidden from others, the inability of our family to ever deal with it directly or in a healthy way, the guilt and shame that comes to nearly everyone who lives in a house where unaddressed addiction is a dominant member of the family. Four of us grew up in that home where indeed love and faith were present, but also deep human brokenness that evidenced itself through drunken anger and cruelty. Each of us have had to deal with it in our own way.
I know I had a deep sense of anger at my father for many years, and some of those years we barely spoke. I spent many hours in a therapist’s office dealing with the dynamics of my family and the shame, guilt and depression that arose in my life, at least in part, because of those dynamics. But there came a precise moment when I began to understand things differently and see my father in a new way. It was not a moment that came from the wise counsel offered in a therapist’s office. It was a moment that came at our family’s kitchen table and the words that changed things were spoken by Dad.
It was the summer of 1989. It was an especially difficult year for my family that involved divorce, tragic death, and bouts with severe depression. The moment came on a warm July evening. Late one night, I found Dad crying at the kitchen table. His forehead held in the palm of his hands. We started talking about all that was happening in our family and in the midst of the conversation, Dad said to me – what prompted it I do not remember - “When I came back from the war my father told me he wished I had been killed so he could have gotten the government money.” Then Dad just cried, and cried and cried. I sat there completely stunned as he got up from the table and headed back to his bedroom. Dad’s tears that night were about all that was happening to our family, but they were also about the painful and horrible words spoken to him more than forty years earlier.
The next day, I asked my mom if Dad had ever shared that with her. She said no. None of my siblings had heard it either. It had lived painfully within him for all those decades. He kept it a secret within himself. Like many young men in that time, Dad came home a hero from WWII. A chest full of medals including two bronze stars. But when he got home his father said, “I wish you were dead, so I could have the money.” In that moment at the kitchen table I learned why there was a whiskey bottle in the garage, and why that drink released such bitterness and anger in my father. It is simply true, hurting people often hurt others. Learning of my father’s own emotional pain, brought on by the words spoken to him by his own father, helped me to understand Dad differently. It helped me to forgive him in a way that all the hours of counseling never made possible. And I think it helped Dad to speak of his pain, because it was about that time that he quit drinking and for the last twelve years of his life, he never touched a drop of alcohol again.
As we live the stories that are our lives and our chapters become interwoven with the chapters of others, there are often aspects of someone else’s story that we do not know. Maybe things they have buried so deeply that they themselves do not talk about them, but those things still affect how they live. A note to this story is to tell you, that I bear no ill will toward my grandfather for what he said to my father. Chilling words whose impact was profound on my family. As I said, my grandfather died two years before I was born. All I can do is wonder about what terrible thing happened in his life that caused him to say such a horrible thing to his son.
As you encounter people whose ways are painful to others, there is likely a story that you do not know. It doesn’t excuse their behavior. It doesn’t make their behavior okay. But knowing that there might be a story that you are unaware of, it can help you to understand. It helps you to be slow to your own anger. It can help you to break the cycle of blame and guilt and infliction of hurt that we continue in too many of relationships. It helps you to have grace. Understanding that you don’t know all the chapters of anyone’s story, well, it can help you to forgive.
Forgiveness has the power to free both the one forgiven and the one who forgives. I came to love my father deeply and knew his great love for me and for all of his family. I came to have deep admiration for the courage he showed in his victory over the demons that haunted him for so many years. After he stopped drinking, the kind and gentle man that we had seen glimpses of over the years, shined through beautifully. We spent many hours after that fishing together and laughing and telling stories to one another. But we never mentioned again that night at the kitchen table and what was said there or forty years before. I think we both knew nothing else needed to be said about that night. That chapter in our lives had the end that it needed to have.
So much of what I understand about grace, forgiveness and love are not the result of study in a seminary classroom or from the works of the great theologians. They are lessons learned from the brokenness and the healing, often painful, of our lives. I suppose it is the only way we really learn.