The topic at church today was about loving people no matter what, even those who have different political or religious beliefs. We were invited to consider someone in our lives who we struggle to feel kindness for, and to think kindly of them. One of the ways I was taught to feel compassion was to imagine the person as a child. It’s easier when you can imagine the person as a child who’s been abused, which is often the case with people who are mean-spirited.
The only person I could think of besides Donald Trump was my father.
It’s not so much that I struggle to feel compassion or kindness for my dad, because he’s my dad and of course I love him. And he’s not a mean-spirited person, thank God. But it’s just that disappointment and resentment bubble to the surface whenever I explore my feelings about him. His lack of communication, the criticisms, and the way in which the value he places on me is completely based on my boyfriend—and not even my boyfriend so much as his job. Over the past several years I’ve made a lot of effort in calling him every week, asking him to visit (which he did, so I give him credit for that), responding to his emails with praise and appreciation for who he is or things he does, and if I didn’t agree with his beliefs, for example, about climate change not being anthropomorphic, I didn’t blast him for it, but took a polite agree-to-disagree stance. And what did all of that matter? There’s not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, nor is there a rainbow. There’s no phone call with an “I’m so sorry for your loss, maybe we can have meaningful conversations now.” A person incapable of showing emotion doesn’t suddenly stop being autistic or alcoholic or whatever he is just because someone important died.
As I’m writing this now, I feel no emotion, and I don’t know if that’s progress or a step back. I just feel apathetic. He’s sent a couple of emails to my sisters and me, and I haven’t responded to either. Before Mom died, I’d have responded, even if just to thank him for the email. Now I feel like it doesn’t matter. Nothing I say or do will change him or our relationship, and I don’t know how to change myself in this. It’s up to me to find peace in the way things are, and talking to him—at least not in the way we communicate–doesn’t bring that about. A psychologist might surmise that I’m angry with him for not dying instead of Mom. I don’t wish anyone dead—though wishing someone dead is like wishing them peace, and I do wish everyone peace—but yes, of course I’m angry that my mom died. I’d assumed my dad would die first, that I’d have some feelings about it that would require therapy, and that Mom would help me get through that. I guess she still will, just from the other side.
It’s with hesitation that I post this blog because I hate to think of the possibility of my father ever reading this, though I don’t know how he would find it because he would never search for it, nor would I tell him about it. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, assuming his feelings would be hurt. Once in high school I wrote a poem about him that my best friend’s mom thought was sweet, so she showed it to him, and he never mentioned the poem to me, but later warned me of the risks of becoming a published writer, how public it all is, that you can never take it back. To him, and probably to most men of his generation (the baby boomers), emotions aren’t something you expose. To talk about your relationship would be to leave yourself vulnerable. Better to pretend everything’s okay, not to explore your feelings on a deeper level.
If our family members are really part of our soul family, as James Van Praagh believes, and their purpose is to resolve some karmic debt with each other, or to learn a lesson together, I’m not sure what the lesson is with my father. Maybe for me to express my emotions and explore my feelings regardless. I can’t think of what else. I suppose I could try talking to him, but I believe that would result in a huge disappointment that would confirm what I already know. What I know is this: he’s not interested in who I am as a person, he doesn’t understand me, he thinks I am not that smart, he doesn’t think I put much thought into anything I do, and possibly he thinks I should try to understand his interests and acquire them for myself because he’s a fascinating person who I should revere. He likes football, Civil War history, coin collecting, and astronomy. He likes trees and growing tomatoes. The last three things I’m interested in but still don’t know how to talk to him about these things so that it opens into a more meaningful, deeper-level conversation. Once several years ago I called him to ask about growing tomatoes and he did nothing but berate me for buying a tomato plant in August from Whole Foods for four dollars when I was supposed to have gotten the plants for pennies from a nursery in spring. I felt ashamed and stupid, and hung up the phone quickly so I could cry, which I did for a very long time that day.
In my freshman year of college I asked him about his belief (or lack of) in God for a research paper, and he quoted Karl Marx, dismissing religion as the “opiate of the masses,” yet said that going to church was okay because it offered comfort to people. Neither of us at the time could articulate the difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is about having a relationship with God, and trying to live a more purposeful life of love and compassion. Religion can become dogma, a way of enforcing rules to keep people in line. I don’t know if he confuses the two, or what he thinks about it now, and I suppose I could ask him, but I’m not interested in doing that today. Every phone conversation we’ve had has consisted of me asking him how he’s doing, how his wife is doing, how Grandma is doing, how’s his coin collection and selling going, how’s the weather. His answers: good, good, good, and good-bye. He might ask if I still have my job, if I still have my car, if I still have my boyfriend. He might suggest that I try watching football. Other than that, nothing.
It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who’s emotionally closed, who doesn’t get into the deeper conversations about life. Small talk has always been excruciatingly dull to me, to the point that I’d rather not talk at all. The times that I’ve tried to talk to my dad about his interests he doesn’t ask me questions about myself, nor does he allow me to speak at all, but instead he turns it into a long monologue about himself, and inserts some criticisms about others, including me, while he’s at it. The lesson there for me is not to do the same to other people. People want to be listened to. I suppose I could use the same guideline for listening to him, which I do and have been doing for years. Just let him talk about himself, and nevermind what I want, think, need, feel, etc. This is where the St. Francis prayer comes in handy. I can’t remember the entire prayer by heart, but I remember this phrase: “Grant that I may seek to understand than to be understood, to comfort than to be comforted, to love than to be loved. It is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.”
For now I won’t be calling my dad every week anymore, nor will I go out of my way to respond to his emails. The last email he sent was to my sister in response to her question about his Facebook posts in support of wildlife conservation. He didn’t realize that when he signs a petition on change.org, it automatically posts on Facebook, a platform he despises, but added that he wanted my sisters and me to know that he supports Wildlife Conservation. While I’m glad that he supports a good cause, I’m not interested in responding today. I’ll probably change my mind later, but my feeling now is this: If you have something you want to tell me, call me and tell me.
Until then, I’ll continue saying the St. Francis prayer and I’ll continue praying for my dad. I pray that he finds peace. I’ll also pray for the willingness to find peace in my relationship with him. I’ll end with a song my dad used to play a lot when I was little, a beautiful song by Simon and Garfunkel: