A reader asked me:
I have a question about what might be the right next steps for me to take in efforts to openly talk with my dad about my real feelings of how his angry behavior to shut down the inner voice since childhood has impacted my life – this standing up for myself and sharing real, honest feelings and facing and addressing the issue with him, and my mother and brother too, for the first time. This opportunity for healing is ripe and feels divine.
I’ve sat on this question for a couple of days as I’m not sure if I’m the right person to answer this question for you! 🙂
I don’t know if you’ve read my story, but I had a very troubled relationship with my parents. Nearly 25 years ago, I wrote to the House of Justice who gave me a list of 3 things to consider with regards to having contact with them:
- their degree of remorse over what they inflicted on you in the past
- the extent of their present involvement in practices which are so contrary to Bahá’í Teachings
- the level of vulnerability you perceive within yourself to being influenced adversely by them
Such an attitude (forgiveness and insight into their actions) does not preclude your being prudent in deciding upon the appropriate amount of contact with your parents. In reaching your decision you should be guided by such factors as their degree of remorse over what they inflicted on you in the past, the extent of their present involvement in practices which are so contrary to Bahá’í Teachings, and the level of vulnerability you perceive within yourself to being influenced adversely by them. In the process of reaching a decision, you may well find it useful to seek the advice of experts such as your therapist. (Universal House of Justice to me, 9 September, 1992)
With this guidance combined with the best therapeutic advice at that time, I wrote a confrontation letter to each of my parents separately (they had been divorced for many years by this time; and never talked to each other). In it I basically said something like: “This is what I remember; I’d like you to admit it and take responsibility for the mess you caused by paying for my therapy; and if you don’t, I will need to cut off contact with you in order to keep my 4 year old safe from you”.
I didn’t reference either letter to either parent, but unfortunately I mentioned some of the things I remembered that they’d done to my brothers too.
My mother drove across the country to where my father lived; called a family meeting; invited my brothers and my then ex-husband. The purpose of the meeting was to have me declared crazy and have my son taken away from me. To his credit, my ex-husband wanted no part of it; and told them I was doing a fine job raising his child so they couldn’t carry out their intentions.
My brothers denied anything happened to them; and sided with my parents and haven’t spoken to me since; despite repeated attempts to keep the lines of communication open.
My parents have both passed away and the rift was never healed before-hand. When my son became an adult, I did write to them and ask if we could leave the past in the past and have a relationship based in the present. My father agreed; but the several conversations we did have were very awkward and stilted. When my step-brother called to say my father was in congestive heart failure and he wanted me to come “home”, I became suicidal; and wanting to be a good Bahá’í , took the issue to the LSA who said I was obviously still feeling “vulnerable to being influenced adversely by them”; and not to go; so I never saw him again. My mother refused; accusing me of the “worst form of elder abuse” for which she was not willing to forgive me.
Twenty five years after sending the letter, I wonder what might have happened if I’d written it and didn’t send it . . . I’ll never know if it was the right thing to do or not; but it was all I could think of to do, to keep my son safe. At the time, I felt I was following the guidance of the House of Justice. It felt like I was being divinely guided, and like you, I saw it as an opportunity for healing and empowerment.
It might have been. True. But it came with a terrible price in family disunity.
My purpose in sending the letter to my parents was yes, to keep my son safe; but more importantly, I wanted them to admit their wrongdoing and say they were sorry. I wanted them to see what they had done to me and how it had affected my life. I wanted to shift the power imbalance, so they were the penitents and I was on top, and in charge. I wanted to reclaim my power!
And all the therapeutic people at the time agreed.
But it was all a lot of finger pointing and blame, leading to disunity.
Since then I’ve learned that my job is to be loving and forgiving; and God’s job (and the job of the Institutions) is justice.
Love is the standard which must govern the conduct of one believer towards another. The administrative order does not change this, but unfortunately sometimes the friends confuse the two, and try to be a whole spiritual assembly, — with the discipline and justice and impartiality that body must show, – – to each other, instead of being forgiving, loving and patient to each other as individuals. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 403)
O OPPRESSORS ON EARTH!
Withdraw your hands from tyranny, for I have pledged Myself not to forgive any man’s injustice. This is My covenant which I have irrevocably decreed in the preserved tablet and sealed with My seal. (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words 64)
Here are some more articles which I wrote around these themes which might also help:
In terms of forgiveness – when you truly forgive someone, using the process given to us in the Writings; the anger will be gone.
In the same letter from the House of Justice mentioned above, they also told me:
As a devoted believer you are urged to strive to develop forgiveness in your heart toward your parents who have abused you in so disgraceful a manner, and to attain a level of insight which sees them as captives of their lower nature, whose actions can only lead them deeper into unhappiness and separation from God. By this means, you can liberate yourself from the anger to which you refer in your letter, and foster your own spiritual development. (Universal House of Justice to me, 9 September, 1992)
I like this because “to strive to develop forgiveness in your heart” meant as long as I was striving, in the process of working towards forgiveness, and as long as I was trying to develop the capacity for forgiveness, this would be enough for God. It might take me a lifetime, and as long as I was moving forward, it was OK. This was very different from the concept of “instant forgiveness” which I thought was called for.
If someone commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace)
The other thing I liked about this quote was that I was to develop forgiveness “in my heart”. I didn’t have to have any contact with them to do it. It was just a process between me and God.
For a long time, this meant that my prayers were “I can’t forgive them, but you can, so please do it.”
Eventually I was able to forgive each instance of abuse, and as I did, I became lighter and lighter, and started to love my life for the first time ever. I’ve written a whole book on Learning How to Forgive, based on the Writings which you can download from my website.
Finally, my job was to “attain a level of insight which sees them as captives of their lower nature, whose actions can only lead them deeper into unhappiness and separation from God.” In doing so, I was able to understand what it means to live a life close to God, and hated to imagine what my life would be like if I was not on the right path. This helped me to develop compassion for them; and it also helped me to see them as people who made bad choices, not evil people. I separated the sin from the sinner. When I was able to do this for my parents, it was easy to do it for other people.
Back to the letter: if you do decide to send it, do it prayerfully and with complete detachment from any outcome; and knowing that it could backfire horribly and do more harm than good.
How has this helped you understand this topic better? What’s been your experience with confronting people about their abuse? Post your comments below.