I have a lot of wonderful childhood memories of my dad. When we lived in Santa Rosa, California, he’d drive us to a small country store several times a week. I’d play outside the store, under the shade of a big oak tree, while my dad sat in his van. He slowly drank his beer to numb the feelings of shame and failure that plagued him his entire life.
I also remember watching him use his extraordinary woodworking skills to build a chair, table, or other pieces of furniture from scratch. And I remember when he taught me how to ride a bicycle. He helped me push past the frustration and urged me to get back on the bike after I fell off again and again. One day he smiled triumphantly while yelling “Go! Go!” as I successfully made my first victory lap around the big yard at our motel.
Then things took a dark turn. The yelling and threats happened more often. He would beat the hell out of me for minor things or for no reason at all.
I remember getting beat on my 6th birthday for showing him a decoration I removed from my birthday cake. If I didn’t agree with something he said, I’d sometimes get a backhand across the face.
He lost more and more jobs as his addiction to alcohol became increasingly worse. Eventually, he gave up working entirely.
As time went by, his life and his relationships with those he loved sunk further and further into the abyss.
Sometimes you don’t know you’re in a dysfunctional environment until you actually see what a healthy environment looks like. As I grew older and saw that other kids had caring, loving fathers, I began to hate my dad.
I hated him for the horrific abuse he unleashed on me and my mom. I hated that he stole things, lied, and did other despicable things — the very things he said he hated.
But I hated him the most not for what he did, but for what he DIDN’T do. He didn’t play with me anymore. He didn’t teach me how to make friends or build things. He didn’t inspire me to use my skills and talents to do good things in life. He never taught me to believe in myself. Instead, he told me I was a loser and would never amount to anything in life.
To get away from the trauma at home, I went to the streets, where I found other youngsters like myself, who also came from abusive homes. We hung around with older kids who gave us alcohol and drugs to escape from a harsh reality and make us feel accepted.
Many of us graduated from doing drugs to selling them. Others committed far worse crimes.
One day my mom told me my dad was in critical condition at the hospital.
I arrived at the hospital. I stopped by the nurses’ station and asked which room he was in. I also asked how he was doing. The nurse slowly and solemnly shook her head. She said, “Go see him.”
When I walked into his hospital room, there was a tube down his throat, and he couldn’t talk.
I held his hand. Then tears slowly streamed down his wrinkled face. Each tear represented years of sadness, guilt, shame, and regret. I’d only seen my dad cry one other time my entire life, and that was when he was drunk.
Then I started crying.
I felt an enormous internal shift.
The Importance of Empathy
The hatred, animosity, and other negative feelings I felt toward him disappeared in a matter of minutes. I was overcome with waves of empathy and sadness as I imagined how it must feel to lie helplessly in a hospital bed with a tube down your throat, knowing you’re dying. Unable to say your last words.
Watching my dad face death — the toughest journey all of us will ever face — allowed me to connect with him as a person.
This was the first time in my life that I understood how all of us are part of a shared human condition that connects us all together.
When I looked at him in that hospital bed, I no longer saw an alcoholic, a liar, a thief, a shitty dad, and a terrible person. For the first time in a long time, I saw him as a human being.
I saw that wonderful dad I remembered when I was a young kid. That dad who took me to the country store and taught me how to ride a bike.
Feeling empathy re-ignited the love I had for my dad — love that had been destroyed from years of abuse. I was finally able to forgive him.
I told him I loved him.
I felt a strange mix of emotions. I was extremely sad because I knew he was dying. At the same time, I felt a sense of love, connection, and closure because I was able to forgive him.
He died two weeks later.
More Lessons in Forgiveness
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
It took me a while to fully process my dad’s death. I initially forgave him and was able to let go of the hatred. But later, when bad things happened to me, I’d blame him and other people for my misfortune and then the anger and animosity would surge again.
I had to find a way to put that anger and animosity to rest for good. The solution involved finding new ways to increase my capacity for empathy.
I thought about how terrible my dad’s life was. He grew up in Joplin, Missouri during The Great Depression. He suffered a lot of physical abuse when he was young and began drinking at an early age. He had some great jobs but lost all of them because of his drinking problem. His daughter rarely spoke to him. His drinking and obnoxious behavior drove a huge rift between him and everyone around him.
As I imagined how traumatic and tragic his life was, I was better able to understand how he became an alcoholic.
I learned that true, long-lasting forgiveness involves a form of deep empathy — understanding why someone did bad things. It doesn’t mean you agree with why someone did something bad or justify the bad behavior — it just means you can understand why they did certain things.
When I imagined how it would feel to experience some of the trauma my dad went thru, I understood why he saw the world as a dark place, always felt less than, and became an alcoholic. Feeling this deeper sense of empathy increased my capacity for forgiveness.
Another thing that helped further increase my overall capacity for forgiveness was the realization that all of us have done bad things in our lives, but we deserve forgiveness.
Desmond Tutu once said:
Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed.
Realizing that all of us have done bad things, but deserve to be forgiven, helped me remember more of the good things he did. I remembered the times he went to my school plays, taught me how to varnish a table, took me on road trips, and told me he loved me.
I also realized he tried to love me as best as he could, but oftentimes fell short because of the unresolved trauma he experienced in his life. This helped me focus on the more positive qualities he had and remember the good times we shared.
Developing this deeper sense of empathy and seeing my dad in a positive light not only increased my capacity for forgiveness — it also increased my capacity for love.
Why Forgiveness is So Important
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” — Nelson Mandela
Not forgiving people for what they did makes us feel a lot of anger and hostility, which can cause a lot of mental, emotional, and physical problems.
Unforgiveness can literally rob people of precious years of their lives by making them die prematurely from physical ailments that result from decades of anger and hostility. It can also rob people of years of peace and happiness by making them live in a state of anger, resentment, and animosity.
I wasted years resenting my dad when I could’ve spent that time doing something a lot more productive.
The good news is that forgiving people can greatly improve our mental, emotional, and physical health. Studies have shown that forgiving others decreases anxiety, depression, and other mental problems. Forgiveness can defuse anger and hostility. It cuts down our risk of suffering from deadly heart disease, the leading cause of death across the world.
Perhaps the best thing is that forgiveness gives us peace of mind and lets us move forward so we can enjoy a brighter future. When I hated my dad, I was stuck in the past — stuck in a state of resentment, anger, and animosity. I developed a dark, angry, and negative attitude toward the world.
Letting go of that anger and resentment and forgiving my dad was a process. It took me quite a few years to achieve final closure.
I’m still working on forgiveness, but I’ve made a lot of progress. I now have a stronger capacity for empathy, forgiveness, and love. I can now forgive other people and myself more easily. I can move toward that bright future I deserve.
I was, fortunately, able to forgive my dad, which gave him a lot of peace of mind and closure before he died. But always remember the person who should benefit the most from forgiveness isn’t the person who wronged you. The one who should benefit the most is you.
When we don’t forgive other people, we continue adding mental and emotional fuel to that fire of resentment, animosity, and anger. We stay stuck in a dysfunctional past — unable to move forward into a prosperous future.
We do a lot of harm to ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically. We waste huge chunks of our lives dwelling on a past that can’t be changed. People who don’t forgive others push out more resentment and negative energy into our world — a world that has high levels of these things already.
The solution to this dilemma is to use empathy to see the humanity in people who have wronged us. Empathy allows us to imagine why people have done bad things. It helps us see the good in people, even when they’ve hurt us.
Empathy also helps us realize that we’ve all done bad things, but we all deserve forgiveness and redemption. And it helps us increase our capacity for love.
Is there someone you need to forgive in your life? Forgive that person and let go of the anger and resentment.
Let go of the past so you can focus more on that bright future you deserve.