|“Shame” by Carla Navoa.*|
Some things in life we are able to choose, other things not so much. That which we do not choose may be to us blessing, curse or some combination of the two, and we aren’t always aware of the circumstance or its consequence (for good or for ill). If and when enlightenment regarding the unbidden does come our way, the range of our response can be as expansive as the sky.
“Since humanity hasn’t learned yet how to pick our parents, I guess we have to deal with what we got and move on,” said a woman in my Sunday school class. Her words were like a stun gun to me, freezing me in time and disabling me from concentrating completely on the remaining discussion. I don’t know where I went. Wherever it was, I sensed grief.
Pick our parents. These 3 words conjured feelings of loss, confusion, inadequacy and emptiness. Pick our parents. I wondered what they meant for their speaker. They said to me that no matter how loving, compassionate, creative, present, etc. our parents may have been when we were being raised, something was missing. Somewhere a ball was dropped and we were left emotionally malnourished and unformed. And this makes perfect sense.
The truth is that each of us has what I call parental wounds (some more than others). Parental wounds are often nameless aches within us that were created during childhood when a primal need went unmet and (perhaps unbeknownst to us) remains. No one is immune. This is because each of us was parented by imperfect people, who were parented by imperfect people, who were parented by imperfect people, etc. Parental wounds are hereditary, typically being passed down unintentionally from parent to child. Each generation compulsively seeks to recover and reclaim what should have been theirs in childhood. Love, attention, nurture and respect are required of the children from the parents to fill the hole that lack spawned. Often we know not what we do because it’s how we’ve been conditioned and all we’ve ever known.
I wanted to make eye contact with my Sunday school sister, to engage her at least nonverbally, but I found it difficult for my part. There was a lot going on within me. I felt like Dorothy suspended within the tornado — I had landed nowhere, but already I was no longer in Kansas.
I thought of Lorena (not her real name), who was raised, as she says, during a time “when it was more accepted for parents to hit their kids than it is today.” She has told me spotted yet harrowing stories of how her father used to physically and verbally abuse her and her siblings. In fits of anger he would simultaneously beat them with items not meant for human flesh and yell obscenities and cruel insults. Also a victim of her father’s verbal assaults, Lorena’s mother was unable to protect her children and therefore left them vulnerable. It sounds like there wasn’t much love and nurturing in your childhood home, I said to her once. No, not really, Lorena answered matter-of-factly. That type of abuse and neglect leave permanent damage. As a mother, Lorena found herself hitting her own child, sometimes even with a belt on bare skin; screaming at her son; and intentionally attempting to shame him in an effort to “teach him a lesson.” One parental wound births another. Lorena’s story may be unique, but it is not, unfortunately, uncommon.
I believed I’d heard in Sunday School Woman’s voice a sadness. Perhaps it surrounded her parents, their individual and family dysfunction and her own resulting, enduring pain. A penny for your thoughts, I wanted to lean in and say to her. I could, I envisaged, at least listen and journey with her through her childhood and life that followed. I wanted to comfort and console her. Strong were my feelings towards this woman who brought up the prospect of picking one’s parents and left what it entails dangling openly. Who will bite? Clearly, she was in need of my compassion.
Or was she?
Maybe, it occurred to me, I was hearing not her need, but mine. “Since humanity hasn’t learned yet how to pick our parents, I guess we have to deal with what we got and move on.” The words reverberated. The echo of the woman’s words bounced throughout the chasm of my soul, speaking my silent truth. I hurt. Sunday School Woman’s story, Lorena’s story, any person’s story is every person’s story of parental wounds…and my story. I am not immune.