I was wrong.
How often does one get to be spectacularly, astonishingly, mistaken? To arrive at the edge of one’s judgment, one’s very best judgments, one’s hardest won insights, one’s most thoughtful, detailed analyses? All of it based on a misunderstanding, the wrong information.
Will I ever stop crying? Grief moves through me like a flood as understanding melts away. I must have thought my anger would protect me from all this grief. My beloved father’s abandonment, his disintegration into someone I didn’t recognize, someone whose obsessions about himself and his own well-being cost him his relationships. The brutal, incremental, humiliating descent as he abandoned his work, his responsibilities, his attempts at normal behavior. All of us, my mother and brothers and me, his bewildered, furious victims.
I went to a psychic with a friend, for a lark, when I was eighteen. The woman held her hand over my chest and said “Your father is dead. Is that right? It feels like he’s dead.” Turning me, in one stroke, into a believer. My father was dead to me.
I was eleven, when it started, so losing him was part of how I understand myself in the world. Raised as a psychologist’s daughter, taught as a psychologist in graduate school, immersed in a psychological culture that was shaped by Freud, who catalogued and enshrined the worst of us. In the world of psychology, the deepest most persistent acts of healing address the wounds inflicted by our parents. We are right to blame them. Recognizing how they failed us is the highest level of insight. It frees us from becoming them, from being trapped by what they made of us, from repeating the mistakes of history. So, I enumerated his failings, uncovered my trauma, owned my sorrow, learning my history and its impact.
Certainly, I needed to accept, and allow myself to have, the truths of my own experience. It was deep and necessary work, freeing myself from the tyranny of internalized trauma. Freeing myself from the belief that I existed only to serve these larger egos, my traumatized parents. I had to reclaim that child’s voice to hear my own.
Yet here I am, after all of that heartfelt and necessary learning, discovering this wasn’t the deepest understanding, only by falling through it in a dizzying drop to a more fundamental level. The truth I didn’t know. Namely, that my father was sick, physically, that he wasn’t making it up. I know this now because I was just diagnosed, so I now know the diagnosis he never got. He was in chronic, unexplained pain. He was besieged by impossible, bewildering, disabling symptoms. Invisible symptoms. He did have to change his life.
You can’t be this wrong without getting a lesson in humility. Humility comes from the word humus, dirt. I have been taken to the ground, and the ground is that I don’t know. Man is ignorant and the gods are wise, Socrates said, fighting for his life in the court of Athens. The Oracle called him the wisest man, a decree so astonishing he went to the wisest people he could find to gather the countervailing truth of what they knew and how they knew it. Discovering, to his surprise, their knowing was based on assumptions, judgments without foundation, made up simply as a place to begin. He was wisest because he was the only one who understood his ignorance.
My father is changing shape, which is changing my own. He loved Martin Buber, the mystic Jewish heretic, who said we exist in relationship. Either It-It relationships, or I-Thou relationships. When I judge you to be an object, I too become an object, and we live in a world of objectification. You are a thing, something to be labeled and known by these parameters, and so, inevitably, am I. Judgment is a two-edged sword. The edges that protect me, wound me.
The other option is the relationship of interconnection – I and Thou. Here you are a living mystery, as am I. Here we participate in the lived reality of our experience, surrender our evaluations of the objects we thought we were, and open to receive the beauty of the world. The world born of interconnection, not the world we cobbled together out of things. Where we release the ideas of who we are – who you are, who I am – and discover more than we thought possible.
What a surprise to find this beneath the rubble. Falling off the edge of my old judgments is a swan dive into grace.