When you try to outdistance your past, instead of turning to look at it and understand it, you will find that it can do damage to your future and that of your children, and perhaps their children as well. The very pain you deny can become your destiny—and theirs.
That’s why it is your moral responsibility to do your level best to open the early chapters of your life story and dwell especially on those passages and pages and themes that initially cause you the greatest anxiety. Only by doing so can you overcome the life events and losses which you unconsciously believe have the power have the power to overwhelm you. The truth is that you are strong enough to look deeply at everything you have survived. Doing so will only make you stonger, and living with truth and power is the greatest gift you can give the people you love.
When I hosted my nationally syndicated talk show, I counseled a man named Larry. Larry’s three daughters and ex-wife had very little to do with him anymore. He was a large man in his sixties, with powerful hands and a gravelly voice. He had run his home a lot like a jail, with rigid rules and violent punishments. Two of his daughters hadn’t been willing to see him for years and had kept their own children away from him. The third had stayed in touch but had kept her distance emotionally.
Why did the daughters ask for my help? They wanted their father to apologize for what he had done to them, which he had never been willing to do. They wanted him to admit that he had made big mistakes as a parent and that those mistakes had hurt them deeply.
There was another reason, of course: with everything they had suffered at his hand, these women still wanted a father. They wanted the man who had known them from birth, who had been present from the very first pages of their life stories, to be part of their lives again and to become part of the lives of his grandchildren—but only if they could believe in their hearts that he had changed.
When a man in his sixties shows up for a meeting—on television—with his three adult daughters, knowing they are intent on detailing the abuse he meted out to them as little girls, it means he has decided to stop running from the past. It mean that, at some level, he knows that only the truth can redeem him. So I had real hope Larry would acknowledge that he had caused his daughters to suffer and would say he was sorry.
He didn’t start out doing a good job on either score. He denied having threatened his daughters with a stick. He denied having pulled one of his daughter’s hair. He denied physically abusing their mother in front of them. He told them it was time to “move on” and put the past behind them.
His daughters ended up in tears, screaming at him. He was traumatizing them all over again, essentially telling them their memories were fabricated and their pain was contrived.
The reason the story didn’t end that way is that I reminded myself of my core belief—there is not original evil left in the world; everyone is just recycling pain. Using that belief as my guide, I stopped pressing Larry to admit he had abused his daughters and shifted my focus to help him admit that he had been abused. I asked him the question: “Who hurt you? Were you hit—or worse—as a child?”
That question elicited genuine emotion from him—a combination of anger and sadness. His jaw churned even as his eyes filled up with tears. “Sure, I got hit,” he said. “My father used a stick. His father used barbed wire. Okay?”
At that instant, Larry’s daughters began listening in a whole new way. A furrow in one of their brows. A slight tilting of one daughter’s head. A tear running down the third’s cheek.
I moved closer to Larry because I knew that the future of his relationship with his daughters was at stake and that he needed to know it. “There are moments that call for remarkable courage in life,” I told him. “There are moments when you have to see the truth and be willing to speak it. They can work miracles and change lives. But when they’re gone, they’re gone.”
He held my gaze.
“Your father did what he did,” I said. “That’s an issue for another day. But today, your daughters deserve an apology. Because you hurt them.”
Several seconds passed in silence, then Larry showed the only kind of heroism a person can show in this world. He began living the truth. He turned pain into power. “I made big mistakes,” he told his daughters, with tears starting to come again. “I did things to you that were wrong. Inexcusable. And I’m sorry for them.”
Larry stood up and stepped in front of his three daughters. And one by one, they got up and hugged him.
A man in his sixties had, within an hour, faced pain stored away from childhood, pain buried so deep it had dragged his relationships with his daughters down with it. And when he brought it to the surface, far from being destroyed by it, he learned it was a gift powerful enough to bring his daughters back into his life.
Buried treasures await you, too, when you resolve to confront your buried pain. Your pain can be transformed—by an alchemy of the soul—into your power.
Dr. Keith Ablow
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