I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the polarized extremes that show up in our public discourse. It’s nearly impossible to find a comment thread on the Internet in which people do not feel compelled to take only one position on an issue and to reject any contradiction, any paradox, any additional truths that might illuminate the issue in a more complex way. Perhaps we humans crave simplicity; or perhaps we create extremes as a way to control pain. I’m not sure. But I’ve come to feel that I am doing damage to myself and to my understanding of the world by trying to resolve contradictions rather than by simply acknowledging them.
In my personal life, my most conflicted feelings have to do with my father. Because my father passed away several years ago, I’ve become painfully aware of the fact that he is no longer here to tell his story. So I tell his story now – at least, my version of his story.
I’ve written a fair bit about my father, and it’s mainly been about his physical and sexual abuse of me. I haven’t felt entirely comfortable writing about the good he did in my life, about his love for me, about my love for him. In a culture uncomfortable with contradiction, I’ve felt pressured to paint my father only as an abuser – to answer the question, “Was he good or was he bad?” by choosing one or the other. The only way I can answer that question now is to say, “The messy truth is that he was both. He was loving, supportive, and gentle, and he also acted with hatred, with destructiveness, and with brutality.”
I won’t write too much about the abuse here. I’ve already been over that ground, and besides, you don’t really have to know all that many details. Abuse is abuse. It’s bad. It’s painful. It’s destructive. It has lifelong consequences. The abuse did serious harm to my mind and body, and that harm has taken a long time to heal, and that healing is still in progress.
But there was so much more to my father than the abuse he carried out. In many ways, he was a very sensitive man, and his sensitivity made him vulnerable in a world in which men could not be weak, overwhelmed, bewildered, or in need. His response, sometimes, was to let the pressure build until he lashed out or tried to have me take care of his pain. That’s when things got ugly.
At other times, though, his response was to be gentle, insightful, and loving. He was my abuser, yes. But he was also the dad who threw a baseball back and forth with me for hours, despite the fact that his shoulder was in terrible pain. He was the dad who took me clothes shopping and gave me all the space in the world to choose what I wanted. He was the dad who umpired our neighborhood baseball games after a long week of work. He was the dad who carried me on his shoulders, and let me fly like an angel on the soles of his feet, and let me ride on his back across the living room floor.
Most of all, he was the dad who taught me essential lessons about decency, ethics, and empathy. Yes, the same man who molested me and beat me taught me about how to treat my fellow human beings. He didn’t teach me these things during the abuse; the abuse was much more about the power dynamic between him and my mother. The life lessons came during times of gentleness and kindness.
My father’s mantra was always, “Think about your impact on the next person. Show consideration. Consider the consequences before you act.” Ironic words from an abuser, no? But very powerful. All my life, I have taken care with my words and actions. All my life, I have tried very hard to not simply be reactive. All my life, I have sought to take the most ethical course. My father gave me the gift of how to think about how my life and my words and my deeds affect other people. My father, who hurt me so much, taught me how to not hurt other people.
When all is said and done, I know that my father loved me. Even the molestation came out of love – love that got twisted up and sick and destructive, love that got mixed up with power and need and pain and loneliness – but love nonetheless. From that experience, I learned that no emotion is good or bad; it’s what you do with the emotion that matters. Anger need not be violent and destructive; it can be a way to protect oneself and one’s boundaries. Love is not always gentle and benign; it can become a way to break boundaries and do harm. But I know that there was love there, just as I know that there was hatred there. I won’t just see one or the other. I have to see both, because that was the reality of my life.
I’m tired of trying to fit my life into either/or constructs. I used to say that life isn’t an either/or, but a both/and. But now I’m thinking it’s even more complex than that. It’s a series of experiences in which no one can be shoehorned into categories of all good or all bad. My father was one such person.[Headline image: photo of a small child with beige skin, light brown hair and bangs looking at the viewer before a sunlit outdoor beach scene. Their face is partially obscured by their hair and the sunlight filling the photo. They are wearing a blue and white patterned bathing suit with yellow trim at the collar.]