How many sacred texts contain an admonition to care for your parents, for others? I haven’t a clue, but suspect quite a few. Here is is snippet from the Hindu sacred text, Upanishads – “Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear…” Losing all fear is right up there with “that your days may be long.” What better prosperity than to live without fear?
In between Mother’s Day & Father’s Day is a great time to take another look at what I was raised to call the 5th Commandment – Honor your father & your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you. Honor your parents & prosper.
What about parents who were physically or mentally or sexually abusive? Are we called to be present in their lives, to honor people who do horrific things? The commandment doesn’t include an “unless.” Which led me to wonder what is meant by “honor.”
For me, its meaning is summed up in the snippet from the Upanishads – we are called to see our vulnerable self in them & theirs in us. We are to accept even though we can’t understand that they have their own stories, their own backgrounds that affect how they act in the here & now. We are not to accept questionable or downright dreadful things they did as okay & we are certainly not meant to put ourselves in the path of such behavior & absolutely not to urge others to do that in the name of “family” – we are to reject the things that were done as disgusting, while embracing, if only in our mind, the person.
It’s interesting for me to think about family, as I normally do over the 5+ weeks between Mother’s Day & Father’s Day. Most people find it impossible to get their heads around my reality, my guess is from the moment I arrived home from the hospital, an itty bitty baby entering into a house pockmarked by layers of trauma, from the horrific teen years of my parents to the apparent abuse at a terribly young age of my older sister.
Because Mom was so open talking about her heartbreaking experience before & long after her father’s death in her late teens & Dad’s loss of his mother in his early teens – to his last day, he believed she died of a broken heart over her husband’s affair (he later married her mistress), it took me a long time to realize that was another unimaginable trauma in our family’s past about which she was completely mum, as were my older brothers & father. At some time early in her life, my one & only sister, eight years older, was – I suspect sexually – abused. My guess is happened when she was under five years old, but that is totally theory, based on knowledge of her personality development.
To this day, that horror has affected my relationship with my parents & siblings. The one & only time that Mom actually stood her ground in supporting me was right before my engagement party, when my oldest brother was pressuring me to let him announce my engagement to John rather than a mutual friend. He called Mom to plead his case, knowing that she would have his back, only to hear her say, “Well, Peter, she is the bride.” That might sound small & piddly compared to every other time, but it meant & means the world to me.
Mom wanted to be more of a support, it simply was not in her. Literally. I was blessed to have her say just that. Peter was supposed to do something that had a definite consequence attached if he didn’t come through. He didn’t. And Mom let it slide, to my detriment. Will always remember her anguish, telling me, “I thought I could follow through with it – I COULDN’T.”
It was an amazing experience, seeing this emotionally crumpled woman who saw that something was the right thing – for everyone, especially Peter – to do & yet something rooted deep inside her WOULD NOT let her do it. Amazing & enlightening, leaving me torn between bottomless frustration & profound compassion.
Here was my mother, who could not stand up for me – she could defend me to my sibs & apparently did so frequently, but when in the moment of action, with the one glorious exception, could not throw me her support.
Here’s what people struggle to get their heads around & usually just can’t – to Mom, to Dad, absolutely to my sibs, I didn’t exist as part of the family. I was part of the unit, but not of the genuine circle. The others always took precedence because I didn’t exist as a factor.
Imagine the anger I could hold against my parents for that. Imagine the lack of forgiveness that so easily could consume me. Instead, when the great AHA broke – after Mom’s death, the result of something my brother say – all I could see was their own brokenness that had made better impossible.
“Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear…” In that moment with my brother, a couple years after Mom’s passing, when I saw as much in his face as I learned from his answer that I just didn’t register on his radar, enlightenment dawned. To him, I wasn’t there. In the instant that astonished incredulity swept his face, everything made sense.
Again, I could have felt all manner of outrage at having a life of service to him & my sister Xed out. Instead of annihilating emotions, my response was to understand, for the first time, why I’d always felt Xed by them – because I was, in ways I would never have fully felt without the expression on his face, the utter disbelief that filled his being that I would have considered myself part of his life experience.
That moment with my brother was miraculous. For all of my life, I hadn’t sought agreement or friendship or even reconciliation. I sought understanding. And what I learned from contemplating the 5th Commandment is that even when there is no understanding, I can seek acceptance.
Mom often joked that she wanted “She tried” on her tombstone. I’d correct her – my mother never simply tried, she always did her best. It might have fallen short, but she did all that she could. At the heart of the 5th Commandment is Brene Brown‘s mega lesson that most people – maybe all – are doing the best we can in any given moment, even if the result seems between blech & arrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggghhhhhhh!
“Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear…” Once I saw my parents, the source of so much of the baggage we drag with me, as doing the best they could, with their own crippling back stories, I could see my siblings & sib-in-law as doing their best, then could see the folks it feels did/do me dirt the same way & ultimately can see the most difficult person of all – me myself I – as doing the best I can. And can forgive them, myself. Can see all beings – ALL – in my own self & my own self in all beings. I can honor them as doing the best they can.
And yes – it did, at that moment that astonishment swept over Peter’s face through his body, feel like all fear left me, leaving only a great AHA & an unexpected wave of compassion. What better interpretation of “that your days may be long” than a life rooted in compassion instead of fear.