Forgiveness and The Knucklehead

There’s something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time now, but I don’t know how. I’m no authority on parenting, and don’t want to present myself as one. I’m a guy, a nurse by profession, actually, who more or less found a purpose in life when he became a father. Since I approach life by trying to think everything out, that’s how I approached parenting. It doesn’t mean I did anything better than anyone who parents more organically, or spiritually, or instinctually, which are all fine approaches if that’s what complements your nature. I just went with my strength, which was reason, which happens to lend itself better to explanation. So it’s easier for me to say, “This is why I did what I did” than it is for someone who parents by the seat of her pants. My style suited me. It might suit others like me, and would certainly be a disaster for others. I wanted to write a blog where I offered up some of the things I did to raise a good kid, in the hope that a few people here and there could find a scrap they could use. I’m not qualified to tell anyone what to do. I can just share my own story.

So to present nice, polished essays, I came up with the idea of using our shared passions – baseball and movies – as a springboard for parenting. But this week I find the nice, polished essay to be eluding me. And there’s still stuff I want to say. So that means that this week, I’ll be writing without a net. And – spoiler alert – not to waste your time, but I don’t come up with any answers at the end. But since I think we learn more by stumbling and groping than we do by reaching and grasping, I’ll share with you this week a work in progress. Which is really what most of fatherhood is, anyway.

My moral thinking became much more concentrated when my son was born. The reason for this, I think, is that for the first time in my life, I felt I had to explain myself to somebody. All these vague ideas, values, morals that had been swirling around me, accumulating, changing, going in and out of focus over 30+ years, I was going to have to finally, deliberately make sense of to someone else. Of course I was going to model my values, but because words have always been important to me, the time was approaching that I was going to have to put my own values into words. Simple words. Unambiguous words. Everything I was to tell this child-to-be would someday have to fit through the tyrannical filter of “why?”

Now, I’m aware that we’re talking about a little kid here. There’s age appropriateness involved, there are topics and nuances that a child isn’t ready for. We’re talking bite-sized chunks of ethics; enough to nourish without obstructing the airway (I told you I was a nurse). But that still means you have to distill these ideas, to boil them down to the essence. Which means you have to have to have a very clear handle on exactly what you’re talking about. And with the big ethical words we throw around, that’s surprisingly difficult to do.

I’ll tell you right now that “forgiveness” is one I never successfully nailed down. I don’t know what “forgiveness” means. I really don’t. Does it mean you forget about an injustice? Is it amnesia? I don’t think that’s really possible. Does it mean you just let a wrong slide, you remember it, but simply don’t let it bother you any more? I don’t think that’s something that’s within our control. I don’t know how to make myself feel about something differently just by sheer will alone. Does forgiveness require atonement, or at least an acknowledgement of guilt? I know that would help, but you don’t often get that in life. Does forgiving one transgression tacitly make it OK for repeat offenses? Or is the forgiveness rescinded when the same mistake is repeated? How many reps are we talking about here? And aren’t there some transgressions that go beyond forgiveness?

Yes, I hear the Christians champing at the bit. Christians own forgiveness. Forgiveness is their bag, baby. But I was a Christian for most of my life, and I found surprisingly little help there. Sure, there are episodes of forgiveness in the Bible. But there are a lot more examples of unforgiveness, in the New Testament as well as the Old. They like to tell us Jesus died to forgive us, but there are still things you can do to earn damnation, which is really the exact opposite of forgiveness. And… why did somebody have to die before forgiveness could be offered, anyway? Is God bound by rules He didn’t create? Doesn’t that make him… not God?

I don’t say that to dump on Christianity; Christians are doing the best they can to wrestle with these ideas as much as any of us. I say that to illustrate that it’s not as simple a concept as we’re led to believe. When you really start to ask these questions, it gets thorny. I love the idea of forgiveness. As a concept, it seems necessary for living in a flawed world. We all let each other down, and we need a way to get past our inevitable lapses. But do you see how hard it is to clearly explain this to a child? To really try to set the concrete guidelines a young mind requires? Especially when we live in a country that certainly does not base its penal system or foreign policy on anything approaching forgiveness. And maybe that’s appropriate. If so, how can we describe it as a universal value? Economically, it seems forgiveness is very much a fluctuating value in this world.

No, I never figured out the magic words to say to The Knucklehead about forgiveness. Sorry, kid, I couldn’t solve that puzzle for you. But we did experience forgiveness as he grew up. A lot of that was preempted by talking stuff through.

I’ve never been a “time heals all wounds” kind of guy. That just never made sense to me. Time can just as easily lead to rot or infection (did I mention I was a nurse?). If things weren’t right between my Knucklehead and me, it just ate at me until we could talk it out. Many times that would require a cooling-off period, but never more than a day. I found personally, forgiveness came much easier if wrongs were addressed directly.

I’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t apologize to your kid, and I think that’s ridiculous. Where else is your kid going to learn how to say, “I’m sorry”? Now, some of this depends on how you use the word. “I’m not going to apologize for how I raise my kids.” I hope not. If you’re paying attention to what you’re doing, why on earth would you? I mean apologizing for when you fall flat on your face as a parent, and make a mistake, and you and your kid both know it. When you dump on your kid for no reason. We’re all human, so it’s not like you have to invent a scenario where that’s going to happen. Just wait long enough, it’ll come.

For me, it most often came when I worked night shift. As all third-shifters know, when you’re chronically backlogged on sleep, you’re not at your best, and you’re always chronically underrested when you try to sleep during the day, it’s just not the same. Then when you try to switch to day-shift mode with your kid, your patience runs out fast. I never hit my boy (something in my constitution always prevented that), but he can tell you about times when I was abrupt or inflexible with him, grouchy, irritable – I could always tell when I was not being the dad I wanted to be with him, and so could he. At those times, I’d say, “Buddy, I’m sorry I’m grouchy. I hate feeling like this. It’s not you, I’m tired, and it’s hard to find energy.” Of course that didn’t make everything alright. But at least it let my Knucklehead know 1) it’s not him that’s doing something wrong, it’s Dad, 2) Dad is aware of how his own mood affects a loved one, and 3) Dad’s mood is a topic that was not closed for discussion. Often, just saying those words would help me snap back into role-model mode, and we’d both make it through my temporary alteration of mood. Hopefully, Knucks might also pick up another lesson in the value of monitoring one’s own feelings, but that would just be gravy at this point.

And then there were the times for the full-blown, “I Screwed Up And I’m Sorry” apology. Never be afraid to give this to your kid. I had one when he’d forgotten to bring something to me from school, and I blew up with a how-could-you-be-so-careless-and-thoughtless tirade that probably went a full 20 minutes. Yup, it was after a night shift. That was no excuse. The kid forgot something. The 8-year-old kid forgot something. The 8-year-old-kid who has to keep a complex schedule in his head for which after-school activity he has that day, and which parent he’s going home to, and almost never screws that up, forgot something. He went to his room after the tirade. I immediately, appropriately, felt like an ass. After taking 20 minutes to calm down, I knocked on his door, and apologized. I told him I was sorry, that I was way out of line. That he was doing the best he could and had made a mistake. I acknowledged how hurt he must have felt, and how embarrassed I was. I said I was sorry, and would use the experience to teach me to think about what was going on. We were able to move on with our night. That’s the beauty of an honest, direct apology. You’re in, you’re out. You don’t have to spend the rest of the night ducking each other. You get the albatross off, and get back to business.

That didn’t spoil the kid. It wasn’t the last time he forgot something, and it wasn’t the last time I was impatient. But it taught us both how to move on and not stay mad, and how to try to fix what we’d broken. It gave each of us an avenue for forgiveness. Years later, when the Knucklehead directly apologized to me for something he’d really handled stupidly, I knew I’d done the right thing.

So we never directly addressed forgiveness. But we learned how, within the confines of our relationship, to forgive and move on. What lessons can be brought from that to the wider world, I don’t know, and will ultimately be his to figure out. But we at least learned to mend our own little corner.

Oh, yes. To The Knucklehead’s future spouse, whoever you are:

You’re welcome.

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