There’s nothing to forgive

Alexandra Handwerk

My father was unforgiving. For the whole of his life. He even kept a record of all our failings in that he daily entered in his diary all the faults of which his five children had been guilty.

I regularly broke crockery as a child. While carrying it about or washing up, or at the table through a sudden movement. At the sound of crashing crockery the next thing I heard was my name. Irrespective of whether I had on this occasion been the cause or not. When I came to the table at the next meal my father would give me a serious look: “Have you broken something again?”

Immediately I lost my appetite. But he had only just started: “Last week you already broke a cup. I checked again: two weeks ago it was two plates and a valuable vase.” And then I had to apologise, followed by the promise that I would improve. And in conclusion my father held a lengthy monologue with well-meaning advice on the subject.

A drama in several acts

My father spoke a lot about forgiveness. It was, indeed, exhausting for him how much he had constantly to forgive us. He demanded clearly expressed apologies once he had passed judgement that one of us had made themselves guilty, and he made a big issue of fully accepting our apology. He tended to cast doubt on whether we really meant our apology seriously.

I also broke crockery when my father was not at home. Mostly in the kitchen standing next to my mother. On the sound of crashing crockery my eyes quickly filled with tears – oh no, please not again. But my mother merely started to gather up the broken pieces and calmly said, almost in passing: “Only a person who doesn’t work won’t break anything.”

A moment later I happily carried on with the washing up.

Sometimes I am glad that I experienced both things. Because today I can use them to study what effect they had on my child’s soul. I always enjoyed helping my mother: I helped and if something went wrong it was the same as when it started to rain on a walk. Well, these things happen but there is no reason not to go for a walk or to enjoy it any less.

Helping my father was exhausting because we always had to be wary of once again, there and then, doing something wrong. Often I could not concentrate properly on the matter in hand because of worrying about doing everything in the way he wanted. At the end of doing something with my mother was the good feeling of having achieved something together; at the end of doing something with my father was relief at having worked to his satisfaction. In many instances this stayed with me into adulthood. The secret question: would your father be happy with what you’ve done?

Experimenting and studying

And then, in my early twenties, the opportunity suddenly arose to go travelling to distant places – to Asia and the USA. I enthusiastically agreed and when I told my mother about it on the telephone I could feel her pleasure at my plans. A few days later I received a letter from my father in which he announced that he could not forgive me for having taken such a serious decision on my own, ending with the demand that I should apologise.

At this point I began to ask myself what gave him the right to act in this way. These trips had nothing to do with him, they were financed and organised by me.

For the first time I consciously experienced an unwarranted judgemental intervention in my life.

And slowly feeling my way back into childhood, the question arose: was his judgemental attitude in my childhood justified? What was it that made an apology necessary when the crockery crashed? What concern was it of his? The broken pieces were cleared up by me with the help of my mother or siblings. Should I apologise for my stupidity? But an apology needs culpability. The latter he was always quick to ascribe to all of us. But can a child who drops something be culpable? After all, culpability assumes ill will, intent. But what child sets out to break crockery? I have four children and have carefully observed their actions for such a long time that I can say with certainty: a child never does anything bad with intent.

They love nothing better than to try things out of which we adults have an inkling that they might not work out. But in doing so they are experimenting and are never offenders. Be it a tower of wooden blocks that falls over or a wobbly stack of dishes and glasses, from a moral perspective there is no difference for the child. They are merely studying the laws of gravity, balance, statics… And what they study at the beginning physically they study in puberty emotionally: the laws of community, of desire and reality, of persuasion, being in the right and changing the world.

Every student needs the opportunity to experiment. Much will later depend on the observation of our own experimenting. I experienced my mother as a wise person in this respect: you experiment. That can have consequences. I will help you to deal with them or bear them. And now carry on with your experiments.

My children, too, smashed a generation of crockery, including all my favourite pieces. Do I have to forgive them for that? They had their bicycles stolen, lost jackets and hats, failed to do things, broke their word and did not turn up at the agreed time. Do I have to forgive them for that? Most certainly not. I find no fault in them. The crockery was smashed in a good cause as part of their experimenting. In any case, I like my new set better. And with all the other things? I saw the pain in their eyes. They felt themselves to be guilty, did not want to forgive themselves. Was it my role to judge them? I felt that I was doing a better thing in consoling them. A failed experiment always feels terrible. A  mother is needed so that we nevertheless dare to undertake the next one and do not shift our life into the safe zone in which everything appears to succeed – but does that still deserve to be called life?

Support and consolation

My soul of course has elements from both my parents. Often I would like to react like my father. It feels very satisfying on occasion to really let rip. I was forced to learn that the pain in the eyes of my children on such an occasion was not an admission of some alleged culpability but the bitter recognition that it was impossible to work trustingly together with me in this point. And then in the evening, when I reflected on it calmly, I could not forgive myself that I had cut off the dialogue with my children in this way.

And then I noticed that I was very grateful to my husband that he consoled me and sought the next step with me instead of condemning as inexcusable what I had done. And yet it is so easy precisely in a marriage to rub the nose of the other in the long list of every single fault – of which what has just happened is just another example.

There are few places in life in which I can take it for granted so naturally that all those involved will, as a family, try to do everything in the best possible way. I can take it for granted that we love one another, that we don’t want to harm one another, that we actually want to be connected for the whole of our lives. A unique constellation! When blame and forgiving begin to determine the everyday life of the family, then these are always symptoms that something has gone wrong in this constellation, that the relationship between family members has given up on loving one another, wanting to help one another, not wanting to harm one another.

And since it is a symptom and not a cause, there is no point fiddling about with the symptom. In a healthy cohesive family there is nothing to forgive, what’s important is to console, support and love.

In pathological family cohesion the question as to basic values arises. Having to apologise means: well, okay, I like you even though you are how you are. In a healthy constellation I have love because the other is the way they are. And also their apparent faults and weaknesses are an expression of their development.

Sticking to a pathological constellation simply because it is my constellation makes everyone involved ill. A healthy constellation involves hard work on my own soul. But it keeps everyone involved healthy and full of the joy of life.

Taking responsibility

Are there things for which I have to forgive my father? No. I have tried, to quote Goethe, to build something beautiful out of the stones he placed in my path. I have thus attempted to include the consequences of his actions towards me meaningfully in my life. But the transformation of his forces no longer has anything to do with him. That I found his forces in me to be transformed has made me into a wealthier person through the process of transformation than I would otherwise have been.

I was in contact with him until his death. To the end, he felt that many people were in his debt. To the end, he was fundamentally always in the right. At the end, he was very lonely. Most people at some point found it too much hard work to love him. He blamed them for that, too. In his diary he then always found early indications for their disloyal behaviour. If they had gone to see him once more I don’t think he would have accepted their apology…

I want to grow old in a different way. The older I grow, the less I have to forgive. Why? Because I apportion less and less blame. Instead, responsibility has become an important word. I would like to bring up my children to be responsible people. Responsible people shape their environment, namely the one they find around them. And they look at it from the perspective: what can I improve and how?

If I am responsible for clearing up after a meal, it may happen that a plate breaks but I nevertheless fully meet my responsibility if I clear away the broken pieces, report the damage and leave a clean table and tidy kitchen.

And I want to be able to continue to look my children in the eye when they have become adults and are able to judge what was more important to me: their committed engagement or a plate.

About the author: Alexandra Handwerk is the mother of four children and a freelance anthroposophist.