Went to a meeting of women of a certain age yesterday to talk about mothers and daughters. The room was crowded, and I couldn't help wondering what an equivalent meeting for men would have been like. Would guys have showed up in such numbers on a Sunday afternoon? Would they have told intimate stories about their fathers?
In this meeting, the stories came pouring out. There was the woman who, the night before her mother died, dreamed that she was carrying her mother down a path towards a bridge whose other side was obscured by clouds; the woman whose mother could not attend her daughter's college graduation because she was giving birth to her fourteenth child; the woman (several women) who felt abandoned by her mother. Finally, there was the woman who, try as she might, could not bring herself to forgive her mother. The room had lots of advice for her, basically having to do with letting go of her feelings so she could get on with her life. Then, as the meeting was about to end, one woman spoke up "You can't just think about forgiveness." She clasped her hands to her bosom, "Forgiveness has to come from the heart."
Talk about a perpetual guilt machine. I can imagine the unforgiving woman beating herself up for the rest of her life, saying "But I don't feel forgiveness towards my mother." Paradoxically, my often guilt-inducing Catholic education could have come to the rescue, had I had a chance to speak. "Feelings don't have anything to do with it," I would have told her. "All you need is the intention to forgive. Make an act of the will. Act as though you have forgiven, and things will take care of themselves."
There's nothing we can do about our feelings. Resentment, hatred, gluttony, envy, lust keep endlessly erupting out of that hidden volcano we all carry inside. They appear uninvited, sometimes a trickle, sometimes a torrent. And sometimes they vanish for good.
The only thing we can control is our actions. The practice of acting as though one has forgiven reminds me of the loving-kindness practice in Buddhism. You keep repeating "may all beings be safe, may all beings be happy..." and eventually you may end up feeling kindly towards your worst enemy. But it's o.k. if the feeling doesn't come, as long as the intention is there.
This approach to morality has helped in my own dealings with my mother. I can recall things my mother did or said that still arouse less-than-loving feelings in me. But in my mind and with my will I have forgiven her, and thus am spared the burden of guilt.
The process of forgiving my mother has been assisted by my being the mother of adult children--daughters at that. How can anybody who has bumbled and improvised her way through motherhood, armed with nothing but luck and good intentions, see herself through the eyes of her grown daughters and not cast a newly indulgent eye on her own mother? In other words, let her who is without guilt cast the first stone...
Despite my refusal to cast stones, I'm sorry to say, the resentment volcano still erupts. "Why did she...? How on earth could she...? Didn't she see that I...?" On and on, ad infinite nauseam. Isn't it time I got over this, I wonder? Will it ever go away?
I am beginning to suspect that this particular volcano will never go completely dormant. But after yesterday's meeting, hearing all those stories, at least I know that mine is not the only volcano that's still sputtering away.