Years ago, while at a local K-Mart, I bumped into one of my favorite veterinary clients: Annette was not only a wonderful pet owner but an extraordinarily devoted teacher. Like a Saint Bernard that magically turns up when needed, Annette constantly went above and beyond in her efforts to serve her students. Excited as always to make a difference in someone’s life (even at the local K-Mart), Annette gushed about an amazing seminar she’d just attended the previous weekend. Explaining that there was another seminar coming up in two weeks, she beseeched me to go. Simply on the basis of how much I admired and respected Annette, I decided right then and there to go, bypassing all the typical doubts I might have concerning a seminar I knew nothing about.
The seminar was called “The Forum” and was hosted by Landmark Education. Never in a million years could I have imagined that a seminar could completely turn my world upside down. As it so happened, I’d been lugging around a very debilitating sadness for over a year as the result of a horrible family tragedy that had literally ripped my family to shreds. When one of the worst things that could ever happen to a family happened to my family, I was at a complete loss as to how to deal with it. One of the unfortunate fallouts from the tragedy concerned my sister since I blamed her for being partly responsible for what had happened. I hadn’t spoken to her in over a year and I was terribly conflicted and torn: this was the state of mind that I was in as I headed to the Forum.
The Forum was a three-day affair held in a spacious amphitheater in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. One hundred and twenty-five people attended. There was a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement percolating through the crowd making the event feel a bit like a church revival (especially considering that many of us were there for some degree of salvation and redemption!)
When I arrived at the seminar, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire that would help me clarify the issues I hoped to address over the weekend. Naturally, I didn’t say a thing about the gigantic elephant in the middle of my life (i.e.-the wreaked relationship with my sister.) Instead, I talked about “self-esteem” issues and my concerns over my weight: blah, blah, blah. What a crock! It took (at most) until noon of the first day for me to know that the seminar was going to be about my sister and what had happened to our family.
At the end of the first day, we were all were assigned homework. Our assignment was to write a letter in which we asked someone for forgiveness. I instantly thought that there was no way in Hell that I was going to ask my sister for forgiveness! I simply wasn’t there yet. Still, I did try to write a letter of some sort to my sister that night though I eventually gave up as I couldn’t get past the conviction that my sister who owed me an apology and not the other way around. The best that I was able to come up with were some accusatory statements along the lines of: “I might be able to forgive you one day if you weren’t such a blankity-blank and hadn’t done suchity-such!” Clearly, I was completely blinded by my version of events.
When the seminar resumed the next morning, I slouched in my seat and kept my eyes down in the hopes that the seminar leader wouldn’t call on me. The last thing I wanted to do was read aloud the pathetic letter I’d written since it had a lot more to do with anger than forgiveness. Thankfully, I was rescued from that fate when a young Hispanic man volunteered to read his letter.
The young rose from his seat and, after taking a few deep breaths, he straightened his papers and started to read. I remember that I was instantly impressed with the eloquence of his words and the way in which he spoke thinking to myself that he must be a college student majoring in English or Theater.
The young man’s letter was written to his younger sister, a girl of ten who, he explained, had been killed in a tragic car accident five years previously. The heartbreaking way in which he spoke to his sister was so raw and remorseful that I felt uneasy, as if I was eavesdropping on a private confession. He showed no shame or embarrassment as he openly pleaded with his sister to forgive him. Every word was filled with so much anguish that I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
The young man’s letter concerned the very last Christmas he’d spent with his sister. Apparently, his sister had gotten it into her head that she wanted to knit him a scarf even though she’d never done any knitting before. With the help of their mother, though, she secretly slaved on the scarf for several weeks leading up to Christmas. With the typical innocence and naivety of a ten year old girl, his sister was not only that certain that she’d get the scarf done by Christmas but that it was going to be a masterpiece to boot. Yet, a few days before Christmas, she realized with horror that the scarf wasn’t going to be done in time. Devastated as only a pre-teen girl whose hopes have been crushed can be, she was inconsolable all day Christmas day.
The young man, who was just a teenager himself, teased her and joked good-naturedly about her tears. He assured her that it wasn’t a big deal, that she could simply give him the scarf when she got it finished. He couldn’t comprehend at the time just how much of his sister’s heart had been invested in getting that scarf done by Christmas. Not understanding just how big of a deal it was to his sister, the young man didn’t pay her that much attention as he was much more concerned with the activities he had planned with his friends over the Christmas break.
After his sister died, though, her distress that last Christmas started to haunt him. He’d known that his little sister worshiped him since he was her older brother and all but he just hadn’t understood just how much he meant to her, that any token of his affection was always the total highlight of her day.
The young man became more and more depressed and withdrawn as he continued to obsess over the feeling that he’d let his sister down. He became convinced that no one was ever going to love him as much as his sister had loved him and, since he’d shamelessly taken her love for granted, he didn’t deserve anyone’s love.
I was so impacted by the young man’s story that I was taken over by those big, hiccuping, runny-nosed sobs that completely wrack one’s body. His letter uncovered the wound that I’d unsuccessfully tried to bury after the tragedy that resulted in the break-up with my sister. As I listened to the young man peel back one layer after another of his heartache, I realized for the first time just how much I missed my sister and how cowardly and selfish my own letter of forgiveness had been.
The final assignment for the seminar asked that we take our quest for forgiveness to the next level: that we actually call the person that we’d written our letter to and ask them directly for forgiveness. Before allowing myself the chance to chicken out, I looked for a quiet place and dug my cell phone out of my purse. Waves of fear and apprehension rolled over me as I looked at the phone: I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to call my sister, the sister that I hadn’t spoken to for over a year. Completely on automatic, I robotically punched in my sister’s number and waited for the shock of her voice. I was so terrified that my throat started closing up as my breaths became increasingly short and ragged. The instant I heard my sister’s “hello,” I started to sob. Though I hadn’t said a word, she knew it was me and, in a panicked tone of voice, she asked, “Julie, what’s wrong? Are you okay? Are the girls okay? What is it? What’s wrong?”
I couldn’t speak as I felt the full weight of how much I’d missed her push down on me. I was so ashamed that I’d ever let our estrangement go this far. It took what felt like an eternity but I finally managed to blurt out, “I’m sorry.” My sister didn’t say a word: I don’t know if she was in shock or just leery. But, once I found my voice, the words started spilling out. I said, “I’m so so sorry, sis. I’ve been completely stuck inside my own misery and I wasn’t able to think of how much you’d been hurt by everything that had happened, that this had been a nightmare for you as well as me. Can you ever forgive me? Please forgive me for being so stubborn and unforgiving. I love you so much and I’ve missed you more than you’ll ever know.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, my sister said, “I’ve missed you! And, I love you, too! Of course, I’ll forgive you but can you forgive me? I was so wrong to have said some of the things that I said. I think I just got so completely freaked out by everything that happened that I lost my mind a bit. Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined that anything like this would ever happen to us. I’m the one who should be sorry and I only hope that you’ll forgive me some day.”
That moment with my sister on the phone was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced and, just like that, the whole upset was over. It’s shocking to think as I look back that, in the blink of an eye, we were able to completely let it all go. Maybe our coming together in such a sincere and authentic way was what allowed us to so completely forgive each other and move on…I’ll never know. But, after that day, we never once spoke about the tragedy for years. And, years later, when we finally tried to talk about it, we were careful to tiptoe around the subject like it was a minefield. Neither of us wanted to possibly take the wrong step that might blow our relationship up again.
The Landmark Forum was the first place I’d ever heard the phrase “the more you resist something, the more it persists.” At first, it sounded like some kind of psychobabble riddle that made no sense at all to me. But, the more I heard it used, the more the meaning of it started to sink in. It was just another way of saying that simply ignoring our problems isn’t going to make them go away. The truth is, the more we bury something, the more it festers.
When it comes to the unresolved issues in our lives, most of us have learned that, if we don’t deal with them, they’re simply going to keep popping up somewhere in our life. Unresolved issues are going to keep tripping us up until we finally make peace with them. They’ll muddy up each and every relationship we have, including the one with ourselves. Every problem we resist is going to stubbornly persist (sabotaging our happiness all the while) until we finally confront it and make peace with it.
The truth of this hit home for me a second time when I was attending another Landmark Education course on Intimacy. I’d been struggling, unable to understand why my two marriages had failed. Adding to my frustration was the fact that, each time I asked the seminar leader a question about those marriages, he’d repeatedly try to get me to talk about the relationship I’d had with my dad.
In the past, I’d tried many times to unravel the tangled knot that was my family. I’d even availed myself of various counselors and therapists but, somehow, I always walked away feeling more lost and confused than when I’d arrived. At some point, I decided that I simply needed to get over the fact that my dad had been a promise-breaking, womanizing alcoholic.
As the seminar leader seemed hell-bent on wearing me down, I decided that I’d take another look at the relationship I’d had with my dad. I explained to the seminar leader that things had started out with my dad as both my mom and my dad were ecstatic when I was born. They’d had trouble conceiving me so that, by the time I was born, they were thrilled to finally have a baby. Until I was twelve or thirteen, my dad was over the moon as far as I was concerned: laughing at everything I did, taking me everywhere he went and constantly telling stories about all the funny things I did (like eating and swallowing a whole pack of bubble gum.) Being a tomboy, nothing intimidated me and, as a result, I did everything full out. My dad got a kick out of my brazenness and, as long as he was enamored with me, I was a very content and happy girl.
When I reached the age of eleven or twelve, though, something shifted in my dad’s attitude and he became increasingly annoyed and irritated with me. I’d always been a mouthy kid who was a bit too quick to talk back but my dad had always seemed to think it was an endearing part of my personality when I was younger. He obviously didn’t think so anymore. More and more my dad became a stranger to me as he laid down rules and doled out what felt like tyrannical punishments (grounding me and refusing to let me spend the night at my friends’ houses.) Ever so gradually, my world began to tilt on its axis and, before long, I was knocked out of my previously happy orbit. Confused and angry, I started blaming myself for our relationship going so wrong.
As I talked about these feelings with the seminar leader, it became more and more apparent that, even as a grown woman, I was still devastated over losing my dad’s affection when I was twelve years old. I’d never really gotten over it and I’d been blaming myself ever since. All this time, I’d been trapped inside in the emotional black hole of a pre-teen. Now, whenever I interacted with my dad, I automatically reverted back to behaving like a confused twelve-year old. Any perceived indifference or irritation on his part could still bring me to tears even in my thirties and forties: I remember crying at a McDonald’s one time over something he’d said when we’d taken my daughters out to lunch. It was crazy!
When I’d moved away from home to go to college, my dad and I gradually spoke less and less until we were lucky to talk three or four times a year. Somewhere along the line, I gave up hope that we’d ever be close again. While I was at college, the primary connection I had to my dad was through my mom: she’d tell me all about their latest fights and everything he’d been doing to upset her. It was while I was away at school that my dad left my mom for a younger woman. I couldn’t help but think that this would be the final nail in the coffin that was now our relationship.
Even as a little girl, I’d known that my dad a habit of being with other women. Since my mom never kept anything a secret, his affairs were simply part of our family dynamic. My dad owned a construction company and all the men who worked for him were alcoholics just as he was. They’d all go to bars after work and the womanizing was a natural consequence of being at a bar night after night.
A big part of my mom’s role in the relationship she had with my dad was playing the watch dog. But, try as she may, she couldn’t keep up with my dad’s comings and goings. Throughout my childhood, my dad periodically vanished for a week or more at a time, most consistently during the holidays (you could count on him being gone for Christmas.) My mom always assumed he was with another woman so, when he finally came home, she’d give him hell and around and around they’d go as she accused and he denied.
In the past, my dad would finally give up whichever woman he happened to be with at the time and my mom and him would somehow resume their bizarre relationship. But the affair he had while I was away at college was obviously different and not only did my dad move out of the home he shared with my mom but he actually made plans to divorce her.
My mom went absolutely nuts. Once she realized that my dad was actually leaving her, she pulled out all the stops. She almost killed herself by intentionally swallowing an overdose of sedatives. After recovering from that, she’d constantly hunt my dad down all over town and, once she found him, she’d scream at him and make a scene. Once, she even threatened him with a gun. She also went after the other woman: even breaking into the other woman’s apartment one night where she assaulted both the other woman and my father. It was an extremely dangerous and volatile time and I was terrified my mom would go too far.
When my mom’s antics failed to get my dad to come home, she fell into a deep depression, spending night and day on the couch, mindlessly watching TV, drinking alcohol and chain-smoking cigarettes. Alcohol was a contributing factor to a horrible car wreck she had during this period of time. In the middle of the night one night, my mom was speeding down a country road at eighty miles an hour when she slammed into another car without ever hitting the brakes. The young man in the other car had just hit a horse that was loose and the force of the impact had spun his car around so that he was perpendicular to the road with his headlights shining out into a walnut grove. My mom never saw him. She plowed, full-speed, with a drink in her hand, into the driver’s side of his disabled car. The young man survived but was tragically injured.
It was the worst of times. Though my family had always teetered on the brink of disaster, it now felt like a bomb had gone off, ripping our family to shreds.
After spending my whole childhood watching my parents (who were the only role model I had for how men and women interacted), I came to some conclusions and, as a consequence, made a few resolutions. First of all, I promised myself that I’d never, ever permit myself to fall in love with a man so desperately (as my mom had done with my dad) that I lost all sense of myself. I also concluded that most men were incapable of loving a woman in a faithful and enduring manner. I didn’t doubt that a man might want a woman for sex and to clean, cook and care for his kids but, sooner or later, either when he was getting bored or had come across an available (most likely younger) woman, he’d be out of there in a flash without a single look back. With all I’d seen, I guess it wasn’t shocking that I was having trouble with the men in my life!
Still, that was then and this was now. I needed to figure out what I was going to do in this moment in time since no amount of recrimination was ever going to undo the past. It was time to make a choice: do I try to start fresh from this point on or do I continue to let the pain of the past keep me stymied and stagnant?
It was no surprise that, in my heart, I longed to start fresh but how was I going to do that? What could I do that would allow me to move forward with a fresh state of mind? It was quite simple actually. After much deliberation, I concluded that what I needed now was the same thing I’d needed when I was twelve-years old: to hear my dad tell me that he loved me.
After much hemming and hawing and some very helpful coaching by my seminar leader, I came up with a plan to make that dream a reality. The first order of business would be to re-establish regular contact with my dad. I resolved to start phoning him once a week instead of every six months. Then (and this would be the hard part) I made a promise to myself that at the end of each of those weekly phone calls, I’d say what I hoped to hear from him one day: “I love you.” My reasoning was that, sooner or later, he’d have no choice but to say it back.
It took six months. Every week was sheer agony as I fretted over whether I’d be able to get myself to say those three little words. Every week, those three little words burned inside my mouth as I waited to spit them out. Every week, since I’d already sprung the words on him in the previous calls, I knew that my dad knew it was coming. I could hardly concentrate on what I was saying each week as those three little words loomed large in my mind. Each week, I feared that this would be the week I wouldn’t be able to get myself to say those three little words. But, somehow, week after week I did.
My poor dad! He was completely discombobulated. Mostly, he’d just sit there on the other end of the line, seemingly speechless after I’d said “I love you”. We’d wait, in the most awkward of silences, until one of us finally said goodbye, putting us out of our misery. The most my dad ever managed to say after I’d said “I love you” was “Ah, okay” or “Thank you.”
Then, six long months later, my dad blindsided me. I hadn’t particularly anticipated anything that day as he’d not said the words back to me so far. So, when he said “I love you, too” after I’d said it to him, I was completely dumbfounded. In a daze, I managed to say goodbye and I ever so carefully replaced the phone into its cradle. Then, with my heart doing back flips, I fell on the floor weeping a river of joy.
Things got a whole lot better between my dad and I after that: the wall between us had crumbled. We had five amazing years before he died on April 1st, 2000. For the entirety of those five years, we were at ease expressing our love for one another. In fact, I was so thrilled by the amazing turn of events between us that I purchased a cassette recorder so that I could save all the sweet messages my dad left for me when I wasn’t home. I have two cassette tapes full of my dad saying things like, “Hey, baby doll, just calling to chit chat. Call me when you can, love you.” Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that my dad would call me baby doll. Something inside of me was forever healed because of it.
The most unanticipated blessing to come out of the transformed relationship between my dad and I was the change it made in my dad. I’d undertaken the quest to have my dad tell me that he loved me solely for my own benefit and healing. Never once had it occurred to me how it might affect my dad’s life. Before my dad died, he was not only at ease expressing his affection for me, but he was able to tell my daughters, my sister, my nephews, and multiple other people in his life just how much he loved them.
None of this would have happened if I hadn’t first given up my resistance to approaching my dad. If I’d simply continued to resist, convinced that our relationship was hopeless, I’d never have gotten to experience the amazing transformation we had before he died.
The quest to quit resisting also applies to ourselves. The People Are Like Dogs philosophy is rooted in the importance of genetics and how much it impacts our lives. To ever be able to accept and be at peace with the specific breed of dog (temperament) that we happen to be, it’s vital that we deal with any resistance we have to being who we are. Whether we’re a terrier, a working dog, sporting dog, hound, or toy breed, eliminating our resistance to the person that we are as a result of our genetics is what ultimately frees us up to simply be ourselves. Once we quit resisting who we are and decide instead to simply accept ourselves as we are, we can then move on to finding ways to modify and train ourselves in any areas where our temperament doesn’t serve us.
If self-acceptance and being at peace with ourselves isn’t motivation enough to give up our resistance, maybe we can decide to do it as a way of positively impacting the people in our lives (just as I did with my dad.) My dad experienced a transformation in his ability to say “I love you” because I quit resisting the notion that our relationship was hopeless. In the same way that a stone thrown into a pond creates ripples far beyond what can be seen, conquering our own resistance inevitably affects everyone around us.
It’s important to remember that, even if we take on whatever it is that we’re resisting, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll have a happily-ever-after scenario. What happened between me and my dad was extremely fortunate: I definitely wasn’t as lucky in my attempts to heal the relationship between my mom and me. Though I’ve finally been able to make peace with who my mom is and the limitations of our relationship, some mountains just can’t be moved. My mom isn’t able to budge. But that doesn’t negate the importance of accepting and finding peace within ourselves as far as another person or situation is concerned. We can make peace with a problem or person even if the situation hasn’t been resolved to our satisfaction. The most important thing to know is that ignoring our problems won’t ever get us to acceptance and peace. We have to face what we’re resisting to get there.
In the next chapter, we’re going to explore how we can successfully modify and train ourselves in spite of our genetically inherited tendencies. Woof!