Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blame & Forgiveness: the Ultimate Cage-fight (Part 3 of 3)

For thirty years I never imagined I needed to blame or forgive my parents for anything. After all, there was no problem. Oh, that? Just a stiff knee. OK, it was completely rigid. Yeah, I kept it covered. Because of the scars. I had an infection when I was a kid. Stayed in bed. For a year. Missed two years of school. No, I never saw a doctor. Why did I need a doctor? I was healed by Christian Science. My limp never slowed me down.

Of course it didn't slow me down. I was a horse with its tail on fire.

My flight kept me just ahead of my past until I became a parent. I began to realize what parenting entailed after my daughter was born. It was sobering when my own history began to catch up with me. My emotions overloaded and finally halted me in a way my wrecked leg never had. I got into therapy and started on the excruciatingly slow work of sifting through all the pieces of my life. Including examining the choices my parents had made.

Yes, they'd both been raised in hard-core Christian Science families. Yes, they each had a sister who'd had a seemingly "miraculous" healing during their childhoods. Yes, they were isolated and insulated by church-member relatives and friends, plus a gung-ho Christian Science practitioner (who, when I spoke to him six years ago, still declared I'd been healed as a kid) and the supportive environment in Massachusetts at a time when such treatment was legal, the same area where Mary Baker Eddy originally set up shop. I understood this.

But with a parent's perspective, I knew there was no good excuse. Whether consciously or passively, my parents had allowed me to assume it was my responsibility to be perfectly healed (the only kind of healing Christian Science advocates) from the time I was thirteen. This was wrong. I would never want my daughters to feel their childhood health and circumstances were up to them. I'm the mother, the adult, their protector and enforcer and bodyguard. I accepted that weight and gift. It's an honor to carry the love and worry of having a child. I don't believe children are required to forgive their parents.

So gradually I shifted that burden off myself, especially as my leg began to fail. I understood my parents. But I didn't think I could or should have to forgive them. Our relationship was OK. They were supportive when I considered amputation, when my knee proved to be beyond replacement surgery. I empathized with my mother and father. I just wasn't sure I could really love them.

As I worked on my emotional tangle, I was also in the process of changing horse training methods. I was an effective freelance trainer and instructor who specialized in sorting out backyard family horses. I'd started out a seat-of-the-pants pony rider myself; later I was certified in England, taught lessons in any scenario you can imagine, and galloped race horses, so I could knock sense into any grumpy plug I met. I thought of it as a show'em-who's-boss technique, not without finesse, but using whatever force was necessary. Practical professionalism sometimes means shortcuts or quick fixes. It was what I'd learned.

Except I'd gotten sour after years trying to leverage and control a creature that instinctively fights to survive. Especially as I recognized how I'd tried to force myself into a mental pretzel to bring an impossible state of harmony.

This method of training hinges on understanding a horse's motivation, needs and fears. It's been called horse whispering but like a lot of things, it only looks magical until you see what's happening. It's more like horse obedience than breaking (a word I never liked). It's a relationship built on trusting a horse to act like a horse.

The more I honestly saw horses and the less I projected wrong assumptions or attributes, the more I realized what I'd done all those years. With crops and whips, spurs, tie-downs and gag-bits, equipment and muscle. I hadn't meant to be cruel. But sometimes I had been. I'm not sure which was worse--my casual indifference all the times I put a stronger bit in the mouth of a horse that might have bolted only in fear, or when I'd selfishly decided to push a young horse to prepare for show schedule. I just wish I could go back and do things differently. As if wishing makes any difference.

But as I handled horses with my new expectations--clumsily, then with more assurance--horses responded whether I had an established relationship with them or not. They had no agenda, no grudges or blame. They might be wary or jaded if they'd been spurred or muscled around in the past, but my consistent correct behavior was all they asked for. They could still be tough or resistant, but it wasn't personal. I didn't bring my own baggage into the corral. I played by horse rules of etiquette and the horses understood. They didn't care what I'd done, only what I was doing now. Their grace felt like a blessing. It humbled me.

It dawned on me that change itself is the key. It cultivates a state of gratitude and appreciation far beyond wimpily letting someone get away with something or whatever my concept of forgiveness used to be.

Change. I watched my parents struggle with their own bodies as they aged. Each had surgery for the first time (with varying amounts of willingness). After being doused in Christian Science all their lives, they don't speak the language of medical reality very well. I was dragged in as the reluctant interpreter. My mother and I shared a roller coaster of shouting and sobbing matches that wore off a lot of rough edges and allowed us to find something approaching normal, whatever that is. My father is much more private, but we've had our moments: I even screamed at him and smashed a coffee mug on the floor one time. (Note to my therapist: found that anger at my parents.) My frozen emotions broke loose and I felt exhilarated, even while I despaired of ever resolving my family's issues. At least I loved my father and mother enough to battle in the open. I'd been afraid I didn't. The giant glass elephant of our past fell from its pedestal and shattered into pieces we could lift. 

One day I found myself hugging my mother, my father. Saying, "I love you." I couldn't remember the last time I'd done it. And they told me they love me. Now I can say it whenever I see them. I hear the emotion in their voices as they say, "I love you." It's different now for all of us.It wasn't like a bolt of lightning. It was a gradual recognition my horses taught me to watch for: the smallest sign of the try, the step in the right direction, the search for the safety of our herd.


  1. Liz, I don't think anyone except for those of us raised in CS would understand the struggle you must have gone through after you became a parent. I love the way you compared the horse's reaction to the new method of training to your own experience with your parents. "They didn't care what I'd done, only what I was doing now." Just as CS teaches us to blame ourselves for not having the healing, I am now able to realize it is the religion itself that is to blame. Your parents and mine were only doing what they thought was right no matter how wrong it was in reality. If I could go back and change the past I would, but we have to move forward and that is what you are doing so diligently. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Every time this experience of trading CS for sanity is crystalized into words it gives me more perspective. Your observations help me, Stacey, and I'm sure many others reading this too. It's great we can share this. We're all in this together.