As some of you may have gathered from my recent postings and tweets, I have been trying to navigate through a family conflict, in particular with my father. Sadly, he told me (on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, no less) that he never wants to speak with me again. I am not very good at discussing my personal problems (funny how much easier it is to discuss the Dharma when it is abstracted from daily life), but as a dear Sangha friend recently told me, “the raw emotion of real life is where the mind moves the most.” So I am going to try share my feelings and thoughts about how I am trying to work through all of this in the hopes that it might prove helpful to others who may one day face a similar situation. It’s probably all wrong, but it’s my honest best. At the very least, I hope clarifying my own thinking by writing it down will prove therapeutic in bringing a little peace.
I don’t even know where to begin. I am sure my explanation is biased in a number of ways, but I will try explain things as “objectively” as I can. Please forgive me in advance for that. This is also unfortunately a bit of a long story, but the spiritual lessons I have learned from all of this lie at the end and for me it has been worth the trouble.
My parents got divorced when I was one year old. My father is (was) a Doctor and made a ton of money. My mother was a beauty queen. If truth be told, my mother left my father because she thought she could “do better,” and if she didn’t do so soon, she would lose her beauty and it would be too late. My mother later started dating this high-powered lawyer, and he eventually proposed to her but said he didn’t want my brother and I around. My mother couldn’t bring herself to do that, so she said no. She then had to get a job as a secretary and basically spent the rest of her life deeply scarred by the whole experience.
My mother’s actions, quite understandably, upset my father quite a bit – that’s an understatement, he hated her for it. As a result, he refused to pay anything more than the absolute, absolute minimum in child support. He had good lawyers who made sure he didn’t have to. Sometimes we didn’t have enough money even for heat. Meanwhile, he is flying around in his private plane and cruising on his private yacht. My mother hated him for that. She was part jealous of all his money, part bitter that she found herself a poor, single mother working as a secretary (when she could have had it all), part guilty knowing it was her own mistakes that led her to this fate. I spent my entire childhood with my parents hating each other, taking each other back to court fighting about money, and being made to feel like I had to choose between my two parents – my love of one viewed as a betrayal of the other. For whatever reason, my brother always had a very close and loving relationship with my father (first son, and all that). I looked like my mother, and thought more like her too. The legacy of this has echoed throughout my life.
The big problems in my relationship with my father began over payment for my undergraduate studies. The last time my mother took my father back to court was when I had just started high school. Part of the settlement was my father would have to pay for our college expenses. My father had only allocated enough money to send me to a middle of the road public university. His logic was “I put myself through school and I went to a State college. If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.” But I managed to get into a very expensive (but very good) private college. The money ran out after two years. The problem was in the United States the financial aid rules are such that if your parents make money, you are not eligible for financial aid. To get around this, my father had to write to the financial aid office basically saying he was disowning me (so I could take out student loans) and I had to graduate in three years instead of four. None of my other classmates were going through similar problems. The families that had money, paid; the families that didn’t, got financial aid. I had to cut school short and, to be honest, I felt cheated. My father could have easily paid, he just chose not to. He said it was to teach me responsibility. I was a straight-A student, succeeding in my every venture.
Like all recent graduates, I struggled financially at first. My now wife’s family was there for us, and largely picked up the slack helping us stay on our feet. They were incredibly generous. But when my father sent her family a bill for some minor dental work he did on my wife, I blew a fuse. I basically told him everything I thought about how I thought his behavior was wrong – what he did in terms of child support and his not paying for college. My words had echoes of my mother’s, and basically ever since this time our relationship has been strained. He never forgave me, I never changed my stand that what he did was wrong, but I regret many of my word choices which were bitter and sometimes spiteful.
We spent the next 20 years trying to rebuild. While I still think he made a mistake when we were growing up, I forgave him and made the best of it. I tried to learn the lessons about self-sufficiency and personal responsibility that he wanted me to learn. During this time, he basically disagreed with every career choice I made – leaving law school, working in investment banking, leaving banking to get a degree in economic policy, working for several years at a job beneath my educational attainment so that I had more time available to be Resident Teacher of a Dharma center, then becoming a Professor of economics. He always felt I was making the wrong career choices and that I was irresponsible with money.
Seven years ago, there was a landslide at our house in Geneva, and as a result we had to use all of our savings for repairs, experts and lawyers. I also had to borrow a substantial sum of money from my brother (who had taken over my Dad’s practice when he retired) to cover expenses until we received compensation from the insurance companies for our damages (the lawsuit continues to this day). Five years ago, Dorje Shugden “arranged” for us to have twins when we weren’t planning on having any more children (we already had three at the time, bringing us up to a family with five kids). This was yet another example to my father of our irresponsibility. Shortly after the twins were born, while they were in the hospital with a bad infection that could have gone either way, he sent me an email accusing my wife and I of being “vagabonds” in life who are “living high on the hog on other people’s money (meaning my brother’s, who lent us the money to deal with the landslide lawsuit).” He has since consistently expressed dismay about us “living beyond our means” (we’re not), and making us feel guilty anytime we spend money on anything, such as going on a family vacation. Throughout all of this time, when he would make such accusations, I would spend many hours drafting respectful and carefully worded replies to try help him understand why his view of us was mistaken. As his son, it hurt me greatly to have my father think all of these things about us when we were doing the best we could to get by. In reality, I see now, I was very attached to both his approval and his understanding. I mistakenly felt my happiness depended upon him approving of us and understanding our life choices.
Every year for the last eight years my wife has brought our kids back to my home town for the summer. We would stay at my father’s place while he would go on his annual boating trip to Alaska. He would then usually see us for a few days at either the beginning or end of the summer, depending on the timing of his trip. We never once failed to express our sincere gratitude for him making his house available to us in the summer, explaining if he hadn’t done so we wouldn’t be able to come home and make connections with all of the family (I have about 40 members of my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, etc. – in my home town). My father also owns a lake cabin which we enjoyed tremendously as kids growing up, and my father generously kept the cabin so that my brothers and I (and our kids) can continue to enjoy it. Unbeknownst to me, my brother had several years earlier began assuming the annual expenses of the cabin (maintenance, taxes, etc.) which ran into tens of thousands of dollars every year. When I became a diplomat, and my salary improved considerably, my brother explained what he had been doing and asked if we could also contribute since our kids were enjoying it throughout the summer as well. I explained that between the on-going lawsuit and the price of tickets to bring the family back every year we could only afford to contribute about 15% of the annual expenses. It was simply all we could reasonably afford. My brother said that was fine and he appreciated whatever we could do.
Two years ago, due to the timing of the school year, my wife and kids had to leave Spokane in mid-August. In order for my father to see them, he had to cut his boat trip short. He wanted to see them, but he also didn’t want to cut his trip short, and he wanted to make sure we knew how much he had to sacrifice “battling the elements to make it back quickly” to see us. There were, unfortunately, three incidents that my father misunderstood to be us avoiding him. He was quite upset (inside), asking himself, “why did I go through all that to come back, only to be avoided when I get here?” When I saw my father last June, he confronted me about all of this (before I knew nothing, except some murmurings from my brother). I found this difficult to accept. Basically, for the last five to seven years, my father has been “absent.” He has consistently forgotten our kids’ birthdays, never made any effort to invest in their lives and was often standing in judgment when he did engage with us. Nothing we could ever do was good enough for him. We had sacrificed tremendously, both financially and stress-wise, to come back every summer to invest in family. To spend 48 weeks in town over the span of several years to see family and then be accused of avoiding my father when in fact he was the one who was never in town was a bit much to swallow. I explained as such saying essentially he has been completely neglecting his role as a grandfather and we have said nothing about it, choosing to accept you as you are and to instead focus on the positive, but for you to then get upset at us for avoiding you is a bit hard to comprehend.
This summer, when it was time to make plans, he asked when we were coming. Due to changing countries and school systems, this summer we only have three weeks available right in the middle of when he is usually on his boat trip. When we explained our timing, he started getting upset again basically saying we should try come earlier if we can. I then sent him an email saying, “please don’t get upset, given the timing of the school year and movers, this is all we can do.” He then sent an email titled “here it comes” in which he lambasted us for our lack of gratitude and appreciation for all that he does for us, accused us of having a “perverted sense of entitlement” and “misguided sense of my birthright” in my use of his house and lake cabin. He accused us of being ungrateful, disrespectful and inconsiderate. He completely fabricated out of thin air some story about us showing disrespect for his wife when she got cancer (never happened). He said we were “mooching” off of him and my brother with our “token contributions” to the expenses of the lake. He belittled my wife for what she does, and then concluded by threatening if we don’t start showing him “the respect he is due” there will be negative consequences (meaning we won’t be able to use his house, etc., any more.
This was emotionally devastating for both me and my wife to read, much less deal with given that we are currently on opposite sides of the planet (she is in France this year while I am in China). Despite this, I really took my time to craft a reply in which I did not retaliate – at all – saying hurtful things in return. I once again tried to clarify we weren’t avoiding him this was just his mis-reading of the situation, we were extremely grateful for everything he had done, we were sorry if he saw things in this way, we were financially contributing all that we could to the expenses of the lake, and that all of this was quite hard to take against the backdrop of him being the one who has been completely absent from our kids’ lives for the last five to seven years. He then replied completely ignoring all of my clarifications, saying he was still “pissed” at us for mistreating him for the last 20 years. He said all of the emails that I had previously sent during this 20 year period were just “meaningless words,” because our wrong behavior remained the same. I felt like he had thrown away all of the work I had put in over the last 20 years to try rebuild our relationship after the college incident. It was gone, out the window. Again, I replied without retaliation, clarifying. He replied he didn’t know how I could be so “dense” and engage in such “idiocy.” I then sent a timeline, showing how things could have been different. Once again, he responded with spite saying he gives up.
A week goes by and then he sent an email in which he communicated the exact same message saying he was angry at us for our mistreatment of him, expecting a change in our behavior. But he did so with a decided change of tone, using nicer words. This was a revelatory moment for me. Every single example he had given us about our supposed mistreatment of him had been thoroughly refuted as being factually wrong, wildly exaggerated, completely misunderstood, etc. None of our supposed wrong actions “objectively” (or should I say conventionally) could survive the scrutiny of a little light being shone on them. Yet despite all of these clarifications, he simply couldn’t let go. In his mind we had wronged him even though he couldn’t explain how or why, and by my constantly relating to his accusations as if they had a basis in truth I was actually feeding a dysfunctional dynamic. I realized – quite vividly – that for the last 42 years of my life I have been chasing after his approval and understanding, and that my doing so was the source of all of my own mental pain with regards to this. I also realized I wasn’t helping him by assenting to his simply wrong view of us nor trying to chase the rainbow of living up to his expectations when he couldn’t even articulate what needed to change.
So I sent back an email in which I essentially said, “what are you talking about? None of what you are accusing me of actually happened, this is all your misperception of things.” I then held up the mirror of what he had done and said that if he has a problem with me, it is his problem, not mine. I will no longer chase after his approval or understanding. Either he accepts me or he doesn’t. I concluded by saying the solution here is simple – we both need to be happy with what does happen, not upset about what doesn’t happen. This is what I am going to do, and I invite him to do the same. But if he doesn’t, it is his choice. His reply was “have a good life, I will no longer be a part of it. Because of the way you mistreat me, I never want to hear from you again.”
When I received this, I quite clearly was struck with the understanding that his anger towards me is actually just, deep down inside far beyond any place he is emotionally or spiritually equipped to confront, his own guilt about his own failings and shortcomings as a father and grandfather. His obsession with money and his attachment to the fulfillment of his own wishes have caused him to neglect his responsibilities to his family, and deep down inside he knows it – and feels guilty about it, but he can’t bring himself to change his own behavior. When I refuse to assent to his narrative of what has supposedly happened between us, it forces him to confront this within himself. Since he is incapable of doing so, he lashes out at me. But what he is really lashing out at is his own reflection in the mirror which he is incapable of confronting. I realized I no longer need to chase. This actually has little to nothing to do with me (except, of course, it all being my karma). These are his own inner demons he is wrestling with, and I can’t do it for him. All I can do is understand what is going on, stop feeding the problem by assenting to his distorted view, explain to him that I love him anyways and leave the door open for him to come back once he has done this work within himself. But to enter into this dynamic with him of trying to prove myself to him and conceding that there is some cosmic injustice I have inflicted upon him when I have done no such thing doesn’t actually help him. And it certainly doesn’t help me, my wife or my kids to have to be subject to all of this unnecessary drama.
We sometimes take the Dharma teachings of “accepting defeat and offering the victory” or “not disturbing others” or “working to fulfill their wishes” too far, where in effect we are just feeding others’ delusions and wrong behavior. If we love them and we care for them, sometimes we have to say “no, enough is enough. I am not going to play this game anymore.” Gen Lhamo explains that we often sacrifice inner peace on the altar of outer peace, and we do so driven by our own attachment to not wanting to lose something in our relationship with the other person. Of course we shouldn’t unnecessarily antagonize others and we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, but when dynamics become fundamentally unhealthy and continuing with them is leading to an emotional black hole for all involved, we need to take a step back and take a stand. Doing so is an act of compassion. It is sometimes the only way to break the cycle of unhealthy dynamics. Compassion without wisdom is not helpful. Cooperating with and assenting to delusions – our own or others – always makes the situation worse.
It is hard when this happens with figures as important to us as our parents. Of course we need to focus on the good, and appreciate our parents for all that they have done and not be upset about them for falling short of our expectations. If I had a perfect realization of the kindness of my parents, this is what I would see. I shouldn’t fault my father for what he didn’t do, I should just be grateful for what he did do. We can always want and expect more, but when has that ever helped anything? But at the same time, loving and respecting our parents does not mean we need to cooperate with their deluded behavior, nor does it mean we need to be attached to their approval and understanding. Of course we need to be respectful, but ultimately our happiness does not depend upon what others think of us, including them. The story of Buddha Shakyamuni also poignantly reveals this. It is my attachment to his approval and understanding that prevented me for the last 20 years from realizing I had been trapped in an unhealthy dynamic with my father and I wasn’t willing to say, “Stop! I am doing the best I can, if you have a problem with it, there is nothing I can do about it. It is up to you to assume responsibility for your own feelings in the situation, as I have to assume responsibility for mine.” He thinks his happiness depends upon me changing my behavior. If I assent to that, then I disempower him from being happy on his own. I don’t help him by agreeing with this premise. While it can seem harsh, sometimes the best way to help somebody else is to tell them, “your feelings and your reactions are your responsibility.”
I don’t know where things go from here. But I am grateful that all of this has happened. I now understand his anger at me is actually coming from his own unacknowledged guilt and conflicting desires. I can’t do his internal work for him, but I can do mine. I can get myself to the mental space where I feel no animosity towards him at all, where I feel completely grateful for what he has done, not resentment for what he hasn’t. I can forgive him, love him, but still not cooperate anymore with his wrong narrative. I can also finally let go of my attachment to what he thinks of me and realize there is no contradiction between being a Dharma practitioner and saying, “if you have a problem with me, it is your problem, not mine.” Sometimes, not often, this is the kindest thing we can do. Even if saying so might mean the end of a treasured relationship.
Love someone unconditionally while not cooperating with their delusions. Finding the middle way is never easy.