By Mariam Mahmud
January 26, 2016
After the passing of many years these days I am coming around to thinking about my parents. Mine or anyone else’s, wondering what makes parents the way they are. It is easy for me to forget my own. One — the reason for my existence — died when I was 26. The other lives his life as if I am already dead. But I do not blame him. Some people were not meant to be parents but became them anyway. Marriage is the prerequisite for acceptance into society; children are supposedly the natural consequence of the contract.
A friend of mine who has been studying the Quran lately came upon an epiphany from within it that she kindly shared with me. The instruction within it was specifically about parents, how to behave with them, treat them, keep a connection with them, show mercy and kindness. I had read these lines before myself but I did not understand what God meant. He knew what my father was like, He knew how I had tried to make things work with him time and time again to no avail, He knew my suffering as well as his in our inability to make a bond that was meaningful with each other. What did He mean by these lines? I never understood till my friend explained it.
The timing was strange. I had received a copy of a book on psychology from someone I deeply admire in her ability to confront things head-on, no ducking. The topic of the book was about shame and whether it is healthy or toxic, and how it forms the core of our identity as children in relation to the primary caregiver, the parent. The first page had a line in it that made me pause: “Healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility. It is the source of spirituality.” Humility and spirituality, both words that hold a deep meaning for me these days as I patiently seek to acquire them within me. My friends and I planned to read the book and discuss it, the toxic shame part that creates the darkness in our souls, and understand our own portions of healthy versus toxic shame, and analyse what role our parents had to play in it. Then the epiphany from the verse came forth and connected the unconnected dots.
“What God is trying to tell us,” she said simply, “is that the instruction of behaviour towards our parents is not meant for their ease. It is meant for ours.” That was it and suddenly it made sense. The first knot of pain that is tied in our selves comes from the parent. Even if we untie all the other knots, as we begin that process later in life, if ever, in reverse order, the knot related to the parents becomes the last one for us to address. Yet it is the most important one that needs to be dealt with first. For days after, I thought about her words, I relayed them to as many people as I knew. As I told them I could see in their faces the change in their expressions to seriousness and perhaps a tinge of worry that it was indeed true. The seriousness and worry came because going back to one’s childhood to discover oneself seemed traumatic and they are right. It is.
The problem rises exponentially in its acuteness for those whose parents missed their windows to reflect and change themselves, the same window that stands before my friends and I in our 40s today. The one that comes to everyone in that decade, the most difficult decade where the choice between hope and despair is ultimately made in finality. That is when one decides to deconstruct who they are and amend what they can or turn a blind eye to their own wounds and, inadvertently, choose a path of bitterness.
The funny thing is that in your 40s bitterness is difficult, if not impossible, to notice because it is contained within your own self mostly. One is young, family and friends are young, children are still children. They can bear hurtful behaviour with more patience, look past it, and swallow it. The age allows it. But if the window is missed entirely, the bitterness seeps into all relationships, overflowing and poisoning everything it touches. Time passes and one arrives into their 50s and 60s, then finding one unable to change, address and acknowledge anything. By then too many have been hurt, too many have already walked away and there is no energy left to call after them, bring them back. My father belongs to this category. He mistreated so many people that now, when I, his first born, want to ask him something only because it helps me open a knot in my life, make it easier, he can only turn his face and pretend like he does not hear me because all he can hear is accusation, which scares him. I can sit with him in silence or to the sounds of the television, I can regurgitate news to pass the minutes between us with some pretence of normalcy but I have to stare at the man who holds the key to my release from a sharp pain and accept that he is incapable, if not unwilling, to use it.
These days I have a class for an hour every two weeks with some of my friend’s children to tell them about life. I call it ‘Lessons in love’. In each class, I make it a point to tell them one thing about parents. I also give them one hint on how to recognise love and know when it is real as opposed to not. They live in bubbles of superficiality they cannot escape; they were born inside them. I tell them these things so they can avoid pitfalls that are written into their destiny as they are into everyone’s destiny. So that they do not become self-pitying victims justifying callous behaviour that they will either have to own up to or yield those relationships one by one, forming new ones that start with a shade of gray in intent.
Unlike my situation, the problem arises in extreme difficulty when the parent has rendered himself incapable and interaction with them is unavoidable because one resides with them or sees them constantly. In that scenario, it is exceedingly painful and difficult because, instead of offering or considering resolve, they create more and more layers of misunderstanding. In that situation, where does the child’s release lie? I do not know. I have not been able to figure it out. Yet.
But I fear becoming my father more than I fear death. The cycle of trauma, emotional, is passed from generation to generation. Most people do not break the cycle of abuse they experience. Rather, counter intuitively, they repeat it without regret, without remorse, justifying it. The bitterness is their vehicle that allows it. The failure to recognise anything beyond their own pain isolates them inside their own trap from what they once were when they were pure at least in some form. Still, the ability to turn the corner lies before all of us. The paramount reason to make the turn from darkness into light is not so much for us but for the children, the ones who once mattered the most, who can then have a chance to not become us, but better than us.
‘Hope and despair’ was the name of my first lecture to the children. I chose it randomly and it turned out to be the best topic there ever was. I told them that if they stop to think about it for even a single minute, all their emotional decisions will be a choice between hope and despair, giving up and not, being a coward or courageous. Not everyone of them will think of it like that because it requires reflection, which is exceedingly difficult but, at some point, at some age, decisions dictate reflection and that is when I hope they recall their first lesson of love that so many my age have forgotten entirely. Thus appears the silver lining for all of us; if parents will not save their children, perhaps the children can save themselves.
Mariam Mahmud is a freelance columnist