Hug, David Hilliard, 2008, c-print, 3 panels, 24 x 20 inches
Image: © David Hilliard, courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston

I WAS DRIVING IN THE CAR one morning after dropping my kids off at school, flipping impatiently through the stations programmed into the radio’s memory, when I suddenly heard a familiar voice speaking in what seemed to be an unfamiliar context. It was a deep male voice that I recognized but could not place: a workingman’s gruff but casual cadence tackling a subject that seemed so sensitive as to be almost obscene. He was talking about how hard it is to raise children when one’s own childhood was less than perfect. “We take what is good from our parents and leave the rest. That’s how we honor them,” the voice was saying. I quickly turned up the volume, trying to figure out who he was. Parenting is a common subject, but the speaker did not sound like the usual authority to be heard on Public Radio. He sounded more like a soldier talking about fallen comrades, and his subject was as much mourning as childrearing. It did not take much longer for me to identify the voice as that of Bruce Springsteen and to realize that he was giving the interview in anticipation of the release of an album. But the subject matter— having children in middle age and reflecting on how one’s own difficulties growing up affected one’s ability to raise children—was not the usual material of a star’s publicity machine.

I was struck by the wisdom of Springsteen’s comment that we honor our parents by taking what is good and leaving the rest. There was a Buddhist flavor to it, although I would be hard pressed to identify what it was exactly that sounded Buddhist. In meditation, we are trained to not push away the unpleasant and to not cling to the pleasant—this was a little different. This was talking about not rejecting one’s parents because they were imperfect, not trying to force them to acknowledge their shortcomings, not rejecting becoming a parent because of what was done to us, not dwelling on the scars one’s parents created, not forcing oneself to pretend that one’s parents were fine when they were not, but simply being able to take what was good while leaving behind what was not. There was no blame in Springsteen’s words or in his tone—that was what caught my attention. After years of listening to Springsteen’s music, with its claustrophobic evocation of growing up in a small mill town in New Jersey, I found his comments now to be all the more poignant. Here was a man who was able to honor his parents by refusing to replicate what they had messed up, a man who understood that in his very rejection of them was an appreciation of their efforts. In trying to do a better job, he was nevertheless able to keep his heart open to them, imperfections and all.

Where had this wisdom come from? There was little in the interview to indicate its source. When forgiveness is taught in most spiritual contexts, the emphasis is usually on sending loving feelings even to those who have hurt us most deeply. While many people find this approach helpful, it struck me that Springsteen was pointing to a different way. The forgiveness he was modeling continued to recognize the hurt that he felt. In taking what was good and leaving the rest, he was clearly implying that all had not gone well. Rather than cultivating a mind of compassion that could then forgive the most egregious abuse, he seemed to be finding forgiveness in the recognition of having simply survived. Emerging from his stark early years, undoubtedly aided by devotion to his music, he discovered that he was not destroyed. His own generative capacity, his own desire for a family, and his own ability to love were all reasonably intact. It seems to me that this recognition of his own intactness must have relieved him of the need to blame and permitted him to forgive in a natural rather than a contrived way.

The source of forgiveness, Springsteen seemed to imply, lies in the realization that we are not solely products of what was done to us, the realization that there is something essential within us that is not necessarily tarnished by calamitous experience. While this contradicts many of the assumptions that a hundred years of psychotherapy have helped create in our culture, it is a notion that finds much support in the spiritual traditions of the East. In Buddhist cultures, there is a more willing acceptance of a capacity for joy or love that is not dependent on external circumstances, not compromised by trauma or mistreatment, and capable of surviving destruction. While the classic Eastern route to accessing this inherent joy is meditation, Springsteen’s comments suggest that, at least for him, the making of music may have been just as redemptive.

The discovery that one’s capacity for joy is inherent and not dependent on external events is the antidote to the all too common predicament of the abused child who assumes too much responsibility for that which he or she had no control over. Springsteen’s ability to leave behind what he did not respect of his parents’ behavior flies in the face of how most people respond to such trauma. More commonly, those who are trespassed against in childhood have a terrible time seeing the truth clearly. They are much more likely, for instance, to feel as if they are somehow to blame for whatever damage was done to them. Or they may so demonize the perpetrators that they lose sight of the perpetrators’ essential humanity. In one scenario, they cleave too tightly to the abuse; in the other, they reject the abuser totally, but never escape from their identification as a victim. A vignette provided by one of my patients may shine some light on this.

Joe, a forty-year-old married man, remembered himself at age ten, answering the door when his estranged mother unexpectedly paid his family a visit. She had left when he was five, abandoning her husband and four children and precipitating an unrelenting depression in Joe’s father. Upon seeing his mother in the doorway, Joe ran immediately to find his father, shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, this is what you’ve been waiting for!” Rousing him from his study and taking him by the hand back to the vestibule, Joe discovered that his mother had left as suddenly as she had arrived. “I felt so guilty,” he told me, as if it had somehow been his fault that his mother had disappeared again.

Years later, Joe had a major revelation when he realized that his wife’s drinking was her problem and not his fault. Until that revelation, he had been in the all too familiar habit of trying to get her to stop so that he would feel better. He had made his well-being completely dependent on how his wife behaved. Her drinking blighted their love, made it impossible for him to take refuge in the closeness and comfort of their relationship, and made him furious and unhappy. He took his wife’s drinking personally, as if it were directed at him, as if it were a reflection of her lack of love for him or his own unworthiness. The same overresponsibility that led him to feel guilty over his mother’s departure when he was ten also colored his relationship to his wife. Only after attending a series of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings did he begin to accept that her drinking had little to do with him. This left him in a new predicament. Taking what was good and leaving the rest, not rushing to the assumption that it was all his fault, and separating his own capacity for well-being from the circumstances that surrounded him permitted Joe to begin a process of separation that extended back to his mother and into the present to his wife. Joe made new boundaries that eventually caused his wife to seek help. He found a capacity for forgiveness that was not a whitewash of how he had been, or was being, mistreated: it emerged when Joe could acknowledge the hurt he was subjected to while not entwining himself more than was necessary with the trauma.

Joe’s example points to a new and unusual way of thinking, one that the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin has called “beyond doer and done to.” To Benjamin, the most common reaction to the powerlessness of trauma or abuse is to simply reverse the scenario: to try to assume some power by becoming a perpetrator oneself, by blaming or hurting the other person or by blaming or hurting oneself. She has called this a “seesaw” mentality: one person is up while the other is down. The primary way out of trauma in this mentality is to seek vengeance or revenge, to lower the other while raising up one’s self. In the mode of “beyond doer and done to,” something shifts. People, even those who have hurt us, are no longer experienced one-dimensionally, as either all good or all bad. Self-esteem is no longer dependent on being the winner, or on being right. Up and down are no longer the only criteria by which life is measured. The seesaw gives way to a merry-go-round, known in Buddhist culture as the wheel of life. In this model, it is clear that we cycle through all the manifestations of what it means to be human. We move from state to state, sometimes causing each other pain and sometimes bringing each other joy. As the seesaw gives way to the merry-go-round, an appreciation is gained of the difficulties and complexities involved in being human. Not only are we all completely capable of hurting one another but we are also capable of a profound empathy, even for those who have hurt us or for those we disdain.

In Springsteen’s few short comments on the radio that morning, I heard a voice of wisdom calling out across the generations, one that seemed to be reaching for a new way of relating. A master of the adolescent love song, Springsteen has a catchy tune that I found myself humming that day, one of those simple songs with an infectious hook that I often repeat like an unconscious mantra: All I’m Thinkin’ About Is You. As much as I love that song, his words that morning went even deeper. We honor our parents by taking what was good and leaving the rest, he said. I could feel that old seesaw implode.

Temple
Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters