Forgiveness and Gratitude by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Here and Now” published in 1994.
1. Leaving Father and Mother
For most of my life I have given a quite literal interpretation to Jesus’ words: “Leave your father, mother, brothers, and sisters for the sake of my name.” I thought about these words as a call to move away from one’s family, get married, enter a monastery or convent, or go to a faraway country to do missionary work. Although I still feel encouraged and inspired by those who make such a move for the sake of Jesus’ name, I am discovering, as I grow older, that there is a deeper meaning to this “leaving.”
Lately I have become aware of how much our emotional life is influenced by our relationship with our parents, brothers, and sisters. Quite often this influence is so strong that, even as adults who left our parents long ago, we remain emotionally bound to them. Only recently, I realized that I still wanted to change my father, hoping that he would give me the kind of attention I desired. Recently also, I have seen how the inner lives of so many of my friends are still dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, or disillusionment arising from their family relations. Even when they have not seen their parents for a long time, yes, even when their parents have already died, they still have not truly left home.
All this is very real for those who are becoming aware that they are victims of child abuse. This discovery can suddenly bring the home situation back to mind and heart in an excruciatingly painful way.
In this context, Jesus’ call to leave father and mother,
brothers, and sisters, receives a whole new meaning. Are we able and willing to unhook ourselves from the restraining emotional bonds that prevent us from following our deepest vocation? This is a question with profound implications for our emotional and spiritual well-being.
2.Free to Follow Jesus
Leaving father, mother, brothers and sisters for Jesus’ sake is a lifelong task. It is only gradually that we realize how we go on clinging to the negative as well as to the positive experiences of our youth and how hard it is to leave it all and be on our own. To leave “home,” whether it was a good or a bad home, is one of the greatest spiritual challenges of our life.
I had already left my family and my country for more than twenty years when I became fully aware that I was still trying to live up to the expectations of my father and mother. In fact, I was shocked when I found out that many of my work habits, career decisions, and life choices were still deeply motivated by my desire to please my family. I still wanted to be the son or the brother they could be proud of. When I saw this in myself, I also started to see it in the lives of many of my friends. Some of them, who already had grown-up children, still suffered from the rejection they experienced from their parents. Others who carved out impressive careers and won many rewards and prizes still had deep hopes that, one day, their father or mother would acknowledge their gifts. Others again, who suffered many disappointments in their personal relations or work, still blamed their parents for their misfortunes.
The older we grow, the more we come to see the deep roots of our ties with those who were our main guides during the formative years of our lives.
Jesus wants to set us free, free from everything that prevents us from fully following our vocation, free also from everyone who prevents us from fully knowing God’s unconditional love. To come to that freedom we have to keep leaving our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, and dare to follow him. . . even there where we rather would not go.
3.Forgiveness and Gratitude
Two of the most important ways of leaving father, mother, brother, and sister are forgiveness and gratitude. Can we forgive our family for not having loved us as well as we wanted to be loved? Can we forgive our fathers for being demanding, authoritarian, indifferent, unaffectionate, absent, or simply more interested in other people or things than in us? Can we forgive our mothers for being possessive, scrupulous, controlling, preoccupied, addicted to food, alcohol, or drugs, overly busy, or simply more concerned with a career than with us? Can we forgive our brothers and sisters for not playing with us, for not sharing their friends with us, for talking down to us, or for making us feel stupid or useless?
There is a lot to forgive, not just because our family was not as caring as other families, but because all the love we received was imperfect and very limited. Our parents also are children of parents who didn’t love them in a perfect way, and even our grandparents had parents who were not ideal!
There is so much to forgive. But if we are willing to see our own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents as people like ourselves with a desire to love but also with many unfulfilled needs, we might be able to step over our anger, our resentments, or even our hatred, and discover that their limited love is still real love, a love for which to be grateful.
Once we are able to forgive, we can be grateful for what we have received. And we have received so much. We can walk, talk, smile, move, laugh, cry, eat, drink, dance, play, work, sing, give life, give joy, give hope, give love. We are alive! Our fathers and mothers gave us life, and our brothers and sisters helped us to live it. Once we are no longer blinded by their so-obvious weaknesses, we can see clearly how much there is to be grateful for.
4.Many Mothers and Fathers
In the Broadway play Conversations with My Father, a famous author lives his life with the hope that, one day, his father, who runs a little bar in New York City, will read his work and praise him for it. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, the father says to his son: “I am only Ed, I don’t read books, just let me be Ed.” The son finally realizes that he is the one that has to change and love his father as he is. Thus they can become brothers.
One of the most beautiful things that can happen in a human life is that parents become brothers and sisters for their children, that children become fathers and mothers for their parents, that brothers and sisters become friends and that fatherhood, motherhood, brotherhood, and sisterhood are deeply shared by all the members of the family at different times and on different occasions.
But this cannot happen without leaving. Only to the degree that we have broken the ties that keep us captives of an imperfect love can we be free to love those we have left as father, mother, brother, or sister and receive their love in the same way. This is what Jesus means when he says: “In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land — and persecutions too — now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29—30).
The great mystery of leaving father and mother is indeed, that their limited love will multiply and manifest itself wherever we go, because only insofar as we leave, can the love we clung to reveal its true source.
5.To Be Forgiven
Many of us not only have parents but also are parents. This simple truth is quite sobering because it is not unlikely that our own children will spend quite a lot of time talking to their friends, counselors, psychiatrists, and priests about us! And we tried so hard not to make the same mistakes our parents made! Still, it is quite possible that, while we may be more tolerant than our fathers or mothers, our children may be complaining that we weren’t strict enough! And it is not unthinkable that, while we were making sure that our children were free to choose their own lifestyle, religion, or career, they may be talking about us as weak characters not daring to give concrete directions!
The tragedy of our lives is that, while we suffer from the wounds afflicted on us by those who love us, we cannot avoid wounding those we want to love. We so much want to love well, to care well, to understand well, but before we grow old someone will say to us “You weren’t there for me when I most needed you; you didn’t care about what I was doing or thinking; you didn’t understand or even try to understand me.” As we hear these remarks or feel the criticisms of those we love, we come to the painful realization that — as we had to leave our father and mother, brothers and sisters — they too have to leave us to find their own freedom. It is very painful to see those for whom we have given our life leave us, often in directions that fill us with fear.
It is here that we are called to believe deeply in the truth that all fatherhood and all motherhood come from God. Only God is the father and mother who can love us as we need and want to be loved. This belief, when strongly held, can free us, not only to forgive our parents, but also to let our children forgive us.
6.Children Are Gifts
Being a parent is like being a good host to a stranger! While we may think that our children are like us, we are continually surprised at how different they are. We can be gladdened by their intelligence, their artistic gifts, or their athletic prowess, or saddened by their slow ness in learning, their lack of coordination, or their “odd” interests. In many ways we don’t know our children.
We didn’t create our own children, nor do we own them. This is good news. We don’t need to blame ourselves for all their problems, nor should we claim for ourselves their successes.
Children are gifts from God. They are given to us so that we can offer them a safe, loving place to grow to inner and outer freedom. They are like strangers who ask for hospitality, become good friends, and then leave again to continue their journey. They bring immense joy and immense sorrow precisely because they are gifts. And a good gift, as a proverb says, is “twice given.” The gift we receive, we have to give again. When our child leaves us to study, to look for work, to marry, to join a community, or simply to become independent, sorrow and joy touch each other. Because it is then that we feel deeply that “our” child isn’t really “ours” but given to us to become a true gift for others.
It is so hard to give our children their freedom — especially in this violent and exploitative world. We so much want to protect them from all possible dangers. But we cannot. They do not belong to us. They belong to God, and one of the greatest acts of trust in God is letting our children make their own choices and find their own way.
7.The Pain of Love
Our greatest pain often comes from our inability to help others — especially those we love so much. A close friend of mine had been looking forward to sending his son to college after graduation from high school. He had helped him look at the different schools and was eagerly awaiting his choice.
But when the graduation had come and gone, the son came home with a “fuzzy-looking” girl in an old red convertible and told his father that he was going to travel west with his girl, sleeping by the roadside, and looking for work whenever they ran out of money.
My friend could imagine only drugs, sex, and craziness and feared for the very life of his son. Rightly so. But all his pleading and warning only strengthened his son’s resolve to escape his “bourgeois” milieu and explore the “real world.”
It was a very scary situation, and my friend’s fear was far from imaginary. Still, the final question was not: How to help this unruly teenager?” but “How to prevent the father from being destroyed by his son?” I kept saying to him: “Whatever happens to your son, you cannot allow him to take away your sleep, your appetite, and all your joy. You must claim your own talents and gifts as a man, and, more than ever before, live a life that is fully yours.” It wasn’t easy for me to say these things because I shared my friend’s worries. But painful as his son’s leaving was, he had to let him leave, not just physically, but emotionally as well. In this way, if the son would return, he would find a healthy father at home.
8. Our Worrying Minds
People often say: “Don’t worry, things will work out fine.” But we do worry and we can’t stop worrying just because someone tells us to. One of the painful things of life is that we worry a great deal about our children, our friends, our spouse, our job, our future, our family, our country, our world, and endless other things. We know the answer to Jesus’ question: “Can any of you, how ever much you worry, add one single cubit to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). We know that our worrying does not help us nor does it solve any of our problems. Still, we worry a lot and, therefore, suffer a lot. We wish that we could stop worrying, but we don’t know how. Even though we realize that, tomorrow, we may have forgotten what we were worrying about so much today, we still find it impossible to turn off our anxious minds
My mother, who was a very caring and prayerful woman, worried a lot, especially about me and my brothers and sister. When I spent time at home she could never go to sleep until she was sure I had safely returned to the house. This was the case, not only when I was a teenager and liked to hang out with my friends late at night, but also after I had travelled far and wide by plane, train, and bus and had been in quite dangerous situations. Whenever I came home, whether I was eighteen or forty years old, my mother would stay awake worrying about her child until she was sure that he was safely in bed!
Most of us are not very different. So the real question is: Can we do anything to worry less and be more at peace? If it is true that we cannot change anything by worrying about it, how then can we train our hearts and minds not to waste time and energy with anxious ruminations that make us spin around inside of ourselves. Jesus says: “Set your heart on God’s kingdom first.” That gives us a hint as to the right direction.