Aug 3, 2009

What Words of Wisdom Would You Share?

by Joyce DiPastena

I just read about a writing contest called Words of Wisdom. “What if you were told you had one day left to live and were given the opportunity to write only one letter? To whom would you write it, and what 'words of wisdom' would you leave as your legacy—words by which you want to be forever remembered?”

I don’t know that I’m planning to enter, but it got me to thinking…if I could leave only one word of advice behind for others what would it be?

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the subject of compassion. Why is it that the world talks so much about “compassion” towards strangers…”the poor”, “the oppressed”, “the hungry” people of our nation and the world…people none of us have ever met…and yet, all around me I see people sorely lacking in compassion towards people they know the best, most significantly, their own families?

Of course we know we all have an obligation to help relieve the sufferings of strangers. That’s why so many of us faithfully pay our fast offerings, donate to the humanitarian efforts of the Church, and serve in many, many other ways. But sometimes, when it comes to our own families, “compassion” becomes much more difficult to put into action.

I have a friend who’s father is battling cancer. I do not know this man, but I know that my friend carries significant hurtful memories from her childhood. Not from physical abuse. Perhaps from some degree of verbal abuse and self-centeredness on the part of her parents, at least in her view. I’ll be honest. I relate to many of her complaints, because in many ways her dad sounds very similar to mine. One difference, though, is that her dad literally lives on the other side of the country. So, he’s been diagnosed with cancer. He’s undergoing chemotherapy. The chemotherapy makes him sick and he wants to stop. And my friend is angry-angry-angry. Angry that her father took so long to go see a doctor. Angry that he “whines” about his treatments. Angry every time he expresses a desire to stop the treatments. Yes, she admits when I try to gently hint that he’s probably afraid, that’s very likely true, she says, but she promptly minimizes the fact with “he’s got to stop being so selfish and think about how this is affecting the people around him, instead of just thinking about himself.”

Now I understand that anger is part of the “grieving process”, but I feel this anger is more than that, because she’s been angry and impatient with her parents for a long time before cancer ever reared its ugly head.

When she visited her parents in Florida and they went to Disney World, and her parents forgot an appointment…she was angry. I shared with her my experience with my own parents, and how (let’s be honest now!), people have more trouble remembering things as they get older. But no, she said, they’d always been like that. It had nothing to do with age, they just didn’t care about anyone’s schedule but their own. When I suggested that someday, we’ll be our parents’ age and will likely be forgetful too, she admitted to the “getting old” part, but still refused to make allowance for her parents' foggy memories.

Now that her father has cancer, I’ve “wondered” to her if any of us know how we would react if we’d received such a diagnosis. Would we be fearful or brave? Would we move quickly to choose a treatment, or dither a bit, wondering which treatment would be best? She agrees with my pondering, but stoutly states that she certainly hopes she would be less selfish than her father and would think more about how her family felt than about herself.

But do any of us really know, until we are the ones standing in our parents’ shoes?

I think perhaps what it comes down to is that my friend can’t forgive her father (or mother, for that matter) for not being perfect. She’s unable to let go of the way she thinks they “should” be, and have compassion for the imperfect people that they “are”.

I can still remember quite clearly the day when I was helping my parents as they aged, and struggling with some of the issues my friend is struggling with now. I remember how strongly the thought came into my mind, “Sometimes, you just have to be more grown up than your parents.” It was a revelation to me that helped me through their last years upon this earth. I often felt angry, too. But even in my anger, I could feel the Spirit prompting me to have compassion for my parents. Whispering to me to view them not just as “my parents”, but as “people”. Imperfect individuals. And though they may have lived 80 years or more on this earth, and in the eyes of the world were clearly “adults”, they were also children of a Heavenly Father who loved them, and perhaps in Heavenly Father’s eyes, there is still more of the “child” about each of us than any of us fully knows. Adults, like children, make mistakes. Adults, like children, get frightened. Then can’t we learn compassion and forgive our parents for being imperfect, too?


  1. Wow Joyce I can totally relate only it's my sister and I going through this with both our parents. It isn't cancer but in my dad's case, it's definitely life threatening. And I feel so much love for them both and my sister is still angry about things from our childhood that are rather well silly and petty at this stage. One letter I would write...ditch the anger life is too short to stay that angry. Wonderful post.

  2. How thought-provoking,Joyce. As my grandma lost her memory to alzheimer's, some of the memories that persisted were unforgiven hurts incurred by her in-laws. Thank you for the reminder to have compassion supercede the baggage that can go with some of our close relationships.

  3. Joyce, I found it almost amusing that your friend was so angry because her parents considered their own agendas more important than hers--yet it's her own disrupted agenda that angered her. We're all a lot like pots calling kettles black. And nobody's faults bother us as much as those that we also share. Isn't human nature absolutely fascinating?

    Life constantly offers variations in an extended course in Compassion 101. Some catch on and matriculate with honors. Some never quite seem to be able to pass the first exam.

    I'm reminded of an example of Ralph Parlett's (The University of Hard Knocks). He watched people walk down the aisle of a train, continually bumping against the seats. A blind man, walking the same route, bumped only once before he lifted his hand a bit higher.

    I suppose all of us fit somewhere into the old adage that, "There are non so blind as those who won't see." Or maybe it's more like if we allow other's imperfections to dictate our response, we're giving up that part of our agency. In the long run we, and we alone, are responsible for our choices and our attitudes.

    Kinda scary, isn't it?

  4. Thanks Joyce. You got me thinking. We truley do live in a box at times and absolutely refuse to look outside it. Our opinion is the only right opionion, or so we believe with all our heart.

    I am reading a wonderful book called Leadership and Self Desception. It is all about how we are often the problem, but we refuse to see it.

    Your blog also hit home because I lost my father to Alzheimer's. My mother kept him home and we all helped where we could. It is such an amazing journey travel with your hero. Talk about bubbles bursting. I learned to love my father not for what he ever did, but just for who he really was. I love him more now that I have had to grow up and accept all of his mistakes and frailties. The journey has been tough, and at times I still have to deal, but I know I love him unconditionally and I look forward to the day he winks at me with his mischievious brown eyes and gives me a big bear hug as a welcome home.

    Thanks for your blog!

  5. I think sometimes we have to be more grown up than our husbands, too- and our children- which can be really hard when their teenagers.

  6. Beautiful post, Joyce. I agree with what you and others have said about letting go of the past. It also makes me think of the flip-side, how parents need to truly nurture and love their children while growing up. We'd have a lot less hurting grownups if that happened. Parents don't realize the impact they have on their children's futures. (Sorry, pet peeve of mine--the way parents treat their children.)


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