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?