“The wounded child is there and we don’t even know she is there.
The wounded child in us is a reality, but we can’t see her.
That inability to see it is a kind of ignorance. This child has been severely wounded.
She or he really needs us to return.
Instead, we turn away.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh from Reconciliation
“It’s a cause of growth in the Dhamma and Vinaya of the noble ones when, seeing a
transgression as such, one makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma
and exercises restraint in the future.”
~ Digha Nikaya verse 2
“The people around us, our family and friends, may also have a severely
wounded child inside. If we’ve managed to help ourselves, we can also help them.
When we’ve healed ourselves, our relationships with others become much easier.
There’s more peace and more love in us.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, from Reconciliation
The holiday season brings lots of opportunities for families to connect and be together. For some of us, these celebrations are a real celebration, joyful occasions where we renew our connection with our families experience support, trust, and feel at home again with those we are closely linked to. And then, there is the dark side of the holiday, when old habits appear, people say things and react uncovering old wounds or creating new ones. We may leave the holiday table feeling bruised and battered and running for shelter instead of experiencing a safe refuge where we encounter care and consideration.
There is no standardization in how families react to hurt feelings and disappointment. Some minimize or ignore, some have a blowup and engage in simultaneous loud and energetic opinions. Some decide who is at fault and who to punish, while some distance, not trusting that there are welcome and respect. Individuals may stay away and try to keep safe from afar. It can be painful to have division and discord in our families especially at this time of year when there is a cultural expectation about what a happy welcoming family is.
Our expectations can make these situations much worse. These are the “shoulds” we insert in our judgments; my daughter should call because I am the parent. We should get along because we are family. My parents should apologize because they are wrong. He shouldn’t say/ do/think that. She should…fill in the blank. We believe that families are supposed to get along without conflict and when they don’t, we experience a loss. This loss of an ideal can hurt as much as the actual words and actions of family members. There is an often unconscious belief that if we try harder or were a better person, or they were a better person, we would stop feeling hurt and angry and there would be a magical spontaneous healing and understanding.
I recall being on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh when a son asked about staying connected to his father who spoke with anger and refused to listen to him. Each conversation ended in a fight and hurt. Thây recommended that the son stop communicating with his father and care for his own suffering. He needed to listen to the part of himself that was hurt and discouraged, to hear the longing for trust, respect, and care for his own loss and sadness. Only then would he could be able to engage with his father without reacting from the place of rawness and quick reactivity.
In Buddhism, there is the opportunity to do lots of violence to the self through spiritual-bypass. This is a rush to get over our hurt, because –if we are good Buddhists, we know this world, including all spoken words and even our solid appearance of a self, are in the ultimate reality a chimera and have the consistency of a soap bubble. That is an often convenient mindset to escape the nitty-gritty and humbling work of looking at our own words, deeds, and intentions. We all exist in the historical dimension and when we use the teachings as an escape route from admitting our culpability or to not take responsibility for how we hurt another, we are abiding in ignorance.
Forgiveness and reconciliation and two different things. Tibetan nun Thubten Chodron says that one cannot truly forgive until they fully understand the depth of hurt they have suffered. This doesn’t mean to dive into self-righteous recounting and blaming but is a call to do the work of sitting with the difficult feelings with empathy, tenderness, and pure understanding that we are all sensitive beings who desire love, trust, and consideration. We cannot forgive until we have cared for the parts of the self who are hurt. A rush to forgive and reconcile before one has the time and space to meet their own needs results in a veneer of friendliness that tears apart quickly at the slightest offense. True forgiveness requires patience and the willingness to care for the self before extending ourselves to another who has hurt us.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes a beautiful article about forgiveness and reconciliation for the sangha and in our own lives that outlines some of the stages in this process. He writes, “[r]econciliation — patisaraniya-kamma — means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions, or maintain that I did no wrong, there’s no way we can be reconciled. Similarly, if I insist that your feelings don’t matter, or that you have no right to hold me to your standards of right and wrong, you won’t trust me not to hurt you again. To regain your trust, I have to show my respect for you and for our mutual standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior; to admit that I hurt you and that I was wrong to do so; and to promise to exercise restraint in the future.” Reestablishing trust is at the root of reconciliation. There can be no friendship, no connection, or willingness to be near someone we do not trust. And we know that trust takes time to build.
Social scientist Dr. Breneʹ Brown describes building trust as adding marbles to a jar. Each time we encounter another and experience safety when we share what is dear to us, we add a marble to the jar. When the jar is full of these small moments, we have a foundation of trust. When we do not feel safe with another person, when there are unkind words or actions, there is no trust and the marbles spill out of the jar. Building trust means we are sensitive to the needs of another and their feelings and it takes time. Rebuilding relationships does not coincide with a calendar date, as much as we may feel pressure to do so.
This holiday season, no matter what side of the table you find yourself are on—the one who feels hurt and unheard, or the one who acted and spoke with good intentions, but was unskillful and is experiencing the consequence of unmindful speech, please start at the beginning. As Thay would say, come home to yourself and make your own home a safe place. Take the time to listen to that hurt in you—and the part of yourself that needs your own care, compassion, and nurture. Remember that healing is non-linear and doesn’t go in a straight line. True forgiveness and reconciliation happen when there is enough self-care to heal the willingness to trust again.
May we all trust our light,