H.Z. from Arlington Heights, Ill wrote:
My friends' babies were all saying their first words: “Mama,” “Dada,” “Dog,” “Ah oh!” and other cute babblings while my infant daughter was spewing out, “By myself!” with every fiber in her little body. Her fierce independence coupled with an uncanny desire for drama left me feeling limp and drained. Nothing was sacred in a battle of wills that started almost from birth. As a very young mother with 4 small children my strength was taxed. One day when my daughter was 8 years old I was trying to get everyone dressed and out the door for a church function. My daughter was being particularly obstinate and suddenly my patience snapped and I had a major meltdown. I screamed at her, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”
There are things in my life that I feel are black spots on my soul but this moment is the one at the top of the list and the one I wish so badly I could have a “do-over” on. The great reward of my life has been watching all of my children grow and mature. This particular daughter grew to be a fine person. All of my logic tells me that I should let this one go, but I simply cannot. It’s a scar on my soul, and possibly hers, that I have learned to live with though it still feels like a fresh bruise that I’m pressing on to write this and revisit it. I wish there were a way for me to experience full atonement for this.
F.A. from Broken Arrow, ME wrote:
I stole a roll of toilet paper from the local coffee shop because I was too lazy to stop at the store.
G.B.O. from Lexington, KY wrote:
My son talks of God—talks of God in ways I cannot describe. We are not religious. I am overwhelmed. But I believe now. How could I not after what he has said. But what do I do? He seems so perplexed by knowing or remembering God. It's not all happy. I have begun recording him because it is shocking. But I have nowhere to turn; no one seems to be talking about God as if they knew him and still know him. As mothers, I believe that it is the best we can do to believe in our children and strengthen them. I have four children and it is only my one son who talks like this. i need to get advice from someone who has had these experiences and knows the Bible or Torah enough to understand what he is talking about. Advice?
Father Gabe McKenna replies --Dear G.B.O.—
I have the sense that I know you. Or, at the very least, I know your son. And the fact that you’re out there writing to me about this problem—one with which I’m very familiar—makes me feel a little less alone.
It is overwhelming, isn’t it? Terrifying and large. On one hand, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. That your son is. But on the other, I’m not. Because those of us who “know and remember God” as you say (what a beautiful phrase), we’re not all happy. But we’re part of something so vast and, I think, worthwhile—we need people among us with gentle, thoughtful, supportive parents like you.
The confusing thing about hearing God is that it makes you sound like a crazy person. Admit it, you’ve had this thought. You’ve wondered if your son is damaged somehow, if the wrong places in his brain are echoing, conjuring up delusions. You’re afraid to tell anyone like your sister or his teacher or maybe even his father. Because what will people say? And you’re right to have these fears. You’re right to protect him.
But you’re also right to listen. He’s telling you something true, something about his unique experience. And you’re a smart woman, mother of four children. A rational person. You can tell that he’s relating something real, or you wouldn’t be writing to me. If you thought he were mentally ill, you would take him to a doctor. Instead, you’re asking the advice of a priest.
My advice is to understand that his road is difficult, protect him and believe in him. Exactly, from everything I can glean from your message, what you’re doing right now.
You say that you do not understand your son. And that may be the key. Because he is engaging in a relationship with God that is literally beyond understanding. That’s the definition of it, the glory of it. To be in touch with God is to be in an unfamiliar place. I don’t believe you need to study. You can’t go there with him. All you can do is to be the warm human source of stability that he needs.
My prediction is that your son will not always be this way. It’s possible, even likely, that his knowledge of God will fade as other things take over. Adolescence, for instance. Or first love. This is what happened to me. God’s voice remains but it is fainter, less like a friend and more like a dream.
But it is also possible that this will not happen. Your son may stay bound to this personal knowledge of God, in which case he will live apart from most of humanity. He will be one of the rare souls. And I’m not going to lie, it will be hard. But he will learn to compartmentalize that part of himself. He may work as an accountant, marry and have children. He may not be religious! The tie between knowing God and submitting to organized religion is tenuous at best.
Either way, your son is a small but critically important link between mundane life and the spiritual world. How do I know there is a God? Because children ‘remember’ Him. Because people without training [or brainwashing] in scripture feel His presence. Your son is reason for everyone else to believe. That, ultimately, is both his burden and his strength.
Yours with gratitude—
S.T. from Pensacola, FL wrote:
I had sex before I was married.
C. Kendall from Excelsior, MN wrote:
What I have done is literally unforgivable, which is why I cannot forgive myself. I was cruel to my mother—intermittently for decades—and she did nothing to deserve it. On the contrary, she was a genuinely loving, sweet, generous woman who only cared for me. I was deeply unhappy with my life, and I used her as a scapegoat, and took out my frustrations and anger out on her. She is gone now, and I am haunted. I am tortured. I dream about my mother every night. I long to see her again and to beg her forgiveness. I hurt her, and although she never held it against me I deeply regret it.
Father Gabe McKenna replies --Dear C. Kendall—
I have heard the confessions of murderers, philanderers and embezzlers. Those were easy compared to this. There is no way to parse the relationship a child has with a mother. It starts in secrecy, darkness, the interior of the human body for goodness sake. Only God can go there (witness: Mary and Jesus) and he rarely does. This is the most mysterious connection that exists on this earth.
You will have relationships with other people. Lovers, spouses, children, friends. But no one will ever be like the woman who fed you for nine months from her own bloodstream. I know this doesn’t sound priestlike, but let’s face it: That’s freaky! Amazing. But also weird and too intimate. You spend your pre-birth year knocking around inside your mother’s interior. You spend the next (roughly) 18 years listening to her, waiting for her, loving her, hating her, wishing she’d just do your laundry and leave. Then magically, you’re supposed to break that tie and separate into your own complete and whole person! Really? This is one of maybe three areas where I have some questions for the Creator. How, exactly, is this supposed to work?
I think what I’m saying is that we have all, myself and everyone reading this, felt some of what you describe above. Perhaps we weren’t as cruel or forceful about our abuse. But I would be surprised if there is anyone living who doesn’t feel a whiff of what you describe. We push our mothers. We yell, ridicule, belittle and revile them. And some of them deserve it! Because to be a terrible, unloving, neglectful mother is to leave a child utterly lost and alone. But that wasn’t the case for you—or for me, as long as we’re being honest. Our mothers were mostly kind and decent. Sure, they made some mistakes. They said some stupid things and embarrassed us and failed to understand our particular brand of pain. But they deserved better than we gave them. And that’s the truth.
Do you deserve forgiveness? I don’t know. Does any of us? It’s a raunchy, unnecessary thing you did. I wish you’d been better. I wish I’d been better. But you know who I am 99.99% sure forgives you? Your mom.
I know this, because I have been faced with mothers of all colors, ages, heights, personalities and fashion sensibilities. I’ve had old Russian women and uptight real estate agents and pink-haired punks. The only thing they share, the ONLY thing I tell you, is that they believe in their children to an unnatural and—I assure you—undeserved degree. Whether their children have stormed out, used drugs, kicked dogs, impregnated 12-year-olds, they are on their knees, ready to forgive. I used to find this somewhat exasperating, but I’ve accommodated. I get it now: A mother will never lose faith in her child, even when I and everyone else in the community believes it is time to throw in the towel, give him or her up for dead, and pour a stiff drink.
What I’m saying, C, is that no matter what you’ve done, where, why, when or how, if your mother is as you described—loving, gentle, generous and sweet—she has already forgiven you. She is dead now but her legacy lives on, a strong and unshakable certainty that you will become an extraordinary person. So do her…and me…and the rest of society a favor. Make good on her faith in you. Be better than you are.
I promise you, this is what your mother wanted, craved, prayed for in the hours before her death. Did she care that you abused her love? Not so much. She just wanted you to go forward, honorably, fully, like the strong, exceptional person she imagined before you were born, into this new life. So do it! Make yourself the person your mother wanted, whatever you have to change. Do one thing each day, in her memory, to improve the world. She is whispering in my ear, even now—all the mothers are. It’s all they want, C. A great army of upright and estimable children. Be that person. And you will do your mother proud.
Yours in allegiance~
F.H. from Seattle, WA wrote:
I didn't take my sick cat to the vet because I had no money, and he died.
V. Christianson from Baltimore, MD wrote:
Years ago when I was 16, my family and I were late for church. We were in the parking lot and I was responsible for getting my two-year-old sister out of the car while my parents grabbed my siblings. It all happened so fast. I was holding Alice's hand, but the car was rolling and somehow it rolled on top of my little sister and she was killed instantly. I do not remember much - it happened so long ago. But all my life even though I know it wasn't my fault I have felt like it was and I can't seem to get over that feeling. I've been to therapists. Nothing really helps so I push it down and don't really talk about it.
Father Gabe McKenna replies --Dear V—
There is nothing I can say that will take away the horror of what happened to your sister. And to you. I can only tell you what I believe, as a man of God, to be true.
First, on a purely rational level, there were many factors at play. There was the urgency you felt because you were late. The rushing that we all do. There was the confusion of many people reaching into the car simultaneously. And there was the fact—this is so important—that the car began to roll. From your description, it sounds like someone else, someone older, had been driving but that person was out of the driver’s seat. Something happened, mechanically. Someone forget to set the parking break; or it was knocked loose in the chaos of reaching for children; or it simply malfunctioned. Whichever of these occurred, it had nothing to do with you. No one was at fault.
But this is the key. Because sometimes it is hardest for us to make sense of events—particularly tragic ones—when there’s no one person or act to blame. Our thinking mind shuts down and our sense of spiritual justice takes over. It’s from that perspective that I want to speak to you now.
Think about a different, but familiar, story. A child catches what seems to be a minor virus (chicken pox or flu, for example) but falls critically ill and dies. So many factors influence this terrible event: her immune system at the moment of contagion, who she sat next to in school, which vaccines were used, the medical treatment she received. Her mother may torture herself for the next 30 years, believing that she should have taken her child to the doctor sooner, that the delay is the ‘reason’ she died. But there is no one reason. There is only this very complex and unknowable series of factors, most of them beyond any person’s understanding or control.
We are, each of us, simply NOT THAT POWERFUL that we can cause such devastation all on our own. Because think of it the other way: Do you feel powerful enough to prevent awful things from happening? My guess is that inside yourself, you do. You think that you could have anticipated the accident and pulled your sister to safety or blocked the rolling car with your body or controlled the whole constellation of events with your faith. But it simply is not true. You were a small player in this horrifying day and yet you have been carrying the full weight of responsibility. It’s time to let that go.
You do not say how your family responded and whether they added to your sense of guilt. I could understand this; it is, as I said, human to look for a single cause and to assign blame. But if they did so, with you, they were wrong. It is possible for good people to be destructive in their grief. And I want you to imagine that the universe is lifting away the burden that other people may have placed up on you. They cannot do so. God can.
Finally, whether or not you felt blamed by your family, this was a deeply traumatic event for you. You mention that you have been to therapists, trying to get over the guilt. But beyond that—if you can let go of self-blame so you are left with just the sadness—you may want to see someone who can help you with the grief. My guess is that you are long overdue.
I send you all of God’s light and peace.
F.P. from Gary, Indiana wrote:
I was 15 years old, gleefully hanging with friends at the mall darting from one store to the next. We ran outside to meet another friend who was being dropped off. There were three of us and before we went back into the mall this very old woman who could barely walk shuffled up to the glass mall doors that are so heavy.
We did not open it for her. We giggled behind our hands at her plight. She managed to get through with her cane and we still found it very funny.
I wanted to open the door for her but I did not want to do it in front of my friends because then I would not have been cool. I regret it when it happened and ever since.
It may have been a small 'crime' on first glance but in my heart I felt like it defined who someone was in times like that. It was a pretty horrible thing to do.
Father Gabe McKenna replies --F.P., my child—
I am not going to tell you that what you did at 15 was a decent or benign or even a forgivable act. To turn away from another human being who is struggling, especially when the price of helping is so very small, is a terrible thing. That’s why this has weighed on you for so many years. It’s why, as you say, it “defined” who you were at that point in time.
It sounds like you were a follower, someone who would be cruel to an old woman simply in order to impress her friends. There are many historical examples of how followers have done damage. It’s not going too far to say people who follow blindly, without conscience, the way you describe have perpetrated real evil in this world. Thank God, you did not go on to become such a person.
How do I know? Because this is weighing on you however many years later. You don’t give your age, but I’m assuming you are an adult now. This is 10, 20 years in the past and you’re still thinking about that moment, that one act. Memories that take on that much significance tend to be the ones that change us, for good or ill. And since you use the words “crime” and “horrible,” I can tell that for you the change was in the direction of virtue.
You were given a small choice, long ago, and you opted to do the wrong thing but given the larger choice—Am I going to live this way? Is it my habit to be cruel to people?—your answer is no. The incident at the mall helped you arrive at this. The old woman was humiliated but unharmed. And you used this moment later in life to help define not who you were but who you would become.
There are people who are born kind and cheerful and prone to the service of others. But they are as rare as diamonds in the sand. More common is the story of the rest of us: fallible mortals who need to try out cruelty and vengeance and find that we don’t have the heart for it, it leaves us feeling stained and tired, so we choose the other way. God’s way, if you’re inclined to believe it. The way of peace and light if you aren’t.
So while the act you committed is not in itself forgivable, you, Sharkie, are forgiven. All that I or anyone else could ask is that you learned and re-aligned yourself based on this experience. You stood straighter and decided that in the future, you would be the sort of girl, and then the sort of woman, who would act with generosity and sympathy and intent. You are absolved from this guilt and worry but not from the memory, which serves to keep you the person you now want to be.
Go forth in the new year absolved but vigilant. Act bravely, despite those around you. Open doors.
T.U. from Waco, TX wrote:
I ignored my friend's cry for help before they attempted suicide.
D.A. from Phoenix, AZ wrote:
I left someone who needed support because, although I loved them, they were holding me back.
J.A.K. from Arlington, VA wrote:
I do not need to be forgiven, but I may need to learn to forgive. My grandfather molested me when I was a teenager and he took the secret to his grave. His children, including my father, continue to accuse me of lying about this, so I can’t forgive them either. I’m no longer angry but do I need to forgive them?
Father Gabe McKenna replies --For J.A.K.—
Most of the questions I receive require me to ponder. I’m rarely sure of the right answer when I read a letter and typically must think for a few hours about the right way to respond.
Not this time.
My answer to you is no. Without a qualm I will tell you that it is not your responsibility to forgive. What was done to you was unspeakable. Evil. Only God can forgive man such a terrible act. And though I am supposed to know Him, to be connected with Him on some spiritual plane, I have no understanding of how this works. Because even as a priest, I cannot even come close.
Several of my colleagues have been accused of similar crimes and though I try to live in peace with this fact—I try not to hate them for what they’ve done to our profession, our faith and to our children—I do not have it in my heart to forgive them. If one of those men were to come to me with his confession, I would have to turn him away.
Resoundingly and with all confidence I need you to know that your work is not to forgive your grandfather or the people who protected him. Yours is only to understand that you were in no way culpable, that you own no part of this act. Your body was assaulted and I hope for you that it has been healed and washed clean. Your mind, your soul, your very being were not touched.
This is not to say that your past has not hurt you. I’m certain it did. But you told me in your message that you are no longer angry…and that is a remarkable achievement. It says to me that you’ve rid yourself of what was heavy and ugly. You’ve already moved on.
I hope this is answer enough for you. Because I feel that you’ve done what was needed all on your own. You don’t owe one moment of penance, prayer or forgiveness for what happened to you in your youth. Leave that to God. Live happily and well.
Yours in peace,
Father Gabriel McKenna
S.B.G. from San Antonio, TX wrote:
I had just gotten divorced and a married man was showing interest in me. He said that he was miserable with his wife and planning to leave her and instead of walking away I started dating him. He left his family and we dated for six months. I still feel awful about it even though I am happily remarried and it has been almost 20 years.
P.Q. from Little Rock, AR wrote:
I forgot to feed my girlfriend's cat for a week.
S.H. from Cincinnati, OH wrote:
I married a woman and had two wonderful sons with her, but I am too wrapped up in myself and she now resents me. I am staying till the last son is 18 (in 4 years), and then I will probably divorce her and try to find happiness somehow. A decade of sleeping on a couch with a roommate who wants me dead is enough. I should never have done that to her, or to my sons.
Father Gabe McKenna replies --S.H.—
I will tell you what I believe. The best thing for children—at birth, when they’re teenagers, even when they’re 30 years old and getting married themselves—is to have their two original parents living together as a loving family. That’s the ideal.
It is also the ideal to run half-marathons every weekend, sleep 10 solid hours every night of your life, and eat untouched, organic produce while standing in the field where it was picked. It would be splendid if we could all do those things. But life is far more complicated than that.
So the answer to your dilemma is probably, as you’ve outlined, to wait until your youngest child is out of the house, get a divorce and move on. But here’s the caveat: You’re talking about four years of living with a woman you describe as a “roommate,” a woman who is also the mother of your children. If you are going to stick out those four years, if you’re genuinely determined, then you owe your family better than someone who is unhappy and wrapped up in himself.
I would strongly advise you to figure out how you’re going to spend this time well. Start with resolve. Lose your resentment, however you have to do it. Take up fencing. Learn to meditate. Get a kitten. Whatever it takes. Because the only thing worse for your children than living in a so-called broken home is living in a home filled with hatred and anger. You say that your wife wants you dead, but you don’t say why. Interrogate this. Be honest. Are you doing something hateful? If you are, stop.
This may be the least priestly advice I’ve given in a long time, but if you need to buy a calendar and mark each day over those four years, go ahead. Keep it in a private place and remind yourself often why you are in your home, with that woman and those children. Do not make excuses. Be the man that you know deep in your soul you should be.
If you can do this, if you can step outside of your own boundless needs and serve your family for this short period of time, I have no doubt you can also make a sound decision when the time comes for your son to move away.
But wait. It’s just possible—I have seen this happen—that the outcome will not be what you imagine today. Four years of living for others, putting your children before yourself and behaving in a gentle, courteous way with your wife may change your relationships entirely. At the end of this period, you might find that you have a new life and a satisfying marriage.
Then again, you might not.
It’s possible, probable even, that your marriage will end because you simply are not devoted to each other. Because your have different values, clashing personalities, no spark. I understand that and if you get there, I hope you can be at peace with it. Part with respect and walk away from one another. But do so knowing that you’ve behaved honorably, first giving your children the love, stability and consistency to help them thrive.
I wish you well, and I wish for you to do well where your wife and children are concerned. I guarantee that you will never regret acting with integrity and standing straight and strong for these next four years.