On this All Saints’ Day, I’m recalling those people — grandparents, ministers, teachers, friends — who have lived as saints for me, by which I mean those who live in such a way that one knows that their love of God is central to everything they feel and do.
Whether or not I might qualify for sainthood, the bigger problem for me its just being a hero in my own story. Here’s the history and the challenge…
Many years ago, I jointed a support group for parents of children with birth defects. During the introductions, the psychologist, an elegant older woman who reminded me of the renowned psychologist Anna Freud, asked for a one-word synonym for parenting. Most of us came up with the usual schmaltzy stuff – “caring,” “nurturing,” “loving….” Some were more honest, with responses like “anxiety” and “worry.”
When we finished, this classy woman who reeked of wisdom sat back in her chair, took a long pause, and smiled knowingly. “Bullshit! There is only one true synonym for parenting, and it is ‘guilt.’ Get used to it; guilt will be a major part of your life from now on. The only difference between you and other parents is that you will have a worse case of it, because you have the added guilt of whatever caused your children to be here in this hospital. Learn to live with it, and don’t let it rule you.”
Over the years, I’ve shared her wisdom with new parents everywhere. Guilt really is about the most honest and fundamental synonym for parenting that I’ve ever heard. It was many years after my daughter died that I understood the kind of guilt that I felt – the guilt over inexplicable events – was its own kind of hubris. In my own way, I was playing God just by holding myself responsible for things I had no way of causing or understanding, let alone fixing.
A decade later, a pastoral therapist and close friend summarized it differently: “Try to live life so that you can be a hero in your own story. Things go wrong. If you’re responsible, then fix it. But don’t play the blame game. You can blame your parents, your spouse, the President, God – but that only makes you a victim. Acting like a victim is a terrible, destructive way to live. First, they are no fun to be around, and second, they may unwittingly use their victimhood as justification for abusing others – witness religious militants. So work at being a hero in your story, managing life’s challenges with grace and courage rather than succumbing to them. That’s as good as it gets.”