But I know from personal experience that Father's Day can be a day full of conflicting, complicated feelings. As I read through everyone's touching stories about their dads, I try to keep a mental list of who hasn't had anything to say. Regardless of the circumstances (divorce, an unknown, death, or simply little engagement on social media), I can't help but feel a little sadness, but also solidarity knowing I'm not the only one who's choosing to keep that relationship private.
I have very fond memories of my dad. I remember him coaching my soccer team all throughout elementary school and what an involved father he was. I remember him lifting me up to the display window at the grocery store bakery to pick out my congratulatory doughnut for behaving myself at mass on Sundays. I remember the ground-level play house my parents built for me and the tree house they built for my brother. I remember countless "horsey-rides" on his back; 'airplane-rides' on his long, long legs; and blanket tosses in his strong arms. I remember how we'd watch Fiddler on the Roof and he'd always cry when Tevya said goodbye to his daughter, Hodel, when she leaves for Kiev. I remember how special that made me feel.
I truly want to share these stories and memories, but there's also a part of me that feels I'd have to add a big asterisk to avoid any "false advertising."
I have a complicated relationship with my father. His struggle with mental health challenges and how he chooses to medicate challenged my view of a father's role. He was also not supportive of my decision to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has also strained our relationship. I knew the Bible taught that fatherhood was a righteous and divine calling, but oftentimes I felt like I'd be better off without him, so I prayed he'd disappear. Then I'd pray for forgiveness, scared he actually would disappear. Although our relationship is worlds better than it was 5 years ago when his struggles were reaching critical mass, forgiveness and kindness are still decisions I have to consciously make every day. And on the days when he lashes out in anger and resentment-- for reasons we can't predict or rationalize-- it can be painfully difficult to choose the better part. With every angry/threatening email, text, and voicemail I receive, I can't help but think that if I'd just lash out in the same way, he'd stop or at least leave me alone for a while.
I know, however, that that's not how things work-- at least from an eternal perspective. Matthew 6:14-15 reads: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." I won't be held accountable for the sins of my father, but I will be held accountable for withholding forgiveness from him, and that's still a hard, bitter pill for me to swallow. But when we withhold forgiveness, we are essentially holding the Atonement of Jesus Christ ransom, which is not something we have the authority to do.
Still, it's a challenge. As I've studied this out in my heart and mind, though, and put it to practice, I have found some ways to make choosing forgiveness easier.
1. I work on my father's family history
I will admit that on hard days, I have very little desire to be sealed to my dad. I'm not proud of that, but it's true. It's hard to want to be with someone who, at least on this earth, can be a constant source of contention of grief. I want to be sealed to someone who is honorable and kind, not self-pittying and mean-spirited.
Many know that family history has a very special place in my heart. I know what peace and happiness the ordinances of the temple have brought me, and I want my ancestors to have that as well. As I've researched my father's line specifically, I've found something remarkable. Although my father struggles here on earth, he comes from a long line of incredible people. Through countless records and stories, I've found grandparents who are brave and intelligent and compassionate, who have made sacrifices for their family, and who have shown remarkable dedication to their children. The power of Elijah has worked wonders in my life, but this miracle is the most miraculous of all to me. Even though my father struggles, I know that I have loving ancestors beyond the veil who know I am worthy of love and who have helped soften my heart toward my father so we can ALL be together in harmony, free from our weaknesses and shortcomings.
2. I show an abundance of kindness when it's easy
Contrary to my best efforts, I know I sometimes illustrate my father as someone who is always rotten and mean and who is never good-- but that is most certainly not the case. Even though the past several years have been difficult, there are times when we've made good memories together and we've gotten closer to understanding one another. I've come to appreciate how much he loves his Catholic faith and how that played a huge role in my relationship with God today. I also admire how industrious he is repairing his mother's home and tending her garden. In these moments of clarity and sobriety, the choice to be kind is much, much easier and so I pounce on it. When I make a habit of this when it's easy, it makes thing far easier in the heat of the moment to take a deep breath and not deepen any emotional wounds between the two of us.
3. I set boundaries
This principle is by far the most important. I've tried to study forgiveness from all kinds of perspectives-- spiritual, mental, physical etc.-- and one thing that has been consistent is that forgiveness without accountability is entirely lost. Setting boundaries not only keeps us healthy and safe, but it helps the other person feel loved but also accountable for their actions. But sometimes it can feel a little conflicting-- are these boundaries too harsh, to the point where I'm inhibiting our relationship from ever growing into something warm and healthy?
Elder Larry J Echo Hawk recently gave a talk at the 2018 April conference titled "Even as Christ Forgives You, So Also Do Ye" that has granted me a lot of peace. In his address, he tells the story of when his youngest brother and his wife were killed by a young drunk driver. Although Elder Echo Hawk felt anger and resentment towards this young man, his parents showed compassion and forgiveness to the young man's family at the sentencing-- for they, too, were losing a son. He then says "I am not suggesting that we condone unlawful conduct. We know full well that individuals are to be held accountable for their criminal acts and civil wrongdoings. However, we also know that, as sons and daughters of God, we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. We are to be forgiving even when it seems others may not warrant our forgiveness."
For me, with help from some truly incredible mental healthcare professionals and religious leaders, I limit my interactions with my dad to one phone call per week and one visit per year and I never ride in the car with him, to name a few. When both of us honor and respect these boundaries, we are able to have great conversations, we get closer to understanding one another, and we make positive memories that can overshadow negative past experiences.