I have found that as I connect with other unschooling families, many of us come from emotionally abusive backgrounds. Perhaps, emotional abuse is far too prevalent, and unschooling helps people give it a name. If you are trying to have a peaceful, respectful relationship with your kids, you start to see how other relationships are not so peaceful. You recognize the subtle and not so subtle ways you have and use power over your children, and start to see this in other places. You start to learn to set boundaries, and enjoy life and the world and your family and your self despite criticism, and despite the fallout from setting and holding boundaries.
As I have become clear about my own boundaries and learned the courage to set them, I’ve been told by some families members that those boundaries are hurtful. Not wanting to be hurtful, but at the same time not want to open emotional doors to the storm of criticism and pain that would come with apologizing to a person who has emotionally abused me, I’ve been at a loss about how to respond.
This excerpt from Elizabeth Garber’s Implosion hit me hard. The excerpt is a powerful brief memoir about abuse and apology, and I hate to spoil it. But in her story, her abusive father calls as he is dying to ask, “I want to know what I did to you. I don’t remember.” He apologizes, but then later retracts any apology or admission of guilt and lashes out. What I learned from Garber’s story is that if you have to explain to someone how they hurt you, they are probably not really apologizing.
Sometime after reading this, I ran into this article about the Jewish tradition of apology and forgiveness in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It struck me that “Perhaps the most important point according to the Jewish system is that the onus to invoke forgiveness is on the wrongdoer, not the wronged.” This seems so different from what I have learned from the dominant, secular Christian culture, and so different from our court system. I have learned that if you are hurt you should get over it, and if you can’t, you need to explain, to prove, to bring your pain to the person who hurt you and ask them if it’s worthy of their recognition. Or bring your pain to a court, a moderator, another family member, and ask for it to be recognized, and the wrongdoer to therefore be punished. There is little room for forgiveness at all.
The “onus to invoke forgiveness.” The work. In Garber’s story about her dad’s apology and subsequent retraction, he puts the burden on her. Asking “what did I do to you,” implying “what could I have possibly done to you? Prove it.” There is no room for reconciliation and forgiveness here.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step, he writes in the chapter Reconciliation:
What can we do when we have hurt people and now they consider us to be their enemy? These people might be people in our family, in our community, or in another country. I think you know the answer. There are a few things we can do. The first thing is to take the time to say, ‘I am sorry, I hurt you out of my ignorance, out of my lack of mindfulness, out of my lack of skillfulness. I will try my best to change myself. I don’t dare say anything more to you.
. . .The second thing to do is to try to bring out the best part in ourselves, the part of the flower, to transform ourselves. That is the only way to demonstrate what you have just said.
When I read, this, I immediately thought of the contrast between this apology and Garber’s story about her dad. “I don’t dare say anything more to you” and then transforming yourself. There is not proving the victim’s pain, no questions. And unlike the Jewish tradition, not exactly a debt to the person hurt but rather a commitment to becoming a better person in the world, for everyone other than–but perhaps including–the person you once hurt.
I’ve seen many peaceful parenting discussions about the importance of apologizing to your children in order to parent respectfully. Apology is a complicated thing. You could apologize just because the child told you they are hurt, but of course a child cannot always name or even see the hurt being done. As a parent, it’s so important to see your child, to understand them, to watch what brings them joy, so you notice when you might be taking the joy away. I’m not saying I always do this perfectly, but I am learning.
As for my family and the other parts of the world, I wonder if what I have to apologize for about setting boundaries is not the boundary, but any explanation that comes with it. The proving and justifying and explaining my pain and blaming people who have hurt me isn’t necessary if I can hold my boundaries. If I know what brings me joy and simply act to make those moments and that life happen. And I can move forward, whether or not I have received any apologies. My happiness is not contingent on other people’s actions. At the same time, understanding apologies releases me from a sense of obligation to give more time and energy to people who have not been able to apologize or reconcile.
This applies to my relationship with my children too: if I can say no to them when I need to do something for myself, I’m less likely to be frustrated with my kids. But if I do get mad or make a mistake, and then offer an apology, I also know that I can do better not by running myself thin working harder and hard to make the world perfect for them, but by treating myself nonviolently in the sense of enjoying life and taking care of myself. I can be more of a joyful person in the world by learning to find joy and safety in the world.