Donald was fifth generation Aussie. His family emigrated from England in the 19thcentury and became successful landowners and entrepreneurs. His great grandfather built the local country club, and his family presided over the membership ever since. They were generous to the church and local charities. They believed in the value of tradition.
Donald’s father was the oldest of four children and fought against the Japanese in the Second World War. Although he had nightmares after returning to his young wife, he would never talk about his experiences. He simply moved forward with his life, entering and eventually becoming the CEO of the family enterprises as well as the patriarch of the family.
Donald was the youngest of three sons, coming eight years after his two siblings. He described himself as shy and quiet. He liked to read books with his mother and play the piano. Whereas his older brothers engaged in rugby and cricket, and were excellent horsemen, Donald showed little interest. His father’s efforts to engage Donald in manly activities were frustrating for both father and son. Although his father eventually stopped trying, he could not hide his embarrassment and disdain for his third son. His mother tried to protect her baby, but she was timid when her husband became angry.
It was family tradition that the children went off to boarding school at age 7. Donald did not want to go. He remembered hearing his father yelling at his mother when she pleaded to keep him home. It seemed that the more protective his mother became, the more adamant his father was that Donald would go to boarding school where he would get a good education, as well as toughen up.
Donald was horribly homesick during his first year away. His vulnerability became a magnet for ridicule and torment by classmates and older kids. Fortunately, his teacher recognized Donald’s great academic potential and helped him survive his first year. When Donald returned home for the summer, his father ignored him. They barely spoke for the next ten years.
Donald resigned himself to his life at boarding school. He learned to swallow his fear and loneliness, which he replaced during his teenage years with a sharp, and witty, cynicism. Gradually he made a few close friends, and learned to fly below the radar of the school bullies. He was a serious student and excelled academically. After graduation, he entered university to study medicine. He performed well and became a successful consultant in the specialty of pulmonary medicine.
During medical school, Donald met his future wife, who came from another old Aussie family. She was an excellent athlete, very attractive, and proud of Donald’s accomplishments in medicine. His father highly approved of his choice. At the time, Donald did not recognize that he was marrying his father, a hard-nosed, strict traditionalist with very clear ideas of what was socially, and even spiritually, acceptable. Later, she would become a demanding, authoritarian mother, tolerating nothing less than conformity and obedience from their two boys.
Donald took on more and more tasks at work, and turned over all of the parenting and household decisions to his spouse. When he was home, he tried to be the father that he never had, which led to disagreements with his wife. She felt hurt by the time he spent with their sons, and angry that he was always the good-cop, while she was the disciplinarian. She accused Donald of being weak and apathetic, and afraid that his sons wouldn’t like him. Donald rarely told her his feelings about her parenting, not wanting to cause more anger. Eventually, they barely spoke, and then only to discuss the business of the household. They kept up appearances in social gatherings with family, friends, church, and the club. On the surface, they were a perfect family.
I met Donald when he attended one of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Life, Death and Transition Workshops several months after the death of his father. An ICU nurse at the hospital had attended the year before and told Donald about her transformative experience. On some level, he knew that he was living on autopilot, going through the motions of career, husband, father, brother and son. His father had died of a rapidly progressive cancer. As Donald helped to facilitate his medical care, his father got to see how well regarded his son was. On his deathbed, his father finally acknowledged that he was proud of Donald, but it was too little too late. In fact, it just made him angry.
During his introduction at the workshop, Donald looked at his feet as he told the group that he had a perfect life. He was a successful physician, had a beautiful wife, two wonderful sons, and no financial worries. They moved into their dream house last year, he owned a brand new convertible, and they took two luxurious vacations every year. He said that he was a good Christian, and attended church regularly with his family when he wasn’t working. He enjoyed, and felt fulfilled with his work, although sometimes the hours were a bit long. Then, he looked up and asked, “What more can anyone want?” Then, he began to cry, but instantly apologized, and pulled himself together. When he could talk, he looked around the room and confessed that he felt empty inside. “And even though I have moments of joy at work and with my boys, I always feel that something is missing. I tell myself that I shouldn’t feel that way, that I’m a bad Christian because I should be joyful and grateful for what God has given me, and I am most of the time. I distract myself from this empty feeling by taking trips and buying things. I work harder, do everything I can for my patients, but at the end of the day, I’m stuck with myself.” Then, he sat down.
Over the next two days, as he listened to other stories of grief, abuse, neglect and loss, Donald came to the front and told the group about his father. As he described the looks of disapproval and disdain from the patriarch of his family, Donald finally felt his own outrage that this big, tough man would treat a sweet little boy so badly. He released years of suppressed anger at the man who made his life nearly intolerable, and who squashed his spontaneity and joy for life. Once the anger abated, years of unexpressed grief poured out of a seven year-old child who was forced to leave his home, and who would never receive the love and admiration that all boys want from their dad. Using a pillow to symbolize his lonely little boy, Donald cradled himself in his arms. Rocking gently back and forth, he apologized for not paying attention to the little guy, and ignoring him almost as badly as his biologic father. He promised that he would curtail his endless work schedule, and take time to listen to his internal little boy, especially now that he knew where the feeling of emptiness originated. Then he told his little boy that he didn’t have to feel empty any more,
I interrupted their conversation to tell grown-up Donald that he cannot take away the years of neglect and feeling of unworthiness from his little boy. Instead, he can keep his commitment to give him attention, acknowledge his feelings of sadness, fear and grief, and soothe him when the feeling of emptiness returned. I asked Donald if he was capable of loving this gentle little boy who might always feel not good enough and unworthy of love and affection. Donald pulled the pillow to his chest, closed his eyes, and gently held the child who had never sat in his father’s lap.
I did not hear from Donald after the workshop. I hope that he kept his commitment to the child that was first abandoned by his parents, and then by an older Donald who had to bury his feelings in order to survive boarding school.
We suffer many losses in life, but one of the most devastating and persistent one is for the love that we always wanted but never had. We carry around a hole, an emptiness inside ourselves that we try to fill with material possessions, praise at work, unrewarding relationships, even spirituality. If we are fortunate, we find a safe place to stop running away from ourselves, and reclaim our true nature.
Over time, we begin to accept that we are loveable. We stop finding people who are incapable of giving us what we need, in hope of changing them. Instead, we accept the love that is readily available to us. We take the risk of asking for what we need, because we are asking for a younger part of ourselves, who feels too unworthy to speak for himself. For those of us who believe in God, we begin to understand and appreciate in a new and deeper way what it means to love the meekest among us, including our innocent little self. Some wounds are lifelong, and we can find a resting place for them with self-compassion.
I do not believe that we can eliminate completely the ancient feeling of unworthiness and grief that comes from not receiving what we all need as children. Hopefully, when we relapse into unhealthy love-seeking behaviors, we catch ourselves, sit quietly, and listen to the voice of a forlorn child that simply wants to sit in his father’s (or mother’s) lap and be heard.