Mistakes Were Made

When I write a column I think my dad might find interesting, I make a copy and send it to him. He called me this week after reading several I had sent that referenced family members.

While he said it a bit in jest, there was an undercurrent of sadness when he suggested that it might be nice if I were to write a column about him some time. 

He is right of course, I don’t write about him.

For a moment, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond as I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Besides, after years of sparring, we finally are getting to the point where we are more comfortable with one another and can even have meaningful conversations.

I could have chosen to just let it slide but given our newly emerging authentic relationship, I thought perhaps it was important to be honest.

So, speaking carefully, I acknowledged that what he was saying was true and then went on to explain.

“You know Dad”, I said, “Although I wish it were different, the reality is that you and I aren’t terribly close. I’d love to have a Hallmark relationship, but we don’t. We probably should just admit it and be okay with it”.

Even as I was saying it out loud, I knew I wasn’t okay with it.

The truth is, I grieve every Father’s Day for what could have, should have been.

Even choosing a Father’s Day card for my dad totally stresses me out. Much as I want to buy those mushy sentimental cards and I know it would mean a great deal for him to receive one, I’ve simply never been able to do it.

I do love my dad, and I know he loves me but, and as sad as it is for me to admit, from my earliest memories, I’m not sure we really liked one another.

That’s probably the one memory we do agree on. The rest of our respective memories of earlier times are quite different.

My Dad’s memories focus on how he demonstrated his love for his family by working hard to bring home the pay cheque that would put a roof over our heads and groceries on the table.  One of his clearest memories is that of taking the last ten dollars out of his wallet to buy a hockey stick for one of my brothers. Another was the day he took on the house mortgage he couldn’t really afford. He talks wistfully too about the good times at GM.

My memories instead are those of a father who seemed to take very little joy in his wife and five kids, appeared at times to be desperately unhappy and angry, and of course, never approved of me. 

These differing memories are indicative of how each and every one of us shares the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that, despite the best of intentions, in hindsight turned out to be not so smart or even harmful.

Most of us find it difficult, if not impossible to say, “I was wrong; I made a mistake.” The higher the emotional, financial or even moral stakes, the harder it is going to be.

This theme is explored in a fascinating book called “Mistakes were Made (But Not by Me)” that explores the science behind self justification and our need to feel good about ourselves to the point that it results in unconscious deception and selective memory.

To protect our self-worth, even when faced with evidence of our errors, our first impulse is to dig in and justify our position with even more tenacity.  We reject any evidence that contradicts our beliefs and find alternative explanations to support why we were right in the first place. This uneasy feeling that surfaces when we hold two ideas that can’t be reconciled is called “cognitive dissonance”.

This dissonance created between what we believed we were doing and what we actually did and how it was perceived by others, does create uneasiness and stress. Denial and self-justification seem a far easier route because we all want to think of ourselves as being honourable, competent and capable of doing the right thing.

That of course explains much of the animosity between my father and me.

Whereas he needs to focus on the good things he did as a husband and father, often to the exclusion of anything else, I’ve been battering at him to admit to other realities that would justify me being a distant and not so dutiful daughter. 

So where does that leave us? To be honest, I’m not sure.

I do know that when I got off the phone this week, I realized that my dad still might need some denial to justify the choices in his life. Yet I also know he did the best he could with what he had. Maybe he did even better than could be expected given the tools he had in an era that didn’t always allow men to be honest and open with their feelings.

On the other hand, I need to be more generous in giving my dad credit for what he did do right. 

Of course the challenge now is figuring out how to evolve our relationship or whether or not that’s even possible.

What I do know is that his honesty during that conversation made us both realize that mistakes were made. And, making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. After all, as some wise person once said, “When you know better, you do better”.

More than anything though, what’s different for me now is knowing that I want to send my dad a Hallmark card.  And that, perhaps, is as good a place to begin as any.

Posted on 01-13-08

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