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To Reconcile or Not to Reconcile
Posted By Dr. Ben Kim
Earlier this year, my wife Margaret and I decided to homeschool our boys. We agonized over this decision for more than a year, weighing our options and thinking about how to best support our sons as they grow and mature into thoughtful, service-minded, self-sufficient, and emotionally intelligent adults.
When I first mentioned to my parents about a year ago that we were thinking of homeschooling, my father made it clear that he could not accept this decision. He was absolutely certain that homeschooling would destroy our boys' lives, and he wasn't going to sit back and let this happen to his grandsons. He threatened to never see us again unless we sent our boys to school.
Because of his reaction then, upon making the decision to begin homeschooling this year, I thought it would be best not to discuss this with my parents. I knew that they would be upset, and I thought it would be best if they found out after they could see some of the fruits of our efforts with homeschooling.
After learning of our decision, my mom expressed her belief on kids needing to socialize with other kids, and tried to persuade me to re-think our decision. But after listening to our plans and understanding that we are giving our boys plenty of opportunities to socialize with other kids and adults in a safe and healthy way, she said that she would hope for the best, and that she had to trust our efforts.
My father refused to speak to me. Thankfully, he went on a scheduled trip to Korea, so I had a few weeks to peacefully take Margaret and our boys to my parents' place for our regular visits, and life continued as normal.
When he returned, I felt that enough time had elapsed that he would be receptive to having a conversation with me. So I gave him a call and invited him out to lunch, just the two of us to try to better understand one another.
It didn't take long for me to realize that he would not consider our thoughts on homeschooling. As he lost his temper, he told me that I had destroyed our boys' lives, that he would never forgive me, and that I had cheated him. Just before he hung up on me, he screamed that his two grandsons were walking into a burning building.
Sitting at my desk with a dial tone in my ear, I was shaken. It was nothing new to be at the receiving end of my father's wrath, bewildered by not fully understanding why he was so angry. But this time, for reasons I couldn't identify, I felt like he inflicted a permanent wound.
How could he be so certain that he was right and that our decision to homeschool was wrong? Why couldn't he at least consider some of our reasons for homeschooling? And the most difficult thought for me to reflect on: How could he say that he would never forgive me for this decision? As a father of two boys, I simply cannot imagine saying such a thing to either of my sons - to me, it's like telling my boys that I don't care about them.
Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to find peace within. I reflected in solitude and sought counsel from those I'm closest to. I had to believe that there wasn't much I could do about my father's tyrannical approach to dealing with conflict. I had exerted genuine effort to reconcile with him, and he responded by puncturing my heart with his anger. What more could I do?
All of my thinking pointed to one thing: To preserve my health and to protect our boys in the future from my father's inability to resolve conflict in a peaceful and thoughtful way, the right move was to not contact my father and give him the opportunity to make good on his threat to never see us again. Intellectually, this felt right to me.
Over the past two decades, my older sister has been able to approach her relationship with our father with just enough apathy to preserve her health. She decided long ago that her feelings were not a top priority in his life, so she would not make his feelings a top priority in hers. And in knowing her all this time, I can see that this approach works for her. She is happily married, has a fulfilling professional career, and is delighted to be a mom to my treasured niece. She isn't held captive by feelings of sadness or guilt over not having a closer relationship with our father.
This is what I thought I should do as well. To preserve myself and the family that I am raising.
But alas, it didn't take me long to realize that to be indifferent to my father - as much as I sometimes feel his behavior justifies this - is not to preserve my health, but to more quickly erode it. My hard-wiring is different from that of my older sister's. I don't feel more at peace by giving him a stiff arm. I feel more anguish by the day.
Why my hard-wiring is this way, I don't know. He did give me the gift of being confident in my abilities. As a five or six year old, I remember lying beside him in bed while he would list all of the things I was good at. Our times playing catch in the backyard - even the time when I accidentally launched a ball through a basement window - are bittersweet for me - bitter because I was always one mistake away from his disapproval, and sweet because nothing felt as good as seeing my father proud of my abilities. Maybe these and other similar memories that are deeply embedded into my grey matter are responsible for me not having the mechanism that my older sister has to cut off when indicated and move forward.
Bottom line: Indifference wasn't working. So I decided that to care for myself and those who are affected by my health status (mainly Margaret, our boys, and my mom), I needed to find a way to reconcile with my father. With this goal in mind, I turned to the one thing that I have found to be consistently effective in soothing my own hurt feelings: I tried to get into my father's head.
Physically, he is all of his 69 years of living. But emotionally, he is still the seventh of eight siblings growing up in Korea, emotionally and physically neglected in almost every way.
When my father thinks of school, I imagine that he remembers sitting at attention with his friends in class, thirsting to please their teachers and earn top grades. I think he remembers being able to talk and joke freely with his peers during recess, something that was impossible at home around his parents, where children of that generation and culture didn't have an open invitation to make requests or bring up their own ideas in front of their father. To him, going to school was liberating. It was a place where he could learn, hope, and dream.
Being the ultra conservative and oddly sentimental chap that he is, my father assumes that public school in western society today is an oasis that provides the same blend of salvation and guidance that school gave him as a child in post-war Korea.
And being the father of his own family, though he recognizes that his children grew up in Canada, he expects my sisters and I to show him the same respect that he gave to his parents, which is to say that he tends to get massively offended whenever we don't think to consult with him before making any major decisions, even those involving our own children. As a seventh child who received so little attention, what he craves most is respect, and when he feels disrespected by his children, he loses his temper.
Even today, Korean culture is such that when all of us sit down to eat together, none of us dares lift up a spoon or chopsticks until our father has eaten his first mouthful. In traditional Korean families, the father is King. Though he doesn't necessarily relish everyday displays of subservience, he expects them and accepts them as normal, just as the rest of us do.
Marinating in these and other thoughts gave me the strength I needed to call him one more time. It wasn't an easy conversation, but a conversation it was.
Ultimately, I knew that he desperately missed seeing his grandsons. I also knew that he would not change his stance on public vs. homeschooling. He made it clear that he knew he was right, and that he had zero interest in hearing our thoughts on why we decided to homeschool for now.
As frustrated as I was with his stance, my goal was to make it possible for him and my mom to visit and spend time with their grandsons. So I repeatedly emphasized that I understood that his stance was out of his love and concern for our boys. I stressed that Margaret and I have hopes and dreams for our boys, just as he does. I told him that I understood that he felt that we were going to fail, and I asked him to try to trust us and to hope that our efforts turn out to be good for our sons.
It was an hour-long conversation, one that he tried to end several times. It was almost as though he knew that he could blow at any moment.
And then, close to the end, he blurted out his main grievance. He said that I destroyed his dream.
"What was your dream, dad?"
"It was to move up to your neighborhood, hold each of my grandson's hands as I walk them to school, watch them go into their classrooms for the day, and then in the afternoon, to go and greet them after class and walk them home. That was my dream, and you took it away from me."
So this is why in our earlier conversation he angrily accused me of cheating him. I had cheated him of this dream.
I was thoroughly exasperated. I wanted to tell him that this was one of ten thousand examples of his self-centeredness. It's good to have dreams, and I'm glad that you love your grandsons this much, but you ripped my heart up because all you could focus on was your dream? These are our boys, and we have dreams, too, dreams for them, and this is why we as their parents are making the sacrifice of homeschooling our sons.
I wanted to holler this. But I knew all too well from experience that if I raised my voice and started with these thoughts, he would hang up on me and we wouldn't communicate until the next time I could gather enough strength to call him.
So I told him that I was really sorry that that particular dream couldn't come true just yet, but I asked him to look forward to other dreams involving him and his grandsons, like going to tennis tournaments, family vacations, and even one day going to set them up wherever they choose to go to university.
I asked him if he was okay if I brought the boys for a visit sometime. Though I knew he wanted this more than anything, his pride wouldn't allow him to say yes. After several seconds of silence, all he could manage was a quiet "you decide."
But I had to know that he wouldn't give our boys pressure about going to public school. So I said, "dad, I just want to know that you won't give Joshua and Noah pressure to go to school, that in front of them, you'll be supportive." He immediately cut me off and told me that this was a great insult. How could I think that he, a 69-year old man, would give his 6-year old grandson that kind of pressure?
I apologized. I explained that I had no intent to insult him, I just had to be sure.
And that's where we are today.
I'm left feeling like I made it out of a minefield, grateful to be alive, but severely debilitated from stress.
How are we to deal with adult family members who, for any number of reasons, don't have the ability to think very far beyond their own perspective? Should we continue to maintain relations with someone who chooses to bully to try to get his or her own way rather than engage in respectful conversation?
To reconcile or not to reconcile, that is the question. And in considering the starkly different approaches that have worked for me and my older sister, I'm left feeling like there is rarely an easy answer.
I suspect that my father is similar to most people whose family members have strongly considered giving up on. He has good intentions. He fully believes in his own righteousness. He feels moved by God Himself to correct faulty life decisions by his children.
As the seventh of eight siblings growing up in a one-room home in South Korea, he was the only one who would help his grandmother to her chamber pot whenever she needed to go. He would wipe her clean while some of his siblings complained about the wretched smell. Why did he do this? Because his maternal grandmother often held him in her lap. She told him stories, mainly about Jesus. She prayed for him. To a boy who rarely if ever received an ounce of physical affection from his exhausted and likely disillusioned parents, the love that he received from his grandmother was probably more life-sustaining than bowls of rice, broth, and kim chi. How do I know this about my father's childhood? My father's oldest sister, my dear aunt in New York City, told me.
The thing is, none of these details likely matter to most of the people that my father has interacted with over the years. Why would acquaintances put aside their hurt feelings and judgments to consider why my father sometimes behaves like a tyrannical dictator? And this is why at 69 years of age, at heart, I believe that my father feels like his life has mostly been a failure. It's also why he feels that many people have committed great crimes against him, like how I cheated him of his dream to walk his two grandsons to and from school.
How do you save a person like my father from his self destructive ways of thinking and being? I hope that I'm wrong, but I no longer believe you can. A person can't change into something that he can't feel. A person can't give something that he doesn't have. Just as you get orange juice when you squeeze an orange, when you squeeze my dad at this point in his life, you get mostly a cocktail of grievances.
I'm relatively certain that our recent rift over homeschooling isn't the last time my father will feel that I have wronged him. It won't be the last time that I will feel like my father doesn't care about my feelings. If this experience has taught me anything, it's that for me and my dad, I need to find a way to reconcile. I don't really know how to handle the alternative.
More than anything else, I write all of this as a release for my endocrine and nervous systems. Yes, my father may stumble upon this post, and if he does, well, dad, you know that I have expressed every thought here to you in person. You know that I haven't asked you for a thing since I was about 20 years old. You know that despite my flaws, I have tried to be a good son. So please forgive me for insulting you and please know that I needed to write this with hope that it will mean something to someone out there.
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