After a decade of silence, we exchanged emails in 2018, when he learned that I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer. He wanted to see if I was going to live or die. We haven’t had any contact since. I’m not even sure if he knows that I survived.
As Toronto Raptors star Fred VanVleet recently said on my talk radio show, fathers ought to remember that their kids didn’t ask to be born. I never understood why my dad brought three kids into the world with my mom, only to leave our family behind. I probably never will understand, either.
Forgiving our fathers who abandon us isn’t about overlooking the trauma they cause in our lives. The trauma is real. Every single missed birthday or graduation hurts. But it’s not about them. It’s about us.
Failing to forgive means we’ll be harder on ourselves. University of Toronto psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peterson explained this dynamic in one of his popular Bible lectures on YouTube.
“You forgive because you’re an idiot, too. You’ll probably do something stupid and maybe you’d like the same kind of break at some point,” Peterson says while reflecting on the story of brothers Jacob and Esau. “The probability that you’ve done unethical things is 100 per cent. So If there were no way of setting the balance right after that, then everybody would be doomed.”
On the benefits of forgiveness, secular and religious sources are in agreement. In a study published in the Journal of Personality in 2005, University of Kansas researchers documented how forgiveness reduces distraction, vengeance, hostility, anger, anxiety and depression. According to this research, forgiveness also increases our general satisfaction with life.
From a Christian perspective, the late Pastor John Baker designed the Celebrate Recovery support group program with the foundational belief that forgiving others is essential to our own healing. Lesson 17 of the Celebrate Recovery participant’s guide states that, “You must ‘let go’ of the pain of the past harm and abuse caused by others. Until you are able to release it and forgive it, it will hold you prisoner.”
Since getting married last year, I’ve thought a lot about my father. As a husband, I haven’t made the same mistakes as him, but I’ve been far from perfect. By refusing to forgive my dad, I failed to appreciate just how difficult it is to be a good husband, especially if you carry childhood trauma. He failed at something that’s hard to do well. By forgiving my father for coming up short, I can forgive myself for the mistakes I make, too.
For the past 20 years, my Father’s Day tradition has been to rap along to the lyrics of “Where Have You Been” by Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel. I tear up every time I think about my two sisters as Sigel raps, “It’s about time we have a father-to-son/Sit down, let me tell you ’bout your fatherless sons/How they grew to be men and father they sons/Father they daughters — you left a fatherless daughter/I’ll never follow your orders.”
Starting this year, I have a new tradition: forgiveness. I forgive you, dad.
Jamil Jivani is an award-winning lawyer and author, who serves as the Government of Ontario’s first-ever advocate for Community Opportunities. He also leads a youth-focused research nonprofit, Road Home Research & Analysis, which is supported by the Pinball Clemens Foundation, and hosts a weekly radio show, “Tonight with Jamil Jivani” on Newstalk 1010.