Soon it will be Christmas. ‘Tis the season to be jolly and spend time with loved ones. For most of us deaf people it’s also the season for great angst – as I wrote last year: https://lifeanddeaf.net/2015/12/09/christmas-angst-is-coming-to-town/
This year I’ve been thinking a lot about acceptance and forgiveness.
When I was in my thirties, a friend, let’s call him Sam, hurt me deeply and I struggled to deal with my emotions about it. Sam wanted to meet to discuss what had happened but I just wanted to shut him out. During a conversation with a mutual friend, let’s call her Jane, I asked: “What does forgiveness mean?”
Sam could, I told her, tell me he was sorry, he could say sorry a thousand times but it wouldn’t change what he had done and it wouldn’t remove the emotions I was feeling.
Jane said she thought forgiveness meant giving Sam the chance to talk things over with me, sharing with him what I was feeling and the effect his actions had on me; it was about allowing him into my confidence, not shutting him out.
I thought about it and agreed to meet Sam and we talked for a long time. Sam struggled to understand my point of view because he genuinely was sorry and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t let it go, but he listened. And finally he said: “I understand now. I have lost your trust. And I need to work to rebuild that trust.”
Sam and I are still friends. Our friendship is different and both our lives have changed, but we are still friends.
From that experience I learnt a lot about forgiveness, lessons that have made my life much richer. But forgiveness and acceptance mean different things in different situations and relationships and I’m still learning new things about it.
My father died a few months ago. He was a lovely man in so many ways, kind, generous, tolerant, and I loved him deeply, just as I know he loved me. But ours was not an easy relationship simply because I am deaf and communication was difficult. As is common with many fathers of deaf children, he largely left the communication to my mother.
After I left home, my parents often visited me wherever I was living. Most years I spent some time, usually in the summer, with them at the Far North Queensland sugar farm where I grew up. I went swimming with Mum and watched the cricket with Dad. It was the only time I ever enjoyed cricket.
As we got older, Dad and I both made more effort to communicate more directly with each other but our communication was always more limited and never as easy as that enjoyed between him and my siblings.
Of course I could say that he could have learned to sign, as could all of my family. I just never expected that of my childhood hearing family. I was born hearing and became deaf when I was eight, after I had already acquired fluent English and speech. As happens for so many people, the ‘experts’ told my parents not to let me sign. When I did learn Auslan in my twenties my mother asked one day if it would help if she too learned. Although touched and grateful for her offer, I told her not to worry about it. She and I already had quite easy communication. I just always accepted that signing isn’t part of my relationship with my parents and siblings.
My father was 88 when he died and I was almost 60. For others an easy man to know, he was much loved within our large extended family and his local community. Throughout my life I thought a lot about our relationship and I grieved for it, I wished we could be more close.
A few years before his passing, I realised that our relationship wasn’t going to change, there wasn’t really anything either he or I could do to change it. It was what it was.
I also realised that I actually did have a good relationship with my father and I did know him well. My knowing him was based less on verbal communication and more on observing, doing, sharing and just hanging out together.
And so I reached acceptance and forgiveness – of both him and myself – and I was able to let my father go with love. Now I grieve only that he is no longer here. This will be our first Christmas without him.
The feeling of not being close to or knowing our parents well, especially our fathers, seems to be common among deaf people who grow up in hearing families. Recently I was discussing this with a deaf friend who told me that at her father’s funeral her siblings shared stories about him that she hadn’t known before. One day she mentioned to a mutual acquaintance, a very down to earth deaf woman, that she’d recently been to her father’s funeral. Before she could say anything about it, this understanding woman said kindly: “And you learned something.”
This experience with my father has changed how I think about these things. I understand that many (but by no means all) deaf people do experience very difficult relationships with their parents. But I wonder now if we give too much emphasis to the verbal communication aspects and see things too much only from our own point of view.
I do believe that most parents try to do the best they can for their children. They don’t always get it right or get good advice from experts or the support they need. It can be incredibly hard and heartbreaking for them.
I wonder now if perhaps more of us would find acceptance and forgiveness, be happier and healthier if we tried to understand our parents’ experience as well as our own and if we treasured more the non-verbal and doing aspects of our relationships with them.
Every relationship is different, as is every acceptance and forgiveness. Some things we accept and forgive without fully realising it. For people who are regularly treated poorly, this can become something we do automatically as a form of self-preservation. It isn’t good for our own health to get upset about every insult and injustice.
In the early 1990s when I was a librarian at the State Library of NSW I was out one day with my hearing boss. I had purchased my ticket for some forgotten event and was waiting nearby for Val to buy hers. Preoccupied with people-watching, I was startled when Val joined me, all upset.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“I just told that ticket seller off,” she said. “Did you know how rude she was to you when you were buying your ticket and had trouble understanding what she was saying?”
“Oh that?” I said. “That stuff happens all the time.”
“Really? I had no idea! How can you put up with it?” she asked, shocked.
“You just do,” I said. “If I got upset about it every time it happens I’d be a nervous wreck.”
We might turn a blind eye to people who are rude to us because it’s not worth the emotional energy of trying to – usually unsuccessfully – challenge it. Sometimes forgiveness means letting go and moving on.
But it doesn’t mean giving up and putting up with all the terrible ways that people and society often treat us.
It was Val who one day told me that in every difficult situation we always have three choices: accept it, change it, or leave it. I have often used this bit of wisdom in all kinds of situations and generally I find it to be true.
But sometimes it isn’t practical. Not for us deaf people. Some things are unacceptable, leaving the situation may not be in our best interests and changing it is difficult because change depends on other people changing their behaviour.
This is true of things like abuse of our rights, poor education, prejudice, discrimination in the workplace, exclusion from the community. In these situations we can adopt a form of acceptance and forgiveness (“for they know not what they do”) while we do the long-term work of changing it.
Many deaf people find this very hard to do. So many are angry. So many are terribly hurt and damaged by the treatment we receive. Quite understandably they rail against the injustice and demand their rights in ways that achieve little if any change. And so many struggle with mental health issues.
For 30 years I dedicated my life to advocating for the human rights of deaf people. I loved it and am proud of the advances I helped achieve. In many ways life is better for us now than it was 30 years ago. In some ways it isn’t and some of our achievements are being eroded, especially by mean-spirited governments. There are still a lot of ignorant and uncaring people out there and we still have a long way to go.
I believe now that our society is not yet mature enough to accept deaf people, or indeed disabled people in general, as equals. Hopefully one day it will be, and it’s important that we all continue to work towards this, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
Have I given up now that I’ve retired from active full-time advocacy? No way! I still believe advocacy is vital and I still help Deaf Australia a bit behind the scenes, still support and encourage friends in their advocacy efforts.
But I believe that we all need to find some kind of acceptance and forgiveness that makes it easier to live our lives in positive, healthy ways. I believe that we all spend too much energy focussing too much on the hurt and the negatives. We need to change how we think. We need to focus more on the positives in our lives.
The negatives will still be there and we will still need to work at changing them. But when we accept, forgive and count our blessings (and we all have some) we are stronger and more able to cope with the negatives. We are more able to keep them at a distance and live our lives with health and happiness.
A good place to start is with our own families this festive season. We could do what Sam and I did all those years ago. We could allow them into our confidence, talk things over with them, share with them what we feel and listen to their point of view. We might be surprised by what we learn.
Or if that’s too hard, and for many people it will be, we could do what I did with my father. We could think about how love takes many forms. It’s not all spoken. Much of it is based not on verbal communication, but on observing, doing, sharing and just hanging out together.
I wish you all a joyous and forgiving Christmas!