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    2 boys looking out window

    Forgiving a Father Who Left

    Twenty-six years is a pretty long time to hold a grudge. It was time to try to reconnect.

    By Johann Christoph Arnold

    October 26, 2022
    • Katherine Trotter

      A very powerful, beautiful story. God is good.

    From the book Why Forgive?.

    Dan Hallock, a fellow member of my church, grew up on a farm in New York. By all accounts it was a wholesome childhood; he and his five siblings learned to work hard, while enjoying a “great family life.”

    Then something happened which had a devastating effect on me and my brothers and sisters. My father had an affair and abandoned our family very suddenly to be with this other woman. He just up and left my mother with six children. Mom said, “Well, what am I supposed to do with your children?” He said, “You’ll survive,” and then walked out the door.

    I watched as my mom, who had never touched a drop of alcohol, began to drink heavily. I watched as she spent the evenings sitting on the basement steps, weeping. Feeling abandoned, and bereft of any fatherly guidance, my brothers and sisters and I all began to make bad choices; we got into drugs and alcohol and promiscuous sex and were basically consumed by despair.

    One time after bar hopping with one of my friends and drinking quite a bit, I was riding in his car when he told me to hold the wheel while he lit his cigarette. The next thing I remember is waking up in an emergency room. We had hit a tree at fifty miles an hour. My nose was smashed – the airways flattened – and my jaws were broken. My face was completely black with bruising and swelling. The surgeon who spent all night fixing me up came by the next morning, pale as a sheet. He said, “Son, I don’t know how you lived. I’ve never seen anyone with that kind of facial trauma survive. You better start thinking about what path your life is taking, or else you’re soon going to be dead.” I didn’t listen to him.

    Meanwhile, I began to hate my father for what he had done to my family, and for what he had done to me. It was a real, deep hatred. I think one part of it was that I had been very good in school and at sports, and I somehow thought I was entitled to a “good life.” I had the world by the tail, and my dad had robbed me of that. So I threw myself into having a good time anyway, as best I could.

    I was also very ambitious. I worked hard to get into Cornell, an Ivy League university, and was willing to sell my soul for my ambitions. I didn’t want any part with the armed forces, but realized the only way I could pay for college was with a military scholarship. So I signed up anyway. I spent two years with the Navy-ROTC – I went through boot camp, worked on a nuclear submarine, and did a stint on an amphibious assault ship.

    Portrait of Daniel Hallock as a young man

    Dan Hallock

    Meanwhile, Dan’s growing resentment toward his father fueled his devil-may-care attitude and led him to continue making bad choices. Looking back, he says his life at the time could be summed up by the motto, “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” The pursuit of fun was worth any cost.

    At Cornell, I was getting more and more heavily into all kinds of drugs. One night I was coming home with some friends from a rock concert; it was dark, and there are some pretty deep gorges on campus – basically cliffs that drop to a streambed about a hundred feet below. We were walking along one of these cliffs, and I was in the front. My friends say that one minute I was there, and the next I was gone. They were sure I was dead. They sent someone to notify the police and get them to recover my body.

    Meanwhile I had woken up on my back, looking up into a sky full of stars, with tears streaming down my face. I was crying because I felt I had been some wonderful place, and that someone had told me, “You need to come back; it’s not your time.”

    What had happened was that at one point along this mile-long stretch of gorge, the drop is interrupted by a three-foot ledge about thirty feet from the top. I had landed on that ledge.

    Dan’s rescuers expected him to be in critical condition, and probably paralyzed. But even though he had fallen thirty feet and landed on his back on bare rock, he was fine, and didn’t have even one bruise or scratch.

    My friends looked at me like I was a ghost. One said, “You should be dead.” But I wasn’t, so I boasted that I had once again cheated death – and went out and got high …

    After graduating from college, Dan found a good job in the defense industry and moved to Connecticut. Before long, however, everything came crashing down. His girlfriend of four years, whom he had planned to marry, left him. He did more and more drugs. He remembers feeling that while all his friends seemed happy – making a lot of money, going on vacations, and buying condos and new cars – he was deeply, desperately unhappy:

    My life was totally empty; I didn’t see any purpose in any of it, and I wanted out. My employer tried everything to get me to stay. They offered me a hundred dollars an hour. I took it, and was soon making more money than I knew what to do with, though I sensed it was the devil’s offer. Finally I got to the point where I didn’t have any reason to go on living. One night I took way too much cocaine and went out driving, as fast as I could, basically trying to kill myself. I drove all through the night. But somehow God must have had hold of that steering wheel, because I ended up at dawn back at my apartment, and realized I hadn’t even been able to kill myself.

    Years later a friend and I were talking, and he asked me, “How long has it been since you’ve seen your dad?” I had to think about it for a while before I could answer. It was twenty-six years.

    My friend said, “Isn’t it about time you went and saw him, and told him you love him, before it’s too late?”

    I said, “What? Go and see my dad? You have got to be kidding me! My father destroyed our entire family; he destroyed my mom; he destroyed my brothers and sisters! He’s got another woman, and you want me to go see him and put my arms around him and tell him I love him?”

    My friend said, “Forget all that. Just go see him and tell him you love him.”

    What? Go and see my dad? You have got to be kidding me! My father destroyed our entire family; he destroyed my mom; he destroyed my brothers and sisters!

    Well, that made me really mad, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to do just that. For years, I had connected my despair solely to my resentment against my father. But in actual fact, other factors played into it, not the least of which were my recently-severed relationship with my girlfriend, my loneliness in the yuppie world and among my co-workers in the defense industry, and guilt over my selfish lifestyle, especially my spiraling drug habit.

    Back to my friend, and his insistence that I visit my dad: my initial reaction was offended dignity. The injustice of it! – sweeping so much pain under the carpet, without my father acknowledging it, so that he could feel better while I continued to suffer … I resisted the idea with every fiber of my being.

    But my friend wouldn’t give up. Maybe he felt that such an encounter would show me my own need to forgive and be forgiven. If so, he was right: the more I thought about it, the less certain I became of my own unyielding position. True, I had lived for years with that low-level but persistent pain that results when a family is shattered. But did I really still hate my dad? I couldn’t say that any more.

    Eventually Dan convinced himself that it was time to try to reconnect with his father. He told himself that twenty-six years was a pretty long time to hold a grudge, even if getting over it might stir up things he’d rather not revisit, or end in disappointment. But he was still kind of scared about what he would find:

    I arranged to meet Dad at a beach near my hometown. It was a four-hour drive. I parked my car and waited until the appointed time, but Dad didn’t show. It was raining. I waited another ten minutes, but still he didn’t show up. I waited some more. Then I noticed an old man with white hair, bent over, walking along the beach. There was something familiar in the way he walked. I took a closer look, got out of the car, and walked up to him. That’s when I recognized him. And you know what? The moment I looked into his eyes and saw the torment that he had gone through all those years, I realized that I was not one bit better. At first, all we could do was hold each other and weep. Then we asked one another for forgiveness and said that we loved one another. That embrace was a turning point in my life.

    Reflecting on the occasion many years later, Dan told me that one of the key things about reconciling with his father was the new perspective it gave him:

    Actually seeing the condition my father was in, both physically and in terms of the inner torment reflected in his eyes, made me realize that this twenty-six-year-old image I’d had of him (a dashing pursuer of women, heartless before the needs of his wife and children) was completely outdated. That person no longer existed. Instead, I saw an old man weighed down by a lifelong struggle with regret and pain, and a perceived inability to set things right. And as I found out, Dad’s pain went right back to his childhood. At that meeting he told me about his own mother’s unfaithfulness, and how it had shattered his family and stunted him emotionally.

    Seeing my dad like this brought to the surface my own pain and regret and longing to set things right. I asked myself, “How can I deny love to my dad, when I myself have been such a jerk, hurting other people, and standing in need of forgiveness myself?” I had never seen him so broken and lonely and vulnerable, as he pled with me to show some understanding.

    Here I stumbled on a mystery I still haven’t figured out. Up until that point in my life, it was like there was a lock on my heart; but that moment unlocked something. Up until then I would never, ever have considered having any kind of relationship again, because of what had happened in my family and in my own life. But today I am happily married, and my wife and I have three children. There are many other ways, too, that my life has become peaceful and filled with joy, because of forgiveness.

    So this is what I always try to leave people with when I tell them my story: if you’re carrying grudges, especially in your family, go find the person you think you hate, and hug them and tell them you love them. Try it.

    Contributed By JohannChristophArnold Johann Christoph Arnold

    A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold was a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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