This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Tommy Killackey, Fraternus Captain, describes the dead-end of passive victimhood and the liberation of love.
While every life is objectively a wonderful gift from God, I’ve always understood my life to be particularly miraculous. Decidedly before I was even conceived, my mother knew that my father’s mental disorder would make family life very difficult, perhaps impossible. How will the children be cared for if he becomes unfit? Should another child be brought into this? Unable to confide in her spouse, my mother sought counsel from our Heavenly Mother and received the abundantly clear reply: “Always be open to life.” It was from these marching orders that I came to be. But some 11 months after this, it became undeniable my father was no longer capable of being a father because of his illness, and my mother, with an infant and three other children under the age of 8, moved in with our grandparents. It was at this point that my father’s suffering extended to the whole family as we became, in effect, a fatherless home.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my father’s illness, goes well beyond whimsical inclinations to clean out desks or organize closets. Most people know OCD primarily from its usage as a casual expression referring to being intensely particular or tidy, but in reality, OCD truly debilitates a person and those in their household. How the illness manifests itself varies substantially from case to case, but suffice it to say there are many facets to it that make elements of “everyday life” near-impossible.
Though an annulment and the ability to remarry would likely have been granted to my mother, she only sought a civil divorce. In doing so, she attained full custody over us legally but remained married to my father within the Church to keep our family unified. Though this may seem a minor detail, it is at the heart of my story. Her choice impacted me in how I have dealt with the loss of my father.
A civil divorce to attain legal custody over us was a practical necessity, but remaining married to my father in the Church taught us we weren’t “starting over.” We were not going to turn a blind eye to the reality of our loss, nor were we going to bask in it. My mother always emphasized that while our father was physically absent due to his illness, we were a whole family and our father loved us, and this kept our family emotionally and spiritually unified. In the midst of undeserved suffering caused by uncontrollable circumstances, my mother’s example forever ingrained in me the truth that loving embrace was the path forward. “This is what we have been given, so let us embrace it full-heartedly with trust in God’s providence—God’s fatherhood.” Her unwillingness to blame my father or seek special treatment, and her steadfast love showed me how to escape embracing an identity as a victim. I have no doubt that the example my mother set for our family is the primary reason I have never harbored resentment toward my father. “Your father is a good, holy man” my mother would say, “But, he is a sick man.”
The Problems of Victimhood
Now, I’m surely and squarely a millennial, and if there’s a popular stereotype about us “snowflakes,” it’s our habit of finding ways to be pitied as a victim. “Millennial” and “victim” have practically become synonyms. In a certain sense, we are in fact all victims insofar that we are all the recipients of suffering in its many flavors. But when we suffer, we need not identify with it: the trap of victimhood is it permits suffering to become an identity rather than a circumstance. As Christians especially, we can see beyond the suffering itself and begin to recognize the purpose of that suffering—even if we can’t see that purpose in the midst of it. Being raised in a fatherless home was certainly my lot in life, and it was not my fault. I have suffered, yes, but that never necessitated that I become a passive victim who draws his identity inordinately from that fact. The trouble with victimhood is it acknowledges a legitimate evil done, but it offers no path forward.
Victimhood and Freedom
In this way, the response to suffering that victimhood proposes is transactional. Recognizing a lack of something that ought to be there but isn’t, a victim seeks repayment for this loss, but the pursuit of that recompense consumes him. When recompense must be paid, the million dollar question becomes, “From whom?” And here lies perhaps the most prominent problem with victimhood: it requires a villain. Blame needs to be pointed somewhere. Clenching onto the fact that the pain was undeserved, victimhood creates an embittered paralysis that is nothing short of slavery, a slavery that can only be undone, it would seem, through repayment of the evil caused by the perpetrator.
“We are not called to dwell in our suffering, but we are not asked to ignore it, either.”
Whether the crosses we bear in life are the result of a perpetrator or not, the mindset of victimhood chains us to our circumstances and in the process creates an identity out of it. Let us not forget that the primary beneficiary of forgiveness is the forgiver. As Jacques Philippe says in his book Interior Freedom:
“Resentment attacks our vital forces and does us much harm. When someone has made us suffer, our tendency is to keep the memory of the wrong alive in our minds, like a “bill” we will produce in due time to demand settlement. Those accumulated bills end up poisoning our lives. It is wiser to cancel every debt, as the Gospel invites us to. In return, we will be forgiven everything, and our hearts will be set free, whereas nurturing resentment toward others closes us to the positive things they could contribute to us.”
By rooting our identity in Christ we free ourselves from the bondage of victimhood and become capable of forgiveness. But to accomplish this monumental task we must follow Jesus into the tomb and, therefore, onto the resurrection of new life.
Stoics Are No Better
It should go without saying that the solution to the “culture of victimhood” is not accomplished by embracing the Dread Pirate Roberts’ attitude from The Pricess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.” While we are not called to wallow in the pain suffering gives us, refusing to acknowledge the effects suffering has on us—in a silent stoic despair— is equally harmful. The rough and tough attitude that says, “That’s just life, deal with it, wimp!” rarely does any good because it dismisses the reality of injustice and seeks to numb its effects on us as a coping mechanism. We are not called to dwell in our suffering, but we are not asked to ignore it, either.
While I’d like to think I’ve come out unscathed from a fatherless home, my story is no different than any other where the path to healing required a sober acceptance of the hurt I did, in fact, endure. I have always longed for a father’s firm grip on my shoulder—literal and figurative. A lack of paternal affirmation—that legitimization of who I was as a man facing life’s frontier— has almost always been the root cause of struggles I’ve faced in my life, most especially the struggle against isolation and the adoption of false identities.
I have made many mistakes in my life that stem from the lack of masculine affirmation I was subconsciously seeking. I substituted the false securities of girlfriends, accomplishments and popularity (or the attempt thereof) for the love and support of a father or mentor. This insecurity manifested itself most potently when, after an entire year, I was still heavily affected by a breakup with a girlfriend. It became clear my struggle had little to do with the breakup at all, and everything to do with the affirmation I needed from a father. When that relationship crumbled abruptly, so did my false identity, forcing me to reckon with the many insecurities borne of out my fatherlessness. But this experience, and many others like it, has taught me that solid masculine influence, unequivocally, cannot be artificially replaced.
The Purpose Love Brings to Pain
Suffering is inevitable. The question we all need to ask ourselves, therefore, is not whether we will bear crosses in life, but how shall we bear them? Suffering’s inevitability should not discourage or frighten us, because suffering has purpose. In the two extremes we’ve explored—wallowing victimhood and apathetic stoicism—there is a commonality: a failure to see that any greater good can come from suffering. Both viewpoints acknowledge the evil which caused the suffering, but neither knows what to do with that suffering. How easy it is for us to forget that when God became incarnate, He never set out to take away suffering but to teach us how to suffer. What my mother taught our family and what Christ taught His Church is that the answer to the “how” of suffering well is found in love.
Love changes everything. The victim hates his reality; the stoic chooses cold indifference. But love accepts and even rejoices in reality. Love doesn’t focus on all the good that isn’t there—the evil we encounter in our lives—but on the good that is there. More than this, love breaks the chains of embitterment and opens one up to the good. The reason the seemingly trivial decision my mother made to remain married to my father in the Church is so critical in my mind is it sent a resounding example in deeds of the words she spoke to us growing up: “Your father isn’t evil, he is sick. This is what we have been given, so let us rejoice in what we do have.”
Victimhood would have responded to my circumstance by identifying as a helpless victim of a broken household; stoicism would have numbed and discarded any pain felt. But love embraces reality as it is—it doesn’t focus on the good that should be there but isn’t—but passionately seeks the good that can fill a void. Rather than permitting a circumstance to become an identity, loving embrace permits a circumstance to become a means for a greater good. What love teaches us is that in accepting “our lot” full-heartedly, we allow God to work through our lives. For me, this has been the life-long pursuit of authentic masculine love I have found in countless mentors, becoming a Fraternus Captain, and understanding God as my Father in prayer.
Love isn’t blind optimism, but the recognition of the good inherent to reality. As Luigi Guissani said, “reality has never betrayed me.” My mother gave the witness of gratitude. What we can so easily forget is assuming when something ought to be there, we deserve it to be there. But all we are and have is a gift, right? Did I do anything to “deserve” being raised completely fatherless, averaging visits every couple of years? No. But did I do anything to deserve entering into this world at all? No. Do I not now have an opportunity to live life to its fullest? We simply cannot go through life defining what we deserve through some sort of self-declared merit.
Redemption doesn’t take away the pain of suffering, but it does transform suffering into something possibly good, and thereby gives the suffering meaning and purpose. The privation of a masculine figure has indeed caused ache, insecurity, and a multitude of other difficulties throughout my life. But it is precisely the acceptance, and even embrace, of this wound that has bestowed upon me an acute understanding and reverence for the importance of fatherhood and masculine love. But none of this is to my own credit: the redemption I have seen work throughout my life has never been my own doing since I can’t redeem myself. None of us can. But what we can do is see reality as the pure gift it is and embrace it—even with its inevitable crosses—and in doing so, permit the only One Who can sanctify it work through our suffering—not despite our suffering, but because of it.