Freeing Myself Through Forgiveness

Yolanda Young - Washington, District of Columbia
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, September 24, 2007
Yolanda Young

Yolanda Young’s father was rarely a part of her life, and it was not pleasant when he was. Despite never having loved her father, Young still believes it’s important to forgive him and his failings.

Age Group: 30 - 50

Recently I emailed my father. I wrote: “It was good to hear from you. I’m glad you’re well. Take care.” I last heard from him when he emailed my webpage wishing me a happy belated birthday. He wrote in February. My birthday was in October.

Forgetting my birthday is the least of my father’s failings. I was five when my parents divorced. He moved across the country and I rarely saw or heard from him. When I was 17, I watched him beat a woman in the street. His violence wasn’t a revelation. I’d already witnessed him shoot my mother.

Here’s where you gasp, look upon me with pitying eyes and assume that I must hate my father. I don’t. His last act of violence against my mother was in some ways a lucky break. My mother went right on living, and through her I came to believe in the power of forgiveness.

She never complained about his not paying child support. On the rare occasions that he called or visited, the woman insisted that I be respectful. Momma always made the distinction: My father hurt her, not me. Sure there were moments when he pissed me off — when he blamed my mother for the shooting or berated me for asking for money while I was in college. Five years later he was offended when I didn’t invite him to my law school graduation. Despite all this, he is still my father. When he is sick, I call and check on him. When he dies, if there is no money, a likelihood, I will bury him.

While I’m not fond of my father, I may be the only family member who does not despise him. I believe this is because I never loved him. When I was a child, I was open to it, but he wasn’t around and hard to love when he was. But I didn’t miss not having a father thanks to the daily presence of my grandfather and uncles. They taught me to play basketball and spades, and arranged modest vacations to Six Flags and the Bayou Classic. Some say having my father do these things would have been better, in much the same way that not growing up poor would have been better, but I believe what has made the difference is that I grew up happy and loved.

There are ways in which I’m very much my father’s daughter. My height, eyes and premature graying are thanks to him. I have his stubborn streak and, on rare occasions, his temper; but I also possess his ambition and ingenuity.

A few years after law school when I declined to handle a legal matter for him, he told me that he was cutting me off. “If that’s what you want,” I replied, understanding my father’s emotional struggles but not becoming hostage to them. Now he is appealing to me for a relationship. I’m still open to it. Throughout my life, my father has asked me for many things, but never forgiveness.

I believe in forgiveness. I give it freely and in doing so, free myself.

Yolanda Young is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and author of the book and syndicated column, “On Our Way to Beautiful." She previously worked for the National Football League Players’ Association. Young is on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Edited by Ellen Silva.