I’m not into gardening, but I did marry an Idaho farm boy. My husband can grow almost anything. Over the years, he has taught me some basic principles about planting, sowing, and harvesting. (I’ve always been familiar with scriptural metaphors of bitter roots producing bitter fruit, but I was clueless regarding the earthly components of this spiritual and temporal principle.) I’ve come to appreciate more fully the miracle of planting and harvesting. Furthermore, I’ve learned to respect an insidiously potent foe called “root rot.” The scriptures call it a “bitter root.”
In my last two posts, I wrote about California’s redwood and sequoia trees and used them as a metaphor for nurturing and sustaining our faith. I also discussed the redwoods’ shallow and intertwined root systems that give the tree “families” strength, support, and stability. California’s rich soil also produces large crops of fruit trees and orange groves. (When my husband visited California for the first time, he continually marveled over its black rich soil.) Unfortunately, a basic fact of nature includes oppositional forces that hurt and often destroy living things. For vegetation–even under the best of circumstances–a root or root system can become rotten or bitter and destroy the entire plant, tree, orchard, or forest.
In this post, I will discuss the temporal, emotional, and spiritual definitions of rooted bitterness and how to recognize the byproduct of bitter fruit within ourselves, our relationships, and our faith and testimonies. We should recognize that bitter roots and bitter fruits within our family systems are often parallel to our bitter roots and bitter fruits that rot away our faith and testimonies of the Church, its leaders, and, eventually, of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (I also add this disclaimer: In my opinion, a person can be emotionally and spiritually healthy yet still lose their testimony of the Church and/or its leaders. Obviously, I believe LDS doctrine contains ultimate truths. Others will disagree with me, and their disagreement doesn’t make them wrong or “bitter” by default.) Walk again with me, dear readers, through California’s coastal redwood forests and among fruit orchards where we examine various root systems and disease and then metaphorically apply these earthly principles to our emotional and spiritual health and well-being.
Are Your Relationships and Your Faith Suffering From Root Rot or a Bitter Root?
Root rot is a condition that, if left untreated, will kill plants and trees. Gardeners and botanists are often unaware of root rot until it is advanced because the first symptoms occur beneath the soil and out of sight from the gardener. Immediate action is necessary once the plants or trees begin showing the results of root rot such as yellow leaves, stunted growth, or fungus growth on tree bark.
Coastal redwoods are susceptible to this and other fungal diseases, particularly if the trees grow in poor conditions. The fungus Phytophtlora cinnamomi thrives in wet, poorly drained soil and causes root rot. Once the tree turns completely brown, it is usually dead. Redwoods that grow in well-drained, cool, moist soil in their native habitat are less susceptible to these diseases.“Symptoms of Fungi in Redwood Trees,” SFGate.
According to Scientific American:
Sequoia trees, when they die, it is often indirectly because of root rot or another weakening of the base. Fire, root rot, and dry spells do not typically affect the whole tree but if they destabilize the base, gravity can eventually take the tree down. This process takes a long time, as evidenced by the fact that sequoias are some of the longest living organisms on the planet.Walker, 2016, Are Giant Sequoia Trees Succumbing to the Drought?
In plants, root rot can be identified by the presence of soft, brown roots. According to Pennington’s website:
The root system of a healthy plant should be firm and white. But when soil is soggy, fungal spores multiply and the fungus starts to spread, developing in the extremities of the roots first. As the fungus advances, healthy portions of root turn brown and mushy as the roots die. The plant is then unable to absorb the nutrients it needs, and that deficiency becomes apparent in the condition of plant foliage. Leaves begin to wilt and turn yellow or fall off, growth slows, and blooming may be delayed. In extreme cases, when conditions are ideal for the fungus to spread quickly, plants can die within 10 days.
A Closer Look at Bitterness
Let’s pause for a moment, dear readers, and take a closer look at the insidiousness of bitterness. The Christian website, Crosswalk, examines this idea through a spiritually inclined lens:
The reason that bitterness is so extremely dangerous is because it can take root and begin to grow and spread and spiritually contaminate and defile your heart and spirit before you even realize what’s wrong with you. Sinful human nature makes it very easy for us to rationalize and justify ourselves for harboring hurt feelings or a grudge against others when we feel they have wronged us. In fact, we can even feel this way toward God. Like the roots of most plants, little ‘roots’ of resentment and bitterness usually lie below the surface where they remain unseen. But there they begin to spread and grow, going ever deeper and deeper. If allowed to continue, such roots of bitterness will eventually eat away at your very heart and spirit, until they will finally devour and destroy you spiritually. Bitterness may appear harmless when it is small, but if it is allowed to grow, its tendrils of resentment, malice, and hatred soon clasp themselves around the heart and eventually kill the soul.
The website further discusses the germination process of bitterness:
The seed of bitterness is planted in someone. It may be intentional or unintentional. Someone does not mean to hurt you, but you were hurt. Sometimes the hurt is only imagined. No one has hurt you but somehow you feel that someone has done something wrong to you. There are also times when the hurt may be the very chastisement of God upon your life. The soil of bitterness is a heart that harbors hostility and does not deal with hurt by the grace of God. The world is full of people who have not dealt with an old hurt. They look for things to criticize, people to find fault with, and ways to justify the way they feel. Have you ever seen people who are hypercritical? Generally, they are bitter people. They know how to push your hot buttons until you react in a way to further justify their bitterness. Then, they can say, ‘Aha! I was right. I have a right to be bitter.’http://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/the-root-of-bitterness-1167870.html
Surely, we’ve all associated in varying degrees with these types of people. And, we all have tendencies to harbor our own forms of bitterness in varying degrees. There’s a saying that says, “Hurting people hurt others.” So true. And for our own sakes, we must set appropriate boundaries or cut truly toxic people from our lives. Harder still, is to admit the depth and breadth of our own toxicity and its affect upon ourselves and others. But what about bitter roots and and bitter fruit affecting our spirituality, our faith and our testimonies? Surely, toxic people–who interpret LDS doctrine through a toxic or bitter lens–exist within the Church. They (and perhaps ourselves) may sow seeds of faith that sicken and succumb to root rot which poisons their faith and often the faith of others. We all have some sort of toxicity that, if we’re not careful, we incubate and grow a bitter root that produces bitter fruit. Nurturing our faith and healthy family systems requires vigilance and constant digging and pruning. Before we can root out any bitterness, however, we must learn to recognize a bitter root to avoid incubating it.
An article from Psychology Today offers additional clarity–this time through a lens focused on mental and emotional health. Again, we need to remember this significant causality: Our spiritual and emotional selves are very intertwined; what affects one will affect the other. Do the feelings or attitudes described in the excerpt below resonate with you, dear readers? Do you feel bitterness toward yourself, your loved ones, toward Church doctrine, Church leaders, or Church members? If so, you might have a bitter root inside yourself that is producing some bitter fruit:
All bitterness starts out as hurt. And your emotional pain may well relate to viewing whomever (or whatever) provoked this hurt (generally, your assumed ‘perpetrator’) as having malicious intent. As committing a grave injustice toward you; as gratuitously wronged you and is causing you grief. For anger–and its first cousin, resentment–is what we’re all likely to experience whenever we conclude that another has seriously abused us [or someone else]. Left to fester, that righteous anger eventually becomes the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness. Fellow Psychology Today blogger, Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., defines bitterness as ‘a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment,’ and deservedly regards it as ‘one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions.’ I’d add that if we repeatedly ruminate over how we’ve been victimized, our ‘nursing’ our wrongs may eventually come to define some essential part of who we are. Take hold of our very personality. And so we’ll end up becoming victims not so much of anyone else, but, principally, of ourselves.Seltzer, Don’t Let Your Anger Mature Into Bitterness, January 14, 2015.
The article continues by outlining the cost of bitterness:
It’s all too easy to hamper ourselves by falling into the trap of righteously obsessing about our injuries or outrage. For doing so–and proclaiming our innocence and virtue about in the face of such deeply felt abuse–does afford us the gratification of feeling that we’re better than, or morally superior to, the source of our wrongs. Yet the benefits of retreating into acrimonious victimhood–or rather ‘defaulting’ to the stance of woeful bitterness–invariably carries a high price tag.
- Prolong your mental and emotional pain–and may even exacerbate it;
- Lead to long-lasting anxiety and/or depression;
- Precipitate vengeful (or even violent) acts that put you at further risk for being hurt or victimized–and possibly engulf you in a never-ending, self-defeating cycle of ‘getting even’;
- Prevent you from experiencing the potential joys of living fully in the present vs. dwelling self-righteously on the past wrongs inflicted on you;
- Create, or further deepen, an attitude of distrust and cynicism–qualities that contribute to hostility and paranoid thinking, as well as an overall sense of pessimism, futility, and unhappiness. Moreover, such a bleak, negative perspective prompts others to turn away from you;
- Interfere with your cultivating healthy, satisfying relationships, and lead you to doubt, or disparage, your connection to others;
- Compromise or weaken your higher ideals, and adversely impact your personal search for purpose and meaning in life;
- Rob you of vital energy far better employed to help you realize your desires, or achieve goals that you coveted earlier;
- Undermine your physical health. For chronic anger that is bitterness can raise your stress baseline and tax your immune system;
- Blind you from recognizing your own role, or responsibility, in possibly having been vindictively harmed by another; and by keeping you in a paradoxical state of ‘vengeful bondage,’ and erode your sense of well-being.
So the question is: Do you really want to see yourself as a ‘victim,’ with all the implications of helplessness embedded in that defeatist label? Consider that if you obsessively ruminate on the righteousness of your anger, your wrath will only become further inflamed.
What are some symptoms of bitter or rotten roots that undermine our faith and/or our relationships?
The Book of Mormon provides wonderful narratives containing metaphors about faith and works in the form of planting seeds of faith (Alma 32) and pruning wild or rotten tree branches (Jacob 5). Moroni includes the same principle but uses the metaphors of bitter water and pure fountains. Either way, the doctrine is clear: If we want to remain faithful in our testimonies of the gospel–and faith in the Church and its leaders–we need to continually nourish our roots and branches. Furthermore, if our testimonies become weak or poisoned, it behooves us to search ourselves and uproot or prune the unhealthy spiritual and emotional roots, branches, and fungi. If we don’t take scrupulous care then the outcome is sure; our faith eventually withers and dies. Remember, this same principle applies to our family systems.
1. Bitter ROOTS in Individuals and in Family Relationships
We all bring some sort of toxicity or baggage (root rot) into our relationships. And I’ll repeat: Often times, the emotions or feelings that sabotage and damage our relationships are the same ones that sabotage and undermine our faith in God, in the Church, and in our Church leaders. The scriptures also talk about the “sins of the fathers being visited upon the heads of their children,” and “generational curses.”
So, what are the symptoms of emotional and spiritual root rot? The two most virulent are resentment and anger–toward ourselves, our loved ones, church doctrine, church leaders, and/or fellow church members.
Christian speaker and writer, Joyce Meyer, gives us her perspective and experience:
Imagine a tree with its roots, trunk, and branches. Imagine it is a fruit tree in the process of bearing fruit. Jesus said every tree is known and identified by its fruit. Imagine you are looking at a fruit tree depicting all the bad things produced in the life of an emotionally disturbed individual. If you look at the roots of that tree you will see things like rejection, abuse, guilt, negativism, and shame. (And I would include anger.) If you have a problem with any of these things in your life, the reason is they are the bitter fruit of what has been rooted into your thinking. You may be the product of improper mirroring and imaging by your parents and othersManaging Your Emotions, p. 192.
One of the bad fruits of the bad tree is shame. If you are rooted in shame, then you need to be aware that shame is different from guilt. There is also a difference between normal shame and rooted shame. When you and I make mistakes or commit sin, we feel bad about it for a while until we repent and are forgiven. Then we are able to put it behind us and go on without any lasting harm. But when an individual is rooted in shame, it affects his (or her) entire life. He is not just ashamed of what he has done, he is ashamed of who he is.p. 195.
Joyce Meyer continues:
We have seen that a bitter root produces a bitter fruit and that some of the fruits of the bad tree are rejection, abuse, guilt, negativism, and shame. Other fruits of that bad tree are depression, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, anger, hatred, self-pity, and hostility. Some people are rooted in bitterness because of things that have happened to them in the past. They allow their bitterness, anger, and hostility to manifest itself in abnormal ways. I [Joyce Meyer] was like that. I had all kinds of pent-up emotions within me, but I didn’t know how to release them properly. I didn’t know how to give them up to the Lord. I didn’t even know who to be mad at. All I knew was that I was angry, and I was hurt.p. 201.
Often times, we are unaware of our bitter emotional roots–especially if we were raised in homes where physical, emotional, sexual, or verbal abuse were consistently manifested. Toxic home environments and bitter family systems distort and twist our definitions and perceptions of healthy relationships. As a result, we subconsciously sabotage ourselves and our relationships. Broken marriages and broken children are the bitter fruits of our damaged and sick root system. Unless and until we examine our root systems, we will continue producing bad fruit for generations to come–often in the form of toxic marriages and divorce, addiction, incest, and other forms of child abuse. Obviously, perfect family systems don’t exist; even the healthiest of families will produce less than perfect fruit. Again, we must, however, do our part in weeding out root rot and pruning bitter fruit.
Again, Joyce Meyer advises:
Has something been hanging around in your family tree….an unhealthy pattern of behavior that you can’t stand but you can’t seem to break free of? It is often said that history repeats itself, and this is true of the deadly sin patterns that have plagued our parents, grandparents, and generations before them.
2. Bitter FRUITS Stemming From Bitter Roots in Family Systems
Let’s take a closer look, dear readers, at varying types of bitter fruit that might be hanging on our family trees. Dr. John Bradshaw has written extensively about root-rot in family systems–especially multi-generational dysfunction in families:
The first component of dysfunctional families is that they are part of a multigenerational process. The dysfunctional individuals who marry other dysfunctional individuals have come from dysfunctional families. So the circle tends to be unbroken. Dysfunctional families create dysfunctional individuals who marry other dysfunctional individuals and create new dysfunctional families. Left to your own devices, it is very difficult to get out of the multigenerational dis-ease. The overt rules that create dysfunctionality are the rules of the poisonous pedagogy. The parents become dysfunctioned as a result of erroneous rules, which they carry within their own psyches where they play like a recorder. The parents parent themselves with these rules. Without critically questioning and updating them, they pass them on to their children. They are like carriers of a virus. Add to this parents who are in advanced states of addiction and the voltage is intensified.Bradshaw On: The Family, 1988, p. 62.
Again, the scriptures call this type of dysfunction “generational curses” where the sins of the parents are subconsciously or unintentionally passed on to their children. Christian speaker, Beth Moore, offers her own commentary:
If a pollster took a census of the number of alcoholics in three generations of an alcoholic patriarch’s family, the headcount likely would be very high. Why? Because alcoholism was deposited in the family line. It came calling, and an unfortunate number of children and grandchildren answered the door. Can you think of any negative traits or habits in your life that have been in your family line for generations? Perhaps you can identify negative patterns such as alcoholism, verbal or physical abuse, racism, bitterness, or fear. These areas of bondage are anything you may have learned environmentally, anything to which you may be genetically predisposed, or any binding influence passed down through other means. Whatever the bondage may be, the Lord wants to rebuild, restore, and renew these areas of devastation. We must face generational strongholds head-on. If we don’t, they can remain almost unrecognizable–but they don’t remain benign. Family strongholds continue to be the seedbed for all sorts of destruction. Oftentimes we’ve grown up with these chains and they feel completely natural. We consider them part of our personality rather than a strangling yoke.“Is There A Generational Curse for Sin?,” Today’s Christian Woman.
Even though we, as members of the Church, have the gospel in our lives, we may have family systems where bitter roots produce forth bitter fruit. With the help of the Spirit we can ask the Lord to help us identify root rot within ourselves and our family systems. Dr. Bradshaw lists the commonalities of shame-based families who seed and yield bitter fruit. (Again apply these principles to our faith, our testimonies, the Church, its leaders, and members.):
Control: One must be in control of all interactions, feelings, and behavior at all time. Control is the major defensive strategy for shame.
Perfectionism: Always be “right” in everything you do and say. This tyranny of being right can be about any norms the multigenerational family system has preserved. There is a competitive aspect to this rule; a one-up, better-than-others aspect to this rule that covers the shame. Fear and avoidance of the negative is the organizing principle of life. Families live according to an externalized image.
Blame: Whenever things don’t turn out as planned, blame yourself or others. Blame is another defensive cover-up for shame. A person’s blaming behavior covers one’s shame or projects it onto others.
Denial of the Five Freedoms: Deny feelings, perceptions, thoughts, wants and imaginings, especially the negative ones like fear, loneliness, sadness, hurt, rejection, and dependency needs. This follows the perfectionist rule. “You shouldn’t think, feel, desire, imagine, see things, hear things, the way you do. You should see, hear, feel, think, imagine, desire the way the perfectionistic ideal demands.
No-Talk Rule: Don’t talk openly about any feelings, thoughts or experiences, that focus on the pain and loneliness of the dysfunctionality. The denial of expression is a fundamental to humanness.
Myth-Making: Always look at the bright side. Reframe the hurt, pain, and distress in such a way as to distract everyone from what is really happening. This is a way to keep the balance. The system remains closed and rigid. Anyone rocking the boat would upset the status quo.
Incompletion: Don’t complete transactions. Keep the same fights and disagreements going for years. This rule may be manifested two ways: One is through chronic fighting and conflict without any real resolution. The second is through enmeshment and confluence–agreeing never to disagree. The family has either conflict or confluence, but never contact. Members stay upset and confused all the time.
Unreliability: Don’t expect reliability in relationships. Don’t trust anyone and you will never be disappointed. Since the parents never got their dependency needs met as children, they cover up the insatiability with fantasy bonded illusions of self-sufficiency. By acting either aloof and independent (walled boundaries) or needy and dependent (enmeshed boundaries), everyone feels emotionally cut off and incomplete. No one gets their needs met in a functional manner (Bradshaw, p. 81-82)
Do you see, dear readers, some of these dysfunctions in your own self? In your family? In your ward family? In the general Church membership? Do you see how these dysfunctional mindsets are a form of root-rot and behaviors that undermine our faith in the Church and in local and general Church leaders? Furthermore, do you see how these offensive mindsets and behaviors in our ward families and Church leaders are usually not personal? Really. Most, if not always, it’s simply not about you even though it might feel that way–it’s about them and their personal issues which may (or may not) be projected onto you. Or, perhaps, you are the one who projects your issues upon other Church members, leaders, and doctrine–and/or onto members of your family. Thus, to kill our faith and distance ourselves from the Church might not be what’s best for us as individuals or for our families. Perhaps clipping off the bitter fruit producing tree branch is more beneficial than chopping down the entire tree.
To illustrate this idea, I’ll share an example. I have great admiration for Mother Theresa, the Catholic nun who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless efforts serving the poor in the slums of Calcutta, India. A few months ago, I read an online article celebrating her selflessness. Scrolling down to the comment section, I was curious to read what others had to say. Most comments were positive in their affirmations for Mother Theresa. One woman, however, was absolutely vicious in her attacks at Mother Theresa. The woman continually posted one vile comment after another. I was so taken aback by her pure hatred toward a selfless nun she had never even met. As I stared at the computer screen pondering this woman’s angry rants, I received some clear spiritual insight: This bitter woman didn’t really hate Mother Theresa. Her anger was more toward the Catholic Church which Mother Theresa had represented. A religious institution that had–for whatever reason–caused this angry woman a great deal of pain.
Dr. Bradshaw also outlines the healthy fruits of functional family systems:
The Five Freedoms Are Expressed: In order to be fully functional, each human being needs to express freely the five basic powers that constitute human strength. These are: the power to perceive; to think and interpret; to emote; to choose, want, and desire; and to be creative through the use of imagination.
Unfolding the Process of Intimacy: The marriage, as the chief component of the family, needs to be in the process of becoming intimate. This process goes through the stages of: in love; working out differences, compromise, and individualization; and plateau intimacy.
Negotiated Differences: Negotiating differences is the crucial task in the process of intimacy formation. To negotiate differences there must be the desire to cooperate. This desire creates the willingness to fight fair.
Clear and Consistent Communication: This is key to establishing separateness and intimacy–clear communication demands awareness of self and the other, as well as mutual respect for each others’ dignity.
Trusting: Trust is created by honesty. Accurate expression of emotions, thoughts, and desires is more important than agreement. Honesty is self-responsible and avoids shaming.
Individuality: In functional families, differences are encouraged. The uniqueness and unrepeatability of each person is the number one priority in a functional family.
Open and Flexible: In a functional family the roles are open and flexible. One can be spontaneous without fear of shame and judgmen
Needs Fulfilled: Happy people are people who are getting their needs met. A functional family allows all of its members to get their needs filled
Accountability: Functional families are accountable. They are willing to acknowledge individual problems, as well as family problems. They will work to resolve those problems.
Laws are Open and Flexible: The laws in functional families will allow for mistakes. They can and are negotiable.
The Cure for Bitterness
Please stay with me, dear readers; I can be long-winded, I know. Still, we need to discuss how to get “there” from “here.” How do we nourish our root system? How do we prune bitter branches and pluck bitter fruit from ourselves and our family tree? Again, aside from professional help, we first must be willing to examine ourselves, to recognize and to be accountable for our contribution to dysfunctional patterns. In the beginning of this post, I discussed the destructive forces of anger and resentment. Remember, these powerful emotions easily morph into destructive bitterness. I again refer to Dr. Seltzer:
The ultimate remedy of forgiveness….for forgiveness alone enables you to let go of grievances, grudges, rancor, and resentment. It’s the single most potent antidote for the venomous desire for retributive justice poisoning your system. And if this impulse hasn’t infested you physically, it’s at least afflicted you mentally and emotionally. So learning–with or without loving compassion–to forgive your ‘violator’ facilitates your recovering from a wound that, while it may have originated from outside yourself, has been kept alive (and even ‘nurtured’) from the venom you’ve synthesized within you. If, fundamentally, anger intimates an almost irresistible impulse toward revenge, then forgiveness is most about renouncing such vindictiveness. It’s as though you’ve somehow cultivated your anger as some sort of analgesic and, rather than devoting yourself to actually healing from your hurt, you’ve instead become addicted to numbing it through a painkiller. And the supreme irony of this situation is that to have your painkiller (i.e., your anger) continue to work, you must keep your wound fresh and open. Yet if you’re ever to transcend your wounding experience, both your pain and its painkiller have to be allowed to ‘expire.’Psychology Today.
I’ve known several people during my life who are addicted to anger (although they don’t realize it or cannot admit it to themselves) due to the reasons listed above. Often, perpetually angry people come from angry families; the family system is rooted in shame and judgement–and anger is the resulting dominant bitter fruit. Consequently, angry outbursts (and the chaos that follows) is their drug of choice in order to feel more powerful and in control. (And it’s exhausting and miserable for everyone else left in the anger addict’s furious wake.) Dr. Seltzer continues:
Any bitterness still dominating you will only augment the injury you’ve already sustained. So what’s your choice here? In your mind, or with family and friends, you can continue to berate, or castigate the one who harmed you. OR, you can choose to become not problem-focused but solution-oriented and contrive to put your ill-treatment behind you. This might seem like a no-brainer, but in fact it may not be that easy to relinquish your ‘superior’ position of righteous victimhood. Keep in mind that your protracted anger or rage is essentially interpretive. If you’re to move beyond your acrimony, you need to amend your extremely negative assessment of [everyone else’s] behavior. And to the degree that you might actually have contributed [except in cases of childhood verbal, physical, or sexual abuse]. The main thing here is to alter your attitude to free yourself of the bondage that, regrettably, is inherently linked to your [present] bitterness.
I would also add that letting go and “putting it behind you” is a process. It takes effort and work. So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if this takes some time. In the process of self-assessment, Dr. Seltzer offers further suggestions:
The simplest plan for implementing the intention of regaining your emotional equilibrium through abandoning your resentment and bitterness. 1) Identify the source of your bitterness and what this person [or group/family] did to evoke your resentful feelings. 2) Develop a new way of looking at your past, present, and future–including how resentment has negatively affected your life and how letting go of it can improve your future. 3) Visualize your having a better future having neutralized the negative impact of resentment.
I will add some final thoughts from Dr. Susan Forward’s book, Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. Her book is an excellent source for recognizing and breaking the cycle of toxic and bitter family patterns. She says:
For me, breaking the cycle means to stop acting like a victim, or to stop acting like your abusive or inadequate parent. You no longer play the helpless, dependent child with your partners, children, friends, colleagues, authority figures, and parents, And you get help if you find yourself striking out at your spouse or children in ways that make you ashamed. Though the changes you make begin with yourself, you will find the effects to be much broader-reaching. By breaking the cycle, you are protecting your children from the toxic beliefs, rules, and experiences that colored so much of your childhood. You can change the nature of your family interactions for generations to come. One of the most effective ways of breaking the cycle is to make the commitment to be more emotionally available to your children and spouse than your parents were to you.p. 291.
As we gradually release much of the pain of our past and/or bitter family systems, we can begin to see how we may be perpetuating the cycle or bitter fruit in our present marriage relationships and onto our children. Dr. forward continues using the example of a man named Gordon:
Throughout Gordon’s life, he had denied the fact that his father had been abusive; throughout Gordon’s marriage, he had denied the fact that he himself was abusive. But in fact, Gordon had merely substituted one kind of abuse for another. Gordon’s father had controlled him through physical violence and pain; Gordon had controlled his wife through verbal violence and emotional pain. Gordon had become a rationalizer, a victimizer, and a tyrant just like his father. As long as Gordon denied that he was, in a way, repeating his father’s abusive behavior, he was not aware that he had a choice to make. If you don’t see the cycle, you can’t choose to break it. It took Gordon’s wife’s departure to make him face the truth (p. 292). You have within you the power to change your children’s destiny. When you free yourself from the legacy of guilt, self-hatred, and anger, you also free your children. When you interrupt family patterns and break the cycle you give a priceless gift to your children, and to their children, and to the children who will follow. You are molding the future.p. 300
The Fruits of Peace: Redefining Love
Love isn’t just feelings–it’s also behavior. Adults who come from predominantly bitter family systems grow up with a lot of confusion about what love means and how it’s supposed to feel. One of the bitter fruits of a highly dysfunctional family system is that parents behaved in unloving ways toward their children and spouses in the name of love. They mistakenly assumed that offering or passing along their bitter fruit would be healthy for their family systems. Dr. Forward describes the bitter consequences: “Adult children come to understand love as something chaotic, dramatic, confusing, and often painful.” In order to help prune unhealthy branches from our family trees, we need to remember:
- Loving behavior doesn’t grind you down. Loving behavior isn’t about you grinding down your loved ones.
- Love doesn’t keep you off balance.
- Love doesn’t create feelings of self-hatred.
- Love doesn’t hurt, it feels good and peaceful.
- Loving behavior nourishes your emotional well-being.
- When someone is being loving to you, you feel accepted, cared for, valued, and respected.
- Genuine love creates feelings of warmth, safety, stability, and inner peace.
- Either way, it’s up to you to free yourself from the destructive rituals of your family behavior patterns (p. 306).
I pray that we can muster the courage and the will to dig deep in search of root rot within ourselves and our family systems. Let’s nourish our families and our faith in the gospel by pruning and plucking the bitter fruit that poisons our testimonies. In doing so we will have the eternal gratitude of our posterity. Like Proverbs says, “your children will rise up and call you blessed.”
Here’s to a healthy harvest,