Part of my teaching load includes a graduate course on ethics. Each term, I ask students to write a paper on the people and events instrumental in the formation of their ethical values. You might be surprised how often I read episodes of domestic violence. I am.
For those inclined to raise a hand to their children or spouses, let me assure you that never once has a student drawn a positive conclusion from a violent outburst. Never once has a student said “my old man roughed me up, but it helped me grow strong.” Never once has a student said “my mother hit us all the time, and it made us realize the wisdom of her advice.” It just doesn’t happen that way.
What does seem to happen is resentment, cutting off communication, distrust, and struggles to forget … much less to forgive. It is, of course, possible and even common for these victims to move in a positive direction as an adverse reaction to ugly experiences. Students do swear to themselves that they would never treat their children or loved ones so cruelly. And since substance abuse frequently plays a triggering role in domestic violence, students often vow that they will never let alcohol or drugs be so harmful to their own families. To their own kids.
Imagine that. To impress your children in such a way that their most fervent hope, their most bitter commitment is to not be like you.
Because of the context — my graduate students are generally older and successful — I am inclined to take their adverse aspirations at face value. I believe they will do better. I believe they will break the cycle of domestic violence that often infects successive generations.
But I don't know. The pull of domestic violence is so terribly strong. It hangs on persistently across time and all social strata: income, geography, race and education. I hope and pray for them, but I cannot erase their memories, their models.
Imagine that. Your children trying fiercely to be different from you. But no matter how hard they try, they find one angry night that your blood still rises in their veins and the fury in your face is now in their mirror.
Somehow, somewhere, we’re all accountable for the lives we live. Imagine what your children or spouse would say if asked to assess your legacy. Then stop.