by Joanie Butman
Last week’s topic of Joyful Suffering is a perfect segue into the subject of family and parenting. What a wonderful example of the parallel paths of joy and suffering. Families are also consistently a hot topic of conversation, which is not surprising given that there is no shortage of drama within families: good and bad.
In Kay Warren’s book, Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough, she describes the mystery of joy and suffering.
We tend to think that life comes in hills and valleys. In reality, it’s much more like train tracks. Every day of your life, wonderful, good things happen that bring pleasure and contentment and beauty to you. At the exact same time, painful things happen to you or those you love that disappoint you, hurt you, and fill you with sorrow. These two tracks — both joy and sorrow — run parallel to each other every single moment of your life…If you look down train tracks into the brightness of the horizon, the tracks become one. You can’t distinguish them as two separate tracks. That’s how it will be for us, too. One day, our parallel tracks of joy and sorrow will merge into one. Then it will all make complete sense.
There is no better illustration of this reality than families and the joys and tragedies that befall them: the sorrow of watching a family member slowly slipping away to the grip of addiction while simultaneously learning of the impending arrival of a new one, the triumph of one member while mourning the failure of another, weddings, funerals, graduations, court dates. Pain and joy are not mutually exclusive. It is a fact of life.
Having just celebrated Easter and hearing stories from others about their own family gatherings, I just had to laugh at how accurate the old adage is, “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.” How often has that line run through your head while you were sitting at the Thanksgiving table? Weddings and Easter egg hunts are another infamous venue for all the crazies to come out, and I’m talking about personality traits not necessarily people.I don’t know who originally coined that infamous phrase, but I guarantee it was definitely prompted by a certain level of dysfunction.
Dysfunctional Families: there is no other kind. Only the level of dysfunction varies. I learned a long time ago there is no such thing as “normal” when it comes to people or families. Adam and Eve set the precedent. If they are considered the first children, disobedience seems to be innate as well as dishonesty and finger pointing. It goes downhill from there. Their children define sibling rivalry when Cain kills his brother, Abel, out of jealousy. Joseph’s brothers fake his death and sell him into slavery because they resent their dad’s obvious favoritism. Jacob (at his mother’s direction) takes advantage of his dad’s infirmity to cheat his brother out of his inheritance. Even the holy family had some serious issues. Mom gets pregnant out of wedlock. Fiancé is supposed to believe it is an immaculate conception and the child is God’s son. Then they take said son on a trip and lose him. They’ve been given the honor of parenting Christ and they LOSE him? Not an auspicious beginning. Keep that in mind when you are feeling incompetent as a parent. God’s own children rebelled against him and continue to do so everyday. Does that make him a bad parent? Hardly. My point is this, why should we expect to fare any better? The Bible is a soap opera of dysfunctional families, of lies and betrayal BUT also of incredible love woven through the pain.
My daughter complained recently about having to have dinner with the family every night. Why can’t we just do it once a week, like NORMAL people? Really? Can you define normal? I answered, ”Maybe it’s because I would miss the arguing and agita.” Because even amidst that we are still communicating. Our dinner table is host to some of our most profound discussions – not deliberately, they just present themselves in the course of conversation, remember those? In this age of technology, it seems to be a lost art and is the precise reason I maintain the tradition of a nightly family dinner. It is one of the few times during the day we are face-to-face without a screen or electronic device between us (including me and my husband).
Yes, families are dysfunctional. It is the nature of the beast. Whenever you have more than one person involved in anything, there will be clashes of personalities, emotions, opinions and agendas. Trust me, being raised under the same roof doesn’t guarantee anything other than the same last name. No, we can’t choose our families. Our only choice is how we decide to relate to them – especially the EGRs (Extra Grace Required). The reason this choice is so important is because our families are a training ground for life. It is within our own families that we learn the relationship skills we tend to lug around with us through life whether they are healthy or not. Often we have to unlearn things we picked up in order to establish healthy relationships as an adult. That’s why therapy is such a booming business. I can tell you this: every parent inherits the right to screw up their children in their own fashion. We may swear never to do things our parents did, but I’m sure they said the same thing when they had us. My children are already saying it. Eventually they all end up on someone’s couch describing their parent’s particular brand of insanity, usually the mother’s for some reason. I’ve developed my own headstart program for my kids. I’m keeping a log of my parenting abilities, or lack thereof, to save them time and money in their therapy. It’s the least I can do. And it hasn’t been hard because they frequently remind me how many different ways I have failed as a parent. All I can say is that it definitely wasn’t from lack of trying or caring. What I can’t figure out is why it takes so much effort to be a failure. I guess that is just one of those parental mysteries. The harder you try, the worse you get.
At those times I remind them I’m the only mother they have so they are stuck with me for better or worse; and since they are the only children I’ll have, we might as well make the best of it. Except for issues of extreme abuse and abandonment, most of us are stuck with whatever family we are born into, then we inherit another one when we get married. To complicate things even further, the prevalence of second marriages and combined families brings an added dimension to the modern family. Being stuck with each other needn’t be a negative. I am stuck with some of the most fun, loving people I know, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have issues or dramas. That’s inevitable. It’s just that we value the relationships more than our own desire to be right or angry, hurt, irritated, insulted, inconvenienced, or any of the hot buttons that families love to press.
Have you ever noticed that families tend to treat each other in ways that most people wouldn’t treat their friends or in many cases, their dog. Why? Because they can. Most kids are better behaved for strangers than they are for their own parents. Instinctively, they know others won’t tolerate certain behaviors so they save them for their parents because they are secure in the fact that regardless of their behavior, their parents will continue to love them. Unfortunately, many do not outgrow this tendency and think the rest of the family will be just as tolerant. HA! Do any of us totally outgrow this phenomenon? I’m not proud of it, but my family definitely sees sides of me rarely displayed in public. I remember teaching my daughter’s religion class on how difficult it is to love others sometimes. All of a sudden she pipes up from the back, “Especially your family.” I was being heckled by my third-grade daughter! Unruffled, I continued until she then blurted out, “Don’t believe her. She doesn’t act that way at home!” I retired shortly thereafter. Ironically, here I am ten years later attempting to discuss that same subject and having to admit she was absolutely right. Ten additional years of experience hasn’t necessarily helped me be a better spouse, parent, daughter, sibling or in-law, but it has certainly increased the breadth of my “research.”
The following quote has to be the most frequently used reading at weddings.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
It doesn’t say anything about love being easy. If it were, it wouldn’t be such a struggle. Author Anna Quindlen states, “love isn’t leisure, it’s work.” You can’t choose to LIKE someone, but you can choose to LOVE them, which is an action not a feeling. You don’t have to like someone or the way someone treats you, but you can choose to respond to them in a loving manner. That is the challenge within families. You have no control over anyone’s behavior but yours. Regardless of the circumstances, the only power you wield is to choose your response to hurtful or careless words and actions, criticism, betrayal, anger, selfishness, rudeness, insensitivity or any other wrongs that we tend to heap on those we are linked to by birth or marriage. Not always – but often the very ones we love the most. That’s what makes it so painful, and in some cases, so hard to forgive.
Here’s the difficult part. Usually when people are at their most unlovable is when they need love the most. I know when I am displaying my unlovable side, I can assure you it is usually born out of my own pain. It may manifest itself as anger, irritability or impatience; but if I am honest, the behavior is just masking a deeper hurt. There are certainly many instances where there is good reason to be hurt or angry, but once again, how you express it is a choice. You can be firm yet loving, and no one is expected to be a doormat. As a Christian friend said recently, “Just because I am born again doesn’t mean I was born yesterday!” Self-preservation is a powerful instinct that shouldn’t be ignored.
So what kind of choices DO we have regarding family? More than most people care to admit. Before you read them keep in mind they do not apply in extreme cases of abuse. I am sure you could all add to the list based on your own experiences. These are merely a collection of prompts handed down to me regarding how to love others and how to establish and nurture healthy personal relationships.
Choose our response
Choose what to bring into our adulthood and what to leave behind
Choose what (and what not) to emulate in our own parenting.
Choose forgiveness (seeking it and granting it)
Choose prayer (especially for those you don’t feel inclined to)
Choose your battles carefully and judiciously
Choose boundaries when necessary
Choose to seek professional help if needed
Choose love again and again and again…
As always, the decision is yours. Choose wisely!
What would you add to this list?