If you spend any time with a two-year-old, you will see the physical manifestation of what most of us feel under the surface when spending time with family.
Things are going great, we’re having a fun time, life is joyful and exciting, and then something happens and it triggers a tantrum. In a split second, we find ourselves screaming (either internally or externally), “I hate you!”
Thomas Moore writes in his book, Care of the Soul:
“In a family you live close to the people that otherwise you might not even want to talk to. Over time you get to know them intimately. You learn their most minuscule, most private habits and characteristics. Family life is full of major and minor crises—the ups and downs of health, success and failure in career, marriage, and divorce—and all kinds of characters. It is tied to places and events and histories. With all these felt details, life etches itself into memory and personality. It’s difficult to imagine anything more nourishing to the soul.”
Below the surface of every smiling, loving family is dysfunction. The truth is, even if you love your mother intensely, she can still annoy you. Your daughter, the straight-A student, can still end up in jail because of a mistake. Thanksgiving dinner can result in a near knife fight and an overdose of Zoloft. And you and your brother can refuse to speak with each other for years. There is an art to loving each member of your family—especially the ones who rub you the wrong way.
Through speaking with various people in all kinds of situations ranging from ultra high net worth individuals to a 20-something woman living on the streets of Venice Beach because of a falling out with her father, I’ve come to the conclusion that this “family thing” is hard for nearly everyone. There’s unfulfilled expectations, learning curves, communication barriers, patterns of avoidance, and more. But, wow, is it worth the effort. The ability to cultivate a family of loyalty and love (despite its imperfections) is one of the greatest accomplishments we can achieve in this life.
Learning to simultaneously love our family while accepting its imperfections is not only good for a harmonious Thanksgiving, but our own personal development. When we reject our families, it can affect our concept of ourselves. We came from them. We are connected to them. They make up a part of our being, our thought processes, and our foundation. To reject them is rejecting a part of ourselves and that is why family problems often go so deep.
In order to develop a family legacy that isn’t wrought with pain, we must resist the temptation of “psychologizing” our family issues. Often people are not able to get over the pain of their stories. You hear it all the time. “My mother was cold and distant, so now I am prone to…” Whatever. There certainly is a time and place for that kind of analysis and I’m no psychologist. So, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of going to therapy. I definitely have my own bouts with analyzing my psyche and how my family affected me and there are incredibly serious issues of abuse, addiction and mental illness that require intense personal work. But, in our culture, this kind of analysis has become commonplace. It takes constraint to be able to tell stories based on facts without jumping into analysis mode.
A New Way of Seeing
“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” – Henry Miller
When thinking about family stories, especially ones filled with pain, mistakes or errors, it helps to have a stance of compassion. Certainly, I have hurt others, made mistakes, and done things I’m not proud of. So has my mother, my father, my siblings, my friends, and every other person on this planet. It’s a part of the human experience and if we can begin to see our family stories with this broader view, we can start to be more accepting and see ourselves as a part of something greater and bigger.
If you study mythology, religion, tribal customs, or anthropology, what you will begin to notice is that stories take on a mythical or magical quality over time. If we can start to see grandparents or aunts or uncles as characters in a hero’s journey or an epic tale, we can begin to form stories about our heritage that can be told over and over and will become a part of our identity, while allowing us to capture the high-level wisdom of the experience.
In other words, the next time you tell a family story, think of it less like a hard psychological analysis and more like a fable. You may still bring in some interpretations or your own meaning, but just as a fable has a more simplistic message, you’ll find that when you focus on the high-level wisdom of the experience and look at it as a part of a human archetypal journey, your perceptions often change and it’s easier to accept the light and dark sides of various family personalities.
The truth is your feelings are not unique. It is a human experience to feel ashamed, alienated, betrayed, and regretful (as well as joyful, loving, and compassionate). This is why wisdom can often sound so cliché. You may roll your eyes when someone tells you to “stop and smell the roses” or to “forgive and forget”. Boiled-down advice doesn’t have much significance unless it’s paired with the right experience.
It’s one thing to tell someone they just need to have a little faith. It’s a completely different thing to develop faith through experience. When you’re living through the pain, struggle, triumph and experience learning the lesson on your own, it changes you. The right story told in the right way can change you too.
It’s the way we think and process things that make stories so valuable. Telling someone to have integrity is far different than telling her about a time her father exercised integrity. Stories get imprinted on the soul.
The late mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell has his outline for the Hero’s Journey which has become popular among script writers and spiritual gurus alike. In a nutshell, a person has some sort of dilemma or situation that causes her to struggle, make a leap of faith, introspect and learn great things and she is forever changed because of it. That wisdom gained then becomes a way for the character to change the world for the better.
You can be formal in the way you think about your family stories and actually follow an outline like the Hero’s Journey or you can be intuitive about it. And, there are different formulas for different experience types. The Hero’s Journey ends happily with the struggle overcome and wisdom obtained. That may not be the exact format of some of your family stories. Sometimes fables are meant to be warnings and sometimes they end tragically. When you think of family stories, what is the theme or the greater wisdom that comes to the surface?
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Example 1: Let’s say your father was an alcoholic, left your mother when you were young and died alone and miserable of kidney failure.
This is a tough one. Should you even canonize it? Do you want your kids to remember this man? That is up to you, but I think the answer is yes. When you suppress something or hide it because you’re ashamed or angry, it can often fester and get worse. If every time your kids ask about your father, you tell them that he was a selfish, irresponsible jerk, it could actually perpetuate some of his behavior or cause them to become worried or concerned about you repeating his patterns or they may lack compassion towards you when you mess up.
Maybe the story goes something like this (from the perspective of what you’d tell your children):
Your grandfather met your grandmother on a beautiful spring day almost sixty years ago! She loved his blue eyes and he gave her a blue teddy bear. They were married quickly and then I came along.
Your grandmother said I used to scream like a banshee as a baby. Your grandfather was working hard and trying to cover the rent, but he had a big problem. He never felt good enough about himself, which was silly because your grandmother said he was as smart as a whip and had a million friends. Sometimes when you feel bad enough about yourself, you do some pretty crazy things. That’s why he started drinking. He was scared and didn’t know how to handle all these new responsibilities.
He left us when I was five and your grandmother stepped up. She worked two jobs and got up every morning to make me lunch to take to school. I’m so proud of how she took care of me and my brother.
Sometimes I’m angry at my father. I still feel bad about him leaving, but I know he wasn’t happy his entire life and died sad and alone because he never faced his fears. Sometimes in life, things happen that scare you, but when you face the pain and push through it, you end up with a happy life and people who love you – like your grandmother. When you don’t, you end up with regrets like your grandfather. It’s easy for anyone to get scared and make mistakes, but you’re strong enough to get through anything.
Example 2: Your grandfather was a gruff, controlling guy, but lived through some tough times and managed to create an incredible company that still employs hundreds of people to this day.
Your story could be something like this:
My grandfather started life on his own with only two-hundred dollars in his pocket and a dream to make it big. It’s true. His father kicked him out when he was only seventeen. That was the last time he spoke with his father.
He told me he remembered being so afraid that he would scream in his pillow every morning, “I am unstoppable!” to chase the fear away. Soon, he found a job mowing lawns. He worked from sunup to sundown and barely scraped up enough money to buy his own lawn mower, but he didn’t have a car… So, he’d wheel around the mower to anyone who was close to his place and ask them if he could mow their lawn. Pretty soon he had a handful of clients. He saved every penny and came up with enough money to buy an old, rusty truck. This allowed him to move faster, drive to more homes, and mow more lawns.
By that time, he met a beautiful girl with yellow hair. They began dating and she insisted that he cut his long hair and get a respectable white-collar job. But grandpa wasn’t about to let anyone tell him what to do – even the love of his life. So, he told her he was keeping his long hair (but he would put it in a ponytail) and that he was just fine mowing lawns. After another year of mowing lawns, buying lawn mowers and hiring help, Grandpa asked Grandma to marry him. She said yes, even though he still refused to cut his hair.
Year after year he grew that company and turned it into one of the largest landscaping businesses in California. And he never cut his hair. Even in her nineties, my grandma would still tease him about that long hair. He’d frown and say, “I like it just the way it is.”
Both of these stories encapsulate struggle, pain, love and triumph. They focus on the bigger picture and treat the main characters with compassion without blowing negative feelings out of proportion or sugarcoating them. It’s stories like these that help your family learn wisdom and resilience. It conveys that they come from a foundation of strength and that it’s also okay if they have struggles, make mistakes, and so on. They will still be loved. They will make it through, just like their parents, grandparents and those who came before them.
Although it may be hard to spin a good fable in the middle of a heated political debate with your father, when you’ve had some time to step back and see the bigger human experience filled with these quirky characters destiny paired you with, life seems just a little more beautiful and your family legacy doesn’t seem nearly as bad.
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