July 02, 2008

Accepting Family

I think how we relate to our family can reveal a lot about our character, our own presuppositions, assumptions, and concepts of how the world should be. As I was a teenager, formulating views on myself and my world, deliberately creating the beliefs and opinions which would shape my outlook on life, I was surprised to realize how different these were from my parents. I suppose I naturally assumed I would be like my parents, that we would share the same beliefs and opinions. After all, they are good, intelligent people, so we should naturally come to the same conclusions, right?

As it turns out, we never really spent a lot of time discussing what they believed to be right and good. I think they actually trusted that as an intelligent person in my own right, I would naturally come to the same conclusions they had? It was obvious, wasn’t it? It turns out that one thing to which I hold now is that there is very frequently no one correct answer, no one right opinion, and that the strength of humanity comes not from a single person standing up to declare what is right and lead others forward down that path, but from so many people travelling down so many paths simultaneously and sometimes in seemingly opposite directions. It’s something of a strange way of hedging our bets with the universe.

Milton said: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is be knowledge in the making.”

It was a surprise then to learn that I had not absorbed so many of my views from my parents, but mostly from media and popular culture. Premarital sex, single parents, homosexuality, environmentalism, religion, war, education, human rights and freedoms, so many things which we never explicitly discussed. So many things on which I was left to decide for myself, much to our mutual surprise.

Yet, ironically, I am so much like my family. I have the speech patterns and syntax of my mother. I have her intelligence and sharp wit. I have my father’s easy going nature and his tendency to laugh and tease ruthlessly. I have his subtle deepness. I am so grounded and practical – so Midwestern I have been called of late, in a strange form of compliment, like they didn’t actually think that type of person existed beyond redneck stereotypes. I am a dreamer and wisher, like the science fiction writers my dad likes so much. I am a geek like my older brother.

I know how to relate to my family, to their families, to their friends. Yet, I am not one of them. If they ask, I will not lie and then they’ll look at me as “Huh? How did that happen?” I think that bothers my mother almost as badly as some of our disagreements – the belief that some kind of failing in her raising resulted in me. (After all, the truth, what is right and good, is obvious, right?) Such thoughts rarely fall on the father, so he can take it with more ease.

I think I learned quite a bit about myself just attending my cousin’s big, fancy, very Christian wedding. I learned that I still want my family’s (my extended family, not just my folks) approval even as I flaunt their rules. I guess it is all part of a little game that says “Accept me, but accept me for who I am, not who you think I should be.” Of course, it is a very subtle, mysterious, and long running game, undoubtedly set to last a lifetime. It is a very interesting form of clinging, of attachment. I see why some orders insist their clergy give up their family, become entirely separate from it. One can never be completely genuine when one is seeking another’s approval. Of course, I know I will always have their love and support, and am secure in that knowledge, but…there will always be a but. “She’s family, but…” I think I need to let that go.

Maybe I need to be the accepting one.


greenfrog said...

This... One can never be completely genuine when one is seeking another’s approval.

...is really, really good.

mcarp said...

I have had a sort of rapprochement with my stepmother, the only other surviving member of my immediate family. (In fact, I don't think of her as my immediate family, but she seems to think of me as hers.)

After eight years with no contact, we recently talked by phone and I gave her my email address.

Since then, I have received a daily barrage of paranoid, racist emails — nine of them today, in fact — ranting about blacks, Arabs, conspiracies to undermine white America, and on and on.

Most of these are emails that have been forwarded to her by her crazy friends, and I guess she has nothing to do all day but spam me and everyone else she knows with this stuff.

I kept as much distance between myself and my family as I could, and if I believed in God, I would thank him for not letting me be sucked into their cave of ignorance and suspicion.

Monica said...


I'm sorry to hear that. She must have a lot of fear in her life. Especially if she doesn't have much family left either.

I have heard my family make racist remarks before and it bothers me, but they are not overt in any way. I think what bothers me more is that they don't even realize they are being racist most of the time. Sometimes, I think it is a very human thing for the ones who are on top to asume the ones who are on bottom are there because they deserved it, they somehow 'earned' it, as if they had an equal shot to begin with and somehow lost the game. Then when things start to change, well, we know people don't deal well with that.

I hope your step-mom can let go of some of her fear and anger and find a more creative outlet for all that energy. This is a great oportunity to cultivate compassion, but you are probably right to keep your distance.

Thich Nhat Hanh often says our enemies (or family!) can be our best teachers, but also that we need to surround ourselves with an environment which can be supportive and help us grow, not poison us with negativity. Good luck!


Anonymous said...

The thing about seeking approval is that even if we get it, it's worthless. We can't eat it, we can't fuck it, and the bank doesn't accept it as legal tender.