For one human being to love another;
that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,
the ultimate, the last test and proof,
the work for which all other work is but preparation.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
[I have avoided writing this; dreaded the moment when I force myself to write about the sermon on Sunday about Turning your Family or Friends into an Idol. A part of my Be Real series.]
I have spent the last twenty-three years trying to understand my family and a lifetime of living within relationships that I cannot understand. It has been long and hard. Even in my most optimistic moments, yes I do have them, I don’t have much good to say about growing up in my family of origin. I do not idolize family, if anything I have turned recovery from my family’s co-dependence into an idol by spending so much emotional energy on it. These days, I just want to do and think about something else. I’m tired of the subject. It is a stove that guarantees to burn.
My family of origin was dysfunctional. My family was hard to grow up in. I got an acid stomach ache every time I walked through the doors of my parent’s home as a young adult, when I was living nearby and coming over for Sunday meals. My family was (Oh! You see, there goes my blood pressure rising as I write this. My heart is beating more quickly. Anxiety floods into my chest. Cold white panic sits in my belly.) Just to talk about it still causes me physical pain.
I’ve told this story elsewhere on my blog, so I don’t want to belabor it. My father was verbally and emotionally abusive. Home was a place of fear, secrets, and shame. My family was not all bad – there was love, my mother reminded me recently. You could call it that. My father could be tender and loving. One never knew if he was going to think you were good or bad, pleasing or not, funny and clever or rude and cheeky, insightful and brave or insulting and mean. It had no logic or rhythm, my father’s anger. It only had the same result over and over – to me family came to mean fear, anxiety and pulse pounding stress.
My family was nothing you’d want to be a part of and that hurts. If my father had lived I don’t know what I would have done about his impact on my children. I am (mostly) grateful that I never had to figure that out, because he was verbally mean and dangerous, and his anger was frightening. (My stomach lurches again.) It still frightens me because I am his child — I got his brain and his verbal skills and red hot temper.
I did two decades of psychotherapy to heal. I spent years in a fog of alcohol and before that as a workaholic. I was always eager to make my dad happy and he rarely was satisfied with me. This is his legacy. This is what I have now — and all I can do is stumble to the foot of the cross. Without Jesus in my life I would be – without Jesus I am a shattered and broken person. If there is anything good in me, it is Jesus.
So when I hear sermons about how people idolize their family to the point of putting them ahead of Yahweh (which is what any idol is) I feel kind of sick to my stomach. And my heart feels heavy with sadness that can’t be ignored. I’m not ignoring it but I’m also trying not to place it too high in importance.
I don’t even feel envy anymore, okay perhaps a little, when I hear my pastor talk about how important his family is to him. But I’ve lived long enough and had enough hurtful experiences to not even believe in that mysterious thing — familial love — as something special or attainable, at least not for me.
We are not family in any way that our culture says is good. I don’t believe I can change that. I’m not sure that I should try. All I can do is work on my stuff – be responsible for how I treat others – not shutting anyone out when they reach for me. We are separate, autonomous, and seemingly lost to each other. I deeply love each member of my family but I know that they have found “family” elsewhere.
Most days it is all I can do to love my husband and kids without smothering, boxing in, shaming, chiding and berating, criticizing, or condemning someone. You do what you know. I want to know something different, something better. And Tom has taught me something else, he is beautiful, pure and good. After almost twenty years of marriage, I can say he will not intentionally hurt me and I believe it.
It is all I can do to try to live in the midst of the reality that I have no faith in the idea family. To me it represents broken hopes and pain. When people talk about their “precious family” life, I will smile in response and inside I am wondering what the hell they are talking about.
Lest you completely despair for me, I wrotethe following poem last year. It too is true.
I Never Knew Love
I never knew
that love would be so good.
Our beautiful chaotic life
of music, creativity and ideas. Of
trust, values, and goodness.
what it means to give up yourself, yes die
to self. That’s love
Often the world says
otherwise. But they don’t have
this beautiful chaotic life
I thought we had to fight,
more than not. I imagined
we would be in constant friction.
Because the house that raised me
burned to the ground.
But I learned
the way to live is to give. Then
you get it all back without even realizing you are loved.
My dear, you are, everything.
And from you I have learned
So how can that be true and all the above as well? All I can say is that it is and that is the tension of life. I am learning how be in and make a family. I am learning about loving, giving, and hoping and perhaps one day I will be able write more about what it means to create your own “precious family.” Until then, all I can say is, no, I don’t idolize my family.
(Parenting by Free Fall is something I wrote about my fear of parenting based on my experiences.)