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In 1983 I had just begun building my life back and was living in the attic of a friend's house in Chicago, when I decided I had better go home for Christmas. Although I said "better" in tones of duty and dread, it is clear to me now that I was the one who wanted to be better for going home. I hadn't been back for the holidays in more than seven years and in that time my parents had split up. My sister, Paula, who now had four kids, and my mother were living in trailers on my grandma Minnie's property. My brothers, Jon and Jimmy, had ended up back in West Virginia, Jon working in the coal mines and Jimmy in high school. My father was living on the other side of the mountain, managing the local hospital. As I packed for the eight-hour trip home, I could picture Minnie's house just as I had seen it so many Christmases before, shabby but solid against the glistening snow and bare trees, warm yellow light glowing from the windows Uncle Bill had installed a few years back.
My feeling of home stopped at the front door of Minnie's house, because once I was inside, my mind went blank. Back then I had virtually no memories of childhood, only flash floods of emotions without the scenes that generated them. My brother Jon -- who, like my other brother and sister, says he has few childhood memories -- describes going home as "being in the box." Once you're in the box, everything goes dark.
This darkened lens on the family camera includes what I call our culture of suspicion. When family suspicion gets habitual, it can harden into what psychologists call a schema or gestalt: suspicion forms a lens through which we view all our family's actions, past and present. Peering through a suspicious lens, we may keep discovering aggressive and threatening acts, even plots and skul-duggery in seemingly ordinary gestures. It's a genre of personal historiography I call family noir.
The twentieth century, as well as psychotherapy in general, has taken its philosophical lead from Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, not three of the happiest campers in the woods, I sometimes joke. Let's face it, the Freudian picture of family leaves a lot to be desired. Psychology's emphasis on the causality of adult symptoms from childhood experiences has repeatedly had to be modified as the theory has proven limited. This belief that the cause of adult problems is born in childhood parenting has had all of us snooping into the past with a magnifying glass looking for any evidence of wrongdoing by those closest to us.
When revolutionary psychologist James Hillman says that psychology's emphasis on causality disrupts our connection to "the great chain of generations," he is referring to the links to the positive and deeply symbolic aspects of our shared human past. The point here is that too many of us are looking at the world through this filter of suspicion and searching for our victimhood under every childhood bed. I had this same filter as I approached my childhood home.
How would Minnie look? How had the years treated my mom, my siblings? What did their kids look like? Would Minnie remember to make my favorite fudge just as she had all the Christmases before I lost contact with my family? What gap would there be with my father gone? I could see the house, but I couldn't picture the people in it any more than I could imagine myself there. My last memory of that house had been the day many years before when my grandfather Arnie told me that he didn't have a job for me there, that I wasn't welcome: "We don't hire your kind here." My kind were the longhaired hippies of the sixties.
Still I better go home, better bring my better self home, the self I had been constructing since I had my moment of grace and woke up. I'd gotten a job as a clerk at the Chicago Board of Trade and remade my wardrobe accordingly. I'd bought a black cashmere coat at a thrift store for eight dollars, which I was always careful to toss just so on the back of a chair so that the one-hundred-percent-cashmere label caught your eye. At the same thrift store I'd uncovered a cache of a rich man's dress shirts with monogrammed cuffs. On my way into work on the El, I adjusted the sleeves of my one-hundred-percent-cashmere facade so someone else's initials peeked over the top. I might be sleeping in a frigid attic on a mattress on the floor straight out of some Appalachian nightmare, but I was determined to disguise my poverty. I was destined for better things. The dream lived on. This was the self I was driving home for Christmas in a rented Lincoln Town Car with a trunk stuffed full of presents I couldn't afford.
I sped through the Midwest in high style with an occasional glance at my sacred garment on the seat next to me. But as I turned off the interstate onto the state road and began my climb up the mountains, my thoughts turned dark. What were they saying about me right now as the women stood in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner? I bet none of them believed I'd really changed my ways.
The hopelessness of all of it hit me as I passed the increasingly more spindly shacks at the side of the road, the poverty here so deep it practically ran through the veins of coal under the hillside.
Part of what had made me want to come home was my nostalgia for my West Virginia relatives: images of hunting with the other kids for crawdads in the river, shooting BB guns, and running after a wild boar. if I could be that child again -- capture just a moment of that playfulness and innocence -- maybe I could reclaim my optimism.
Those memories escaped as I climbed the mountain back to Minnie's, noting the abandoned cars hard by the rusting doublewide trailers that dotted the hillsides and the tumble-down general stores that hadn't seen a coat of paint in twenty years. My heart was pounding high in my throat. I hoped they weren't all still expecting me to save them from this, as if they ever had.
The first sight of Minnie's was jarring. Everything the same, everything different. The state had replaced the swinging wooden bridge over the ravine with a sturdy concrete and metal one that forever changed the feel of the place. The good part was I could pull the Lincoln right up to the front of Minnie's for my entrance. As I donned my coat and went to the trunk to gather some presents, my family poured out of the front door to welcome me. I released a huge sigh from my spirit as my mother and I embraced and my brothers' and sister's hands touched me on my back and shoulders as they exclaimed welcomes. That same touch I craved shrunk my soul as I anticipated all that might happen after this loving moment of reunion. I looked over my mother's shoulder at the Lincoln for reassurance. It was mud-splattered and as dreary to me now as the other battered old beaters in the front yard.
Okay, let's stop the movie right here. Of course, my elaborate preparations for my return home couldn't have made for weaker armor. I was edgy, wary, and hyperalert to any sign my family wasn't fooled by the grand trappings. I suspected they could already see I was an impostor. I suspected they had parts of their own lives they were hiding from me. On top of all that, I suspected that everyone secretly dreaded my return. Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas.
To be wary and mistrustful in a new situation is part of our survival instinct. In more intimate settings suspicion becomes a hunting instinct. Suspicious people are sure to find what they are looking for. If you suspect that your lover is cheating on you, a stray thread or a discarded phone number suddenly becomes a world of hurt. The suspicious person is way past observable doubt, focused only on proving the case: total inference without any evidence.
I think not enough has been written about the poisonous effect of suspicion in the family, mainly because it is mislabeled as guilt or rage, or disguised, as mine was, by grandiosity. Going home brings up at once the differences between you and your family that you have worked so hard to establish and the inevitable similarities that, no matter how much time passes, you can never extinguish. The desire to be seen by your family as better, different, and making something of yourself in life competes with the yearning for connection to the people and places that made you who you are. Yet, the new persona you have constructed for your life in the larger world is naked before your family, people who can at once see you in all your glory and weakness. They can remember you as an early reader, a mischievous child, an A student, a surly adolescent, dumped and despondent about an old lover, ambitious and falsely brave. For some, being among people who have loved you all your life through triumph and through disgrace can feel glorious, the essence of embrace. Others, especially those with issues simmering between themselves and other family members, are rattled by the scrutiny and intimacy Suspicion becomes a way of ordering the family dynamic that defends our fragile sense of self against history.
There is so much history, so many layers of experience among family members, that the simple act of passing the butter at the breakfast table can be loaded with meaning, if you're of a mind to see it that way. A large part of what makes returning home so excruciating is how quickly our preconscious fears can be triggered by stepping in the front door of the family home. These whiffs of the past jump to the forefront of the mind to shape the suspicious point of view.
For Justine, a magazine publicist from New York, one of the landmark incidents of her childhood is the night her father slapped her so hard across the face during an argument that it was a whole day before his handprint completely faded from her cheek. Now thirty-three years old and standing in that same kitchen on a bright summer day, she sees her father raise that same hand in a similar arc to swat a fly on the stovetop. For an instant, Justine cringes, not quite knowing why. Her body tenses as her mind scans time, snapping through every incident that made her feel like that fly.
Although things between Justine and her father have been stable for years, that single gesture returns her to powerlessness and terror. if she chances to catch him with a dash of that look in his eye, even if he's casting it at the family dog, she suspects without a rational thought to support it that she has misjudged the situation. Memories amplified by emotions are remembered longest, quickest, and with most detail.
Family gatherings, especially those that take place in the family home, are thick with these kinds of reference points, and as James Hillman says, the family home is a metaphor for the family's inner psyches. When I used to visit my family, many of whom are now living in a house in North Carolina, I had to work hard to quell my fears and feel the bond of love that ties them together. My eye saw instead the continuing legacy of chaos in my family. In that house there are interior doors off the hinges, marks in the walls where something went through them. I stepped through the front door with my suspicions intact.
Eliminating your suspicions is an essential step in reuniting with your family. How does it serve my relations with my family to enter the home scanning for evidence to justify my worst fears about my relatives? A guarded, judgmental state of mind keeps us distant from our loved ones and in many ways freezes us in roles that may no longer suit us, particularly during the limited times we spend with them. My suspicious attitude removes me from true connection with my family members and prevents me from giving myself freely to the situation. When I view my family through the lens of suspicion as the cause of my suffering, I give nothing to them but my fears.
Suspicions start early in childhood when there is something in the family's interaction that denies the child's developing sense of self-worth. Cognitive psychologists believe that the self builds a mental model of the world based on the answers to four basic questions:
- Are other people safe or threatening?
- Is the world at large benevolent or malevolent?
- Is life meaningful or meaningless?
- Am I worthy or unworthy?
Our answers to these questions form the basic postulates that, as a whole, become our world view, and govern our expectations and actions.
In some families, especially violent families, the answers to these questions change daily, sometimes hourly, and the child has to be ever on guard.
Another important factor in a child's ability to feel secure and make sense of reality is a child's developmental limitations. Children have a hard time reconciling the multiple identities of the adults around them because their abstract-thinking capacities are still forming. Harvard developmental psychologist Kurt Fisher reframes Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex, the stage of life when a boy desires his mother and, Freud says, wants to replace his father, as no more than a cognitive problem of role definition. He believes the young boy is unable to distinguish man-dad from man-husband; that is, if I grow up to become a man like Dad, will I also grow up to become my mother's husband? This stage of development disappears as a child's capacity for abstract thinking leaps forward in preadolescence.
Add to a child's limited understanding a misguided search for causality and someone to blame, and our general cultural narcissism, and we have the makings for a potent antifamily cocktail. Whether we use Oedipus, Othello, or any common movie tragedy, the filter of suspicion is very much alive in our culture.
In my friend Bob's family, his father's frequent accusation against his mother was that she was unfaithful. When this issue came to the fore, his father would tell Bob's mother he was leaving her, grab Bob or one of his brothers, and race off in the family car. All the children remember how it felt to sit in the passenger seat next to their father as he sped through the countryside calling their mother a whore and listing all the men he believed she had slept with. They didn't experience just the terror of being trapped in the car with a raging father or the withering pain of being forced to listen to him shame their mother and hence themselves. The ordeal was an assault on their ability to form a coherent reality. Those boys loved their mother. She nurtured them and fed them and cared for them -- and she was also a lying whore? Bob and his brothers also loved their strong, hardworking father, the very model of a good man, but was he also an uncontrollable maniac? Is the world safe or unsafe? Malevolent or benevolent?
Even in more benign home situations, one of the parents' essential child-rearing methods is to deny reality to protect a child's innocence. Suppose, for example, a child walks into the kitchen shortly after her parents have ended an argument. Her mother storms around furiously wiping down the countertops and tossing dishes into the sink as her father slumps at the kitchen table turning a matchbook over and over in his hand. "Mommy, why are you so mad?" she asks. "I'm not mad," her mother whispers tensely. "Don't upset your mother," her father cautions. The girl leaves the kitchen confused. Mommy was already mad, and the girl sure hadn't caused her anger. What was really going on there? When a child starts to distinguish text from subtext, the mind suspects there may be even more going on than meets the eye.
In the film noir genre of the post-World War II era, suspicion is the operative point of view. Movies like The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly, and Double Indemnity, through the actions of characters played out against stark interiors, engaged viewers' deepest fears about what people were capable of doing to each other. Nicholas Christopher, in Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, describes noir films as peopled by "betrayers, dangerous and mysterious strangers, people with double identities, mistaken identities, and those who simply, or subtly, aren't what they seem to be." This too, is the atmosphere of family noir.
When choosing the lighting and soundtrack for your depictions of the turning points in your emotional estrangement from your family, you might find the shadows sharp and the music haunting. People might fling things to the floor, storm out of rooms, or be left crying in the comer. The irony of this frame of reference is that even though the characters in your family noir scenario are mostly victims of their circumstances, suspicion makes them feel powerful. The suspicious mind enters the room assuming that it knows what's really going on underneath the surface. These people you are suspicious of, they are not quite as smart as you. They think they have you fooled, but you're too keen, too aware for them to pull it off. Basically when you enter the family with a suspicious mind, you're spoiling for a fight.
What set you up for this fight is not just the issues between you and your family, but a century of misapplied theories of psychology -- the I'm-in-trouble-it-must-be-daddy's-fault school. The twentieth centurys initial move in the direction of family suspicion was in fact a progressive step, a step toward enlightenment and away from the false and saccharine images of the nineteenth-century idealized notion of family life. In their version, Mom was happy to scrub floors and let Dad support her, and all was right with the world as long as Dad had control. This view gave us a rosy myth of home that turned a blind eye to the dark side of family and power.
Yet, when misunderstood or misapplied, the Freudian picture of family is not pretty. The Freudian family script includes castration threats, sibling warfare, and devouring mothers. In trying to correct a view of the family that was out of focus, Freud brought to the forefront another myth -- the family tragedy. For a century, experts helped us look for family damage without helping us look for the positives and strengths. Worse, they sometimes told us that if we didn't find damage, we simply weren't looking hard enough.
FAMILY COMEDY/BLACK COMEDY
Suspicion also fascinated Shakespeare, who was one of Freud's major influences. Freud read and pondered Shakespeare and clearly owed a large debt to Shakespeare's exploration of the mind. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, author of the recent book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, believes, as do many, that Shakespeare's psychological insights have never been equaled. Freud found in Shakespeare a focus on the family, especially the tragic family, that emphasized deception and self-delusion. I would like to propose that we overturn that view and focus on what critics call the comic view of the human condition.
This view of the world is often best articulated by philosopher Kenneth Burke, who believed that literary forms reflect general orientations toward life. He found in literary comedy a vision as humane as it is shrewd, as rich in love and humor as it is clear-eyed about the ways human beings may deceive, exploit, or abuse each other. Burke called the comic vision bittersweet: it is neither sentimental, nor suspicious. It knows human darkness but does not dwell there. It works to find human goodness and views our behavior with charity. Burke called his version of this stance, "A Comic Frame of Acceptance." To quote Burke, "The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that all people are necessarily mistaken, and that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special brand of blindness, you complete the comic circle."
Once in this comic circle, the world changes, because we are released from judgment and blame, without clouding our understanding or steeping us in denial.
Even Freud's contemporaries who later broke with Freud, such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, did so based on a much more optimistic assessment of the motivations for human behavior. They believed that humans were essentially social creatures greatly influenced by cultural and historical conditioning, rather than merely victims of their sexual and aggressive impulses. What Freud, despite his brilliance, could not have known during his time, was the tremendous influence of temperament, social context, and genetics that has been discovered in more modern times.
While many psychologists view acts of benevolence and altruism as reactions against their opposite impulses, Erich Fromm first saw them as an example of humanity's innately positive impulses. More important for our work, Fromm explored the human motivation to discover our identity through the human need to be active, creative, and connected to others, especially our families.
The way to restore balance to our cultural view of the family isn't to discount the impact that nurture has on our lives, but to focus as much on the positive lessons of childhood as we do on the traumas. As Burke says, "A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing." By viewing the family through a lens obscured by our suspicions, we limit our perceptions at our peril. The first step in the Codes of Love is to reexamine the very memories that we use to justify those suspicions.
Cognitive psychologists, such as Seymour Epstein, believe we have in essence two brains working at once to form our reality: the rational, intellectual brain and the emotional, experiential brain. The rational, intellectual brain operates in the world of facts and logic, while the emotional, experiential brain is not linear in thought or bound by chronology. The rational brain assesses the facts of a situation or a memory, whereas the emotional brain can bring the emotions of a memory into present time. In fact the emotional brain is our oldest brain, anthropologically speaking, and it is also by far the fastest. It accesses its power immediately and often without our conscious awareness.
In the case of Justine, the young woman who was slapped by her father, her rational brain remembers the slap intellectually. It knows the conflict that led up to the slap, the look on her father's face, and the length of time the mark stayed on her cheek. The emotional brain, on the other hand, instantly recalls the flash of pain on her cheek, the terror at her father's rage, the shame at what she interprets as her failure to be his good daughter, the fear of facing his power -- all of them linked immediately with her own rage at being belittled.
The more amplified a memory is by attendant emotional pain, particularly pain that includes shame, guilt, embarrassment, or pride, the more weighted a memory is. By this I mean that these memories are more likely to be remembered and therefore will be more accessible than other, less weighted events. The more weight a memory has, the more influence it will wield, even unconsciously, on our mental model of the world -- and the more likely it will be accompanied by a visceral physical response. This is what makes our traumatic memories more potent than our everyday pleasant ones.
On the far side of this argument are the extreme cases of combat veterans whose worldview and sense of self have been forever altered by the traumas they faced in war. Their traumatic memories sometimes stay so much in the foreground that they disturb all four of the basic postulates that form our outlook: their sense of the meaning of their lives, the safety of the world, the benevolence of their fellows, and their personal worth, all suffer dramatic shifts toward the negative. Unfortunately for certain vets, these shifts to the negative become part of an ever downward spiral that we now call posttraumatic stress disorder. This state of mind also occurs in some children from especially abusive childhoods. But they are the uncommon exceptions.
In, the Freudian worldview the solution would be to help these trauma victims to remember the experience, repeat the details, and work through the pain. The cognitive psychologist wants the patient to extinguish the negative reactions and move toward a renewed sense of meaning, understanding, safety, and through that process return a sense of value to the self.
In Codes of Love we want to expand those frames of reference so that they focus on the intergenerational forces that influence our family as a whole, and to view those forces through a framework of acceptance -- reflecting on all the historical, structural, genetic, and temperamental elements that have shaped our particular family constellation. These elements make every incident part of an ever unfolding story that has its roots in the distant past and its resolution in future generations.
We will discuss the Codes of Love perspective more in subsequent chapters, but for now let us assume, just for argument, that our suspicious mindset forms a tight band around our brains -- both the rational and the emotional -- and that this old way of viewing the family has inhibited our ability to reflect on the past. We cannot unstick the problems with our families until we drop the suspicious lens in favor of a much broader perspective.
Paul, a grown man, has had a contentious relationship with his alcoholic father for most of his life. Almost all of Paul's memories from childhood coalesce around images of his father swirling the ice in a glass of scotch with his finger. Once the drug began to take effect, verbal and physical rage resulted. Paul blamed himself for his father's emotions and as a teenager became trapped in a state of violent rebellion against his father. Even now, twenty years later, Paul affects the style of a rock and roller. He has shoulder-length blond hair and a string of earrings rimming his right ear, and he has earned his living through jobs ranging from rock musician to car salesman.
Each family gathering begins in a state of suspicion. Paul doesn't just suspect, he knows that his father is bound to express some disappointment at Paul's lack of ambition, to which Paul is bound to answer with defensiveness. Each man arrives at the family event awaiting the inevitable.
I worked with Paul to widen the lens through which he views his dad. Paul's memories were classics of the Family Noir genre, including heated dinner table confrontations, hostile silences, even fistfights and furious exits. I asked him to place his father and his mother in a broader chronological context. Who were his parents' parents? How did his parents meet? What attracted them to each other? What happened in their lives before Paul and his sister were born?
Through this work Paul moved toward a more complete picture of his family, not one defined just by conflict. His father had made his own family proud as a young man by being admitted to a prestigious boarding school and then an Ivy League college. During World War II, he left college in his sophomore year to volunteer, and he served three tours of duty, participating in three invasions of the South Pacific, and won three combat ribbons and a Purple Heart. During the third campaign, Paul's father witnessed the slaughter of all the men under his command and he himself took a grenade and lost an eye. He spent three months in the hospital in Asia recovering from his wound and, upon returning to America, began using alcohol to deal with his memories and his loss. He returned home to a world that was changed forever for him, not only by his experience of war, but also eventually, by his drinking.
In order for Paul to find a way to love his father, he had to see his journey from the promising young man who carried the family's hopes as he went off to prep school to the bitter drinker he became after the horrors of war. It may not be a pretty picture, but it is a comprehensible one. If Paul remains in the emotional field where his memory and judgment are clouded with suspicion, he certainly has the evidence to justify his hatred of his father. Yet if he can also picture his father as an eighteen-year-old boy in the South Pacific watching his entire platoon obliterated in battle, Paul can (and did) move toward understanding and compassion.
As we worked to widen Paul's perspective on his father, other memories came to the foreground that further humanized his father's struggle. Paul recalled how his father, still traumatized by war twenty years later, would scream out at night in his sleep. Paul also remembered how some nights he'd come across his father crying quietly at the dining room table. Instead of seeing his father as simply the inflictor of pain in the family, Paul began to have compassion for the tremendous loneliness and pain that his father carries inside himself.
Through this work Paul has come to honor his father in a different way. He doesn't need to ignore the painful incidents that led to years of conflict between him and his dad. In fact, he should not ignore them, as they are true and a part of the whole continuum of experience between these two men. By including more of his father's experience in the framework, Paul no longer has to feel himself unworthy because his father drinks and doesn't act as if he cares for him. By transcending his narrow perception of who his father is, that is, defined only in relation to himself, Paul can drop the suspicious point of view, step outside his family's emotional field, and begin to establish the person-to-person relationship with his father by discovering what about his father he loves and honors.
Many therapies don't do a good enough job with precisely this kind of problem. Through most standard modes of therapy we bring pain to the foreground, and eventually the other, more pleasant memories shrink in power and prominence. What I'm suggesting is that we bring all the memories forward, construct a fuller narrative of the family, one that takes a multigenerational, noncausal view. Paul had been stuck in the pain of his angry history with his father, unable to appreciate the gifts he has been given by his family: their entrepreneurial spirit, intelligence, drive, and heroism. In understanding his father in this broader context, he has actually moved beyond forgiveness into our framework of acceptance.
This process can be described as the difference between family noir and family spirit. Family spirit starts with the moods and feelings cast into our cells through the generations -- our animating force -- and manifests itself in our loyalty, dedication, and history. Spirit is, in fact, what James Hillman means when he refers to the great chain of generations. In the modem, therapized world we have often become estranged from this legacy of the characters that comprise who we are today. For many, the work before you in Codes of Love concerns not so much creating the family spirit as discovering it. The initial steps involve letting go of preconceptions and accepting limitations. The limitations that we need to understand are first our own, then those of our families.
I remember when I was eight or nine looking around whatever careworn enlisted man's quarters we lived in then, during the nomadic years when my father first joined the Navy, and wondering when my real parents, the Empress of Japan and the Prince of Wales, were going to show up and claim their long lost son. Perhaps at those same moments my parents were casting a doubtful eye on me and wondering if their real son had been switched with another baby at the hospital. I was a bookish geek with thick glasses, unlike anyone else in my handsome working-class family. Where was their football star?
I devoured biographies and heroic tales to escape the ordinariness of daily life. The everyday brush-your-teeth-here's-your-laundry kind of love I got from my family bored me when I compared it to the enduring, powerful love that I was reading about: the love of a country for its returning hero or the honorable love among a family that survived a difficult challenge. I was blind to the love I was getting from my family because I compared them to some vaguely defined, idealized version of family I had conjured to match the grandiosity of my fantasies for my future. I had not even entertained the idea that I might have limitations of my own.
Now I can see how my mother and father sacrificed their lives on so many levels to keep the family together for twenty-eight years despite their occasional marital conflicts and financial struggles. Not until recently did I have the wisdom to see their sacrifices as a kind of heroism, because like most immature people I was, even into my forties, blinded by blame and wondering why my family didn't love me, rather than why I didn't love my family. There's an old Gordon Lightfoot song, "Carefree Highway," in which he sings, "I will never grow so old again, as when I knew I had no one else to blame." Seeking wisdom is the act of maturity. True wisdom comes from accepting our physical, emotional, and intellectual limitations and learning to work within them. To paraphrase Carl Rogers, once I accept myself as I am, then I can change.
LIFE IS SHORT
Another important motivator for change is the realization that our time on earth is finite. We are here for a short time. This acceptance of death -- not hiding from the truth by using euphemisms, such as "passed away" or "was lost" -- can add to rather than subtract from the quality of life. Our acceptance of death's inevitability creates an imperative to pack meaning, beauty, and joy into the time we have. As psychiatrist Heinz Kohut wrote: "Those who genuinely accept death face it with a quiet pride rather than a sense of resignation and hopelessness. Such people share with Goethe the insight that the acceptance of death leads to a richer feeling of being alive."
When we insert the idea of transience into our framework, our perspective on our family is immediately transformed. If you knew you or any member of your family had only a year to live, would not most of your conflicts seem tired and trivial? Might you not want to use the time you had left with that person to build the strongest relationship you could? The reality is we never know how much time any of us have. Were your mother or father or sibling to die tomorrow, would you perhaps regret that your relationship died fractured -- killed by a handful of incidents that took place long ago?
Carla is a bright young woman in her late twenties who dreads going home to her working-class family because they don't understand her artistic temperament. Carla was a precocious child, always did well in school, and got a nice scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley. Her parents were overjoyed that someone in the family had finally gotten into college and pressured Carla heavily to be a business major so she could make real money in the world. Carla, however, had always wanted to be a writer. She became an English major, focusing her studies on creative writing despite constant hectoring from her family.
Now eight years out of college, Carla works as a housecleaner to keep her time and mind free for writing. She's making progress in her writing and has sold a few stories to literary journals that her parents would never read. In fact her parents don't even know about her publishing successes because she won't show the stories to them. They probably would be hurt if they read them as most concern her family. She tells herself that she doesn't show her published work to her parents because they wouldn't understand, but secretly she knows that they would definitely understand the anger underneath the way she portrays them in the stories.
When she comes home for a visit, the subject of her career is certain to surface. Why, Carla's father always wants to know, did Carla waste all that time and money in college? She could have become a housecleaner right out of high school if that's what she wanted to do. Carla might be able to avoid squabbling with her parents and pouting at the dinner table if she was more secure about her progress as a writer. Her modest success in publishing is nowhere near the dream of the speech she will make when accepting the National Book Award, a fantasy she spins out each day when she sits down at her desk to write. If a family visit is upcoming, she can barely sit down. Once at her desk, her mind is crammed full of the answers she's going to give her father if he dares to bring up the subject of her writing, not focused on the writing project in front of her. Clearly for all of Carla's protestations that she doesn't care what her parents think, she still aches for their approval and fears that what her father says is right. She will never make it as a writer. The family's suspicions that have the most impact on us are the ones we secretly believe are true.
Carla suspects how her choice of supporting herself as a housecleaner plays down at the beauty parlor where her mother has gone to get her hair done every Saturday for twenty-five years. Her mother's beauty parlor buddies cheered Carla on as she went from award to award in high school and then gained admittance to such a prestigious school. They all showed up bearing gifts at Carla's graduation party. Now that she's a housecleaner, they don't know quite how to talk about Carla to her mom. Her mother always says, "Whatever Carla wants to do, as long as she's happy." It is abundantly apparent to her mother that Carla is not happy. She's broke, spends a lot of time alone, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere with this writing thing. Carla's mother wants to be supportive, but she can't see how to do it without making Carla mad. Carla's mother tiptoes on eggshells every time Carla is home for a visit.
If she could drop her suspicions, Carla could see her father's concern for her as not so much lack of faith in her talent and drive but one of her father's Codes of Love. He fears that in her current line of work she will never achieve economic stability or meet the kind of man that could make a decent husband. He doesn't want to leave her that insecure in the world.
Inject the notion of transience into this dynamic and its ripple effect is profound. First of all, Carla must separate from her parents and stand on her own, fully adult and responsible for her own choices rather than in a reactive posture to her parents. If her parents had only a year to live, would Carla want to mar their remaining time together with petty disputes?
Armed with her acceptance of life's transience, Carla could determine to become both a fully autonomous adult and an intimate participant in her family. She could find the strength to not let the fact that they've never supported her writing obscure the many ways in which they have loved and supported her all her life. With this new framework that engenders connection and individuality, Carla might be able to convey some of the joy she feels at the way her life is going and hence receive more approval from her parents. She should be able to see her choice to be a housecleaner and a writer not as shameful but as courageous, a manifestation of the spunk that inspired her mother to abandon the security of the small town and the multigenerational extended family in which she was raised and strike out on her own for San Francisco because she wanted a better life. The notion of our transience can help us to focus on our similarities, our spirit, rather than the things that drive us apart.
Another powerful tool that can lessen the burden of suspicion in the family is humor. The rigidity of the suspicious point of view takes all playfulness out of the family dynamic. Suppose, for example, that during family gatherings Uncle Steve disappears intermittently to take a swig from a bottle of scotch he's got hidden behind the dryer in Grandma's laundry room. No one ever talks about where Uncle Steve goes even though everyone knows exactly where he is and what he is doing. In fact, during some of the more fractious family events, Uncle Steve has had a lot of company down there amid the bleach and fabric softener. If your suspicious mind is searching for evidence outside yourself of the horrible dysfunction that plagues your family, you need search no further than the laundry room, and the label alcoholic.
Say you happen to come across Uncle Steve and his companions standing awkwardly in the dark little alcove in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Uncle Steve quickly hides the bottle behind his back and gives you a conspiratorial hey-get-out-of-here smile. Some family, you think. This family is fundamentally wacked out, and no one here can stand to be together for very long. That must be why they drink.
I'm not advocating sneaking alcohol as a coping mechanism for family gatherings. I'm just suggesting that we need to clear that atmosphere of blame and judgment and see the humorous side. Because not all drinking is alcoholic drinking. Uncle Steve has not had his life marred by alcohol and doesn't return to the family drunk and belligerent. His session in the laundry room is his version, reinforced by identical behavior on his father's part when Steve was a boy, of the time-out walks I take when I need space. In fact, Steve's drinking in the laundry room was an attempt to protect the children, to keep them from "seeing too much."
So, the first step in lightening up the atmosphere is to break the family pattern. Suppose Grandma makes a particularly nasty remark about your brother Mike's former fiancée who left him. Instead of letting the pain of Grandma's bluntness reverberate in the ensuing silence, your brother seizes control of the moment with humor. Mike waits a silent beat, stands up to leave the room, and says, "Hmm, I think I'll go see what Uncle Steve is doing."
With that one remark he's done an important form of healing for the family and for himself. He's remained within the family's shared culture by reaching out to the others for support through humor. But Mike has also remained autonomous by refusing to take the bait of Grandmas remark and become embroiled in another debate about his dating choices. If he had reacted with hostility to Grandma's remark, he'd have proven that he was not yet free enough from his family's emotional force field to stand on his own two feet.
When I find myself regularly defending, blaming, or accommodating others, I know that I am still not mature enough to remain connected to the family without judgment, denial, or loss of self -- all of which are signs that I have more personal work to do to gain a person-to-person relationship with my family. These signals alert me to the opportunity to relate to my family in a new way -- one that allows me to be my biggest self and remain loving. Humor is one of our first tools in helping to lighten the family noir atmosphere.
By refusing to become his smaller, pouting, victim self, Mike has deflected his Grandma's judgment and signaled to the family that he has matured enough not to be baited in the old ways. This behavior is his best hope of changing his grandmothers pattern of relating to him. Because he is detaching and allowing the affection to stay in the room. If tense situations do come up, Mike can now handle them without the old need to protect himself or his reputation.
Codes of Love Exercise: THE HOLIDAY SITCOM
Another powerful way to change our perspective about our family is to view it as a comedy of errors. Psychologists view humor as a defense mechanism. I think of it as an acceptance mechanism. With it you can explode the striving and the judgment and connect with others on the commonality of just getting through the day If you've ever seen a daytime soap opera with the sound turned off, you know there are few things more humorous than bad melodrama. It can't be about right and wrong when everyone in the room is acting like an idiot. Suppose I redid the lighting and gave a new soundtrack for the Christmas that began this chapter. Ah, home for the holidays.
Chestnuts roasting on the open fire,
Mama picking on my clothes,
Past transgressions being thrown on the pyre,
And looks that could freeze the Eskimos....
Everybody knows with C-4 and some baling wire,
I could blow the house to bits...
Instead I'm forced to let them fill my ears,
With junk I've heard for years and years....
Viewed with humor, any holiday trip looks more manageable.
Try to recast a family holiday story in a comic light. Look for the humor in every slight, and look for people's foibles instead of their flaws. A hint: How would an alien from another planet react to the strange rituals of your family holiday?
Codes of Love Exercise: THE FAMILY NOIR FILM FESTIVAL
Return to your most emotionally charged family memories with the keen eye of a film director. You know the cast, the characters, and the plot. The questions in this exercise help you play with mood, lighting, and motivation -- and to experience both emotional reactions and rational thoughts about these incidents at the same time. This is what I call, living in the paradox. By this I mean to simultaneously entertain the seemingly opposing notions of feelings and thoughts regarding the same events. The ability to do this helps us build an emotional connection to the material while also granting us an observer's distance.
Answer the following questions to see just how dramatic the lighting is in your home movie.
- What subjects are touchy for you in your house? What subjects are touchy for some or all of your family members?
- What phrases do you blurt out that remind you of when you were younger?
- What feelings (rebellious or accommodating) do you have when participating in family functions?
- How do you feel in your parents' home? What do you think about that?
- In what ways are you still reacting to your parents that remind you of how you reacted as a child? What do you think about that?
- Do you pout? What about?
- Do you drink too much at family gatherings? Eat too much? Feel hostile? Why?
- Do you find yourself thinking one thing and saying another?
- When you do not say what you really think, what is the tape that plays in your head?
- Once you leave a family gathering, what do you wish you had said?
- When you are at your parents' house, are you always in a hurry? Why?
- Are you planning your departure from the moment you arrive?
- When loaded topics are discussed, how do you react?
Codes of Love Exercise: THE FAMILY COMEDY SPECIAL
It is funny how we forget to laugh. We sometimes take ourselves so seriously that the world starts to read like the front page of The Economist -- dry and solid. Here we take a more lighthearted approach.
- What are the five funniest stories about your family.?
- Who in your family is viewed as a character?
- Who is the family comic? The drama queen? The tragic hero?
- How do you feel when you are in public with your mother? Father? Sibling?
- What character traits do you exhibit with your family that aren't shown with anyone else?
- How much contact do you have with your family -- nuclear and extended -- throughout the year? Does that put more pressure on you or less?
- What does your family suspect about you that is true?
- How do you feel about the way you look? Look in the mirror for a full minute. Who do you see there? What about that person do you doubt? Is this the truth or just an old idea? What traits about yourself do you love? What about yourself would you change? Should you change?
- Are you secure in your job? Your love life? Your financial situation?
- Are you able to keep your sense of humor when other people criticize or tease?
- What are the four or five phrases members of your family might say that will set you off? Is there any way you might just laugh it off? Do you have a funny answer for them that is not sarcastic?
- What do you look for in family gatherings that you don't get? Is that funny?
- Are you a victim? A victim of circumstance? A victim of love? A victim of the past? A fashion victim? A therapy victim?