The Quest for What We Lack: Part Two—Family Reunions

reunion-cartoon.jpgTis the season for family reunions and family gatherings in general, involving picnics and potlucks and people you seldom see all gathered together playing nice (sort of) for a few hours.

It’s a time to clamp your jaw shut and hold your clever comebacks at the rude, intrusive, in-your-face questions—a time to curb your overwhelming desire to tell off the perpetually-mouthy aunt or the ever-drunken uncle (or role-play vice-versa)—a time to not snap at the obnoxious kids in your face all vying for attention and exuding their excessive “look at me-ness”—a time for staring with slack-jawed disbelief at all those people gathered together in this park to whom you are supposedly related and your saying aloud to yourself, “Uh-uh….NOPE…..that’s not in my genes—NO way—NO how!”minioncircus.jpg

But you know that they really are.

And these are the better thoughts you’re having at that yearly, quality “family-gathering time.”

The worse thoughts throbbing at your temples during the group get-togethers are the “family secret” thoughts that make you watch Uncle Sonny or Uncle Dicky as closely as possible, especially when little ones are near him—watch for the tell-tale enticement tricks he may have once used on you or your siblings—the “Come over here, little Suzy. Come and sit on Uncle Sonny’s lap.”  Or the little tickle games, he used to play. Or the little grabs he made when others weren’t watching and you were too unclebadtouch.jpgshocked or scared to say “Don’t do that!”—the little secrets he told you to keep just between you and him—and “Oh, here’s a shiny, silver dollar just for you if you don’t say anything to your mommy about us.”

Oh yes.  I know about Uncle Sonny and Uncle Dicky, both personally and in the late-night tales from female-adolescent slumber parties—I’ve heard the warnings not to be alone with such-and-such—to ignore such-and-such’s enticements or “games”—to watch at the next gathering for how Uncle Dicky avoids certain older adolescent family members that he once used to excessively dote on.  Yes, Uncle Dicky is a family secret—except he’s not really a secret. Nor should his behavior ever be one.

Yes, these folks, no matter how questionable some might be, are all a part of our genetic pool. Perhaps some families have a few more perversion-inclined members than others, but all families have at least one or two of them, just as all families have members who are openly addicted to drugs, alcohol, and porn.  These aren’t things that you should ignore and pretend aren’t affecting others, because they definitely do affect them—especially the vulnerable, young ones.

I’ll honestly admit that I’ve always hated family mazine not coming.jpggatherings—both with my own family and my long-time friend’s family.  The ones I’ve personally participated in, especially from childhood, were cringe-worthy for me and felt downright alien. Not only did I NOT feel like a part of that group—I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to be considered a part of them.  So I have a hard time relating to the positive experience of family reunions that others crow about.

After seeing a few sets of my friends’ family-reunion photos on Facebook, I was thinking intensely about this family-gathering hostility that I still harbor; and the question arose in my mind wondering what about this family-reunion experience appeals to the folks who DO like to attend them?

I know old folks like to gather all the little chicks around and say “See what I did with my oldfolkreunionlife?!!!  Here they are—right here! You all came from ME! Aren’t I proud? Look what I did. I made ALL of YOU!”

I get that part. I’ve heard older folks say that very thing as justification for why we were all torturing ourselves playing nice for parents and grandparents during that required togetherness time.

And many folks feel that family reunions carry on traditions and ancestral heritage—long sheets of genealogical trees are spread out on picnic tables while gnarled fingers trace lineage from some distant relation in some far away land—an ancient relative who once traveled the greatest adventure of his and her life by coming to America to create this new life here for all of us—even for Uncle Sonny and Uncle Dicky, bless their pathetic, perverted hearts.

Once in awhile, the old folks exclaim with glee queentree.jpgpointing at the far-right tree branch, this part of the family tree produced some genuinely PERFECT fruits—real peaches who made the perfect peach marmalade or jam and produced the PERFECT offspring themselves who did likewise, etc..   “Look what this branch over here produced—all these great people—they are all relatives of ours! Look how successful or prominent they were/are.”

Implied, of course, is that that branch’s success meant that the entire tree trunk must have value. And likewise, so do we—even if we can’t see it materially at this time, but we know that one of our future direct ancestors might prove us worthy of having existed at this less-than-ideal time of us personally. It gives us hope for our future redemption.

I guess our weakness as human beings is that we long for connection to others—long for belonging to the greater tribe—long for some verification of our existential validity. Genealogical tracings seem to give some folks great comfort.  I can acknowledge this fact, but I’m also not maxinespeakstruthone of those folks.

“We carry their bloodline,” we say if they are positive role models for us; and if they aren’t we say, “Must have been some overnight fling with a fly-by-nighter that slipped into our lineage. They aren’t really OUR kin.  We sure don’t claim them.”  (Ever think that on someone else’s lineage tree, they don’t claim you either?)

So while I do understand that some folks really get into family reunions, to me it is another one of those quests to determine what it is that we lack in ourselves that we try to find in others and in their familial relationships to us.  What hollowness within us do we keep trying to fill in our search for definable connection to our heritage and bloodline?

disfunctionfamily56.pngAnd when we occasionally run across our own version of an Uncle Sonny or an Uncle Dicky, do we likewise just shake our heads and say “Nope!  Not in MY family tree!”

Or do we risk alienation from the family to do something about it, and make the family secrets stop?

I shouldn’t even have to ask that question.

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Our Stuff

“…If we don’t deal with our stuff, it deals with us. There is no way around it….”

Jeff Brown.

stuff

Being Honest with Oneself

A couple weeks ago I read a man’s revealing blog entry about how his world was suddenly upended by his loving wife dying from a fast-acting form of cancer. He wrote how he simply came apart after her death and spent the majority of his time tipping a bottle. What saved him, he said, was bottoming out, letting everything go, and being brutally honest with himself about every aspect of his past, present, and future without her.

While these words below (inspired by his article) are mine and not his, it was a powerful and hopeful message that needed to be shared—how he slowly rebuilt his life from the ground up by changing how he viewed his role in the process.  I’d like to list his url page of the article here for all to read it directly but unfortunately I can’t locate it again. Sorry. This fictional account is the best I can do.

***

Jack, my counselor, told me he had one rule, and that was to be honest in our talks. “Be honest?” I sneered back at him. The only truth I knew for certain was that I was still sinking in a tar pit of pain over my wife’s sudden illness and death that past year—I raged for half an hour at the unfairness of it all to both of us.  “You want REAL?” I told him, “THAT is very real to me—so there Jack, THAT is my being honest with you!”

My counselor then said to use that very real pain as the starting point to feeling what truth is for me—to use it as the gauge of honesty for every other aspect of my life to help determine what I expected from life in general, and even more importantly, what life might actually expect from me—which made no sense at all to me back then. “What LIFE expects from me?” I yelled, “Screw life! What did it ever do but give me more pain?”

He said that if I could just be honest with myself over what I truly felt for my wife before and after her illness, and allowed myself to feel the real depth of my loss over her death, then I could be honest about other parts of myself as well. That honesty, he said, would help me determine how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The booze, he said, was keeping me from ‘feeling’ in general because if I never really let myself feel the pain, then I could never get past the pain to move on from there.

The court-required AA meetings helped because other addicts/alcoholics won’t let you lie about what you do or why you do it. They know. They’ve been there. They’ve said and done the same things, and they call you out on your stuff. You can’t hide it from them. You get that real fast. And I needed that.  I needed their truthfulness to help me uncover my own.

But I wouldn’t call those meetings support as much as I’d call it a mirror held up to your face that you can’t avoid.  There you are—twenty or so different versions of you—all gathered in one room sharing stories, shame, and self-loathing.  And there I was with a bunch of other people supposedly just like me—like being called by some other name to tell something similar to my story, like Jim or John or Lori, …or Frank or Jerry—but they were all different versions of me. “Same brand of ice cream, just a different flavor,” Jack said.

Well I didn’t like how that made me feel, so I told them about it. Said I didn’t belong there.

“Accept it,” they said. “We are alcoholics. You’re an alcoholic—lying is what you do, especially to yourself.  That’s who you are because that’s the most comfortable way to be—at least it always has been. Problem now is that even lying doesn’t work for you anymore.”

They were rough with me at times because I was so stuck in denial—claiming I was the victim here—why couldn’t they see that? One guy even pointed to me and said, “You want to keep seeing this same lying sack of shit staring back at you every time you look in the bathroom mirror? NO? Then change what you’re doing—change what you’re thinking. Because if you can’t accept the living proof of who and what you are sitting here all around you—if you can’t stand to think that you’ve been lying to yourself and to everyone you say you loved day after day for most of your life, then don’t expect your future to be any different. It’s your choice. YOUR choice, man!”

The “Your choice!” repeated over and over in their own stories. It’s always your choice. It’s your decision. “No one makes it but you,” they kept saying. “It isn’t really about life’s unfairness, or how much you miss your wife,” one of them told me. It was about being honest with myself about what I was feeling—what I still AM feeling about it all, and deciding if that’s what I want to feel in the future.

“If you can do that,” my counselor who led the group said, “if you can be honest with yourself, then you can pull yourself together and get on with your new life without the booze. But it’s really up to you.”

And as a parting shot, another guy who looked a lot like my sleezy Uncle Charlie, who was the last person in the world I ever wanted a lecture like this from, told me, “If you aren’t willing to help yourself buddy, don’t expect us to help you.”

Well, a couple years later I can tell you that it wasn’t easy by any means. Some days are still a struggle, but eventually I learned to view that past history of my previous self and life in a different way—what Jack called “in a more constructive manner”—one where I could refocus on how I had survived those painful life lessons, and use that survivor mentality to help me feel good about myself again, …which was far better than feeling so rotten all the time, where I simply wanted to numb myself into la-la land with the booze.

But maintaining the what Jack had named “lesson-filled, boot-camp view” of my previous life which he said I had successfully survived, was a difficult choice that I had to keep making day after day—sometimes every minute of the day for awhile, until I grew more comfortable in my new skin.

And getting to know this new me who thought and acted completely different from the old me, was the hardest part of it, because I finally realized that for 42 years I’d basically been doing nothing more than lying to myself, so I hardly knew what truth looked like, or even what being truthful felt like.

In fact the more I considered it, I’m not sure that I had ever been honest with anyone, let alone being honest with myself back then.

Was everything I’d said and done in my entire life a lie? If so, then wasn’t any part of it real? And what part of me was the real ME who was actually worth knowing? To figure that out, Jack tried to flip my mind again to see WHO it was that I wanted to become, to know how to get there. He said it was like creating an image of the new and better me that I would simply have to GROW into. But how could I do that?

Jack framed it to me this way: If I were the adult parent of a newborn ME ready to be introduced into this world full of challenges and wonders, what kind of parent would I truly need to be to successfully raise baby ME into a solid, well-balanced adult? Would I need a critical, demanding, drill sergeant constantly condemning ME and beating me down for my failings, or a nurturing, caring, coach continually encouraging my daily progress and raising me up to feel good about myself?

Not a tough choice, really. I didn’t need to feel any worse about myself than what I’d already been feeling.  What I needed was to feel more loved and supported than I had actually felt throughout most my childhood. Jack agreed. He said what I needed to help me succeed in my new life direction was my own loving guidance and support, not more self-condemnation.

Per Jack’s instructions, every morning now when I look in the bathroom mirror, I ask myself this question: “How are you going to encourage the best from that young kid in you today—how are you going to parent yourself to become a strong and loving person?”

Then I look right into my own eyes and say the words of a speech I’d memorized for doing this daily self pep-talk, “How can I express myself in more compassionate ways—in ways that other loving and caring people want to share in—ways that help them to recognize the goodness of my heart so they want to become more a part of my life?”

“How can I be a good person?”  I ask the ME staring back in all my imperfections. And that’s the goal I set for the day—every day—just trying to be a good person in some way—trying to help somebody or to do something nice for somebody else, because it makes me feel good when I can do that. And the more good I do for others, the better I feel about myself. Funny I know, but that’s how it is.

Well, as you can see, I’m still working on that goal of being a better person. But I wanted others to know that being honest with myself was a key to clearing out the garbage from my life. Think about it: You got to keep taking out the trash to keep from stinking up the house.

And if that ain’t being honest, …then I don’t know what is.