Death Has Many Faces   11 comments

Dad died a year ago last Friday.  His passing was not an emotional jolt for me since I had spent a decade grieving the loss of our relationship.  My father could not follow me on my journey of genuine self-discovery over the last twenty years.  He tried as best he could to understand me, but always on his own terms, trying to fit me into his mental constructs with slight alterations–a more melancholy and ardent version of himself perhaps.  He instinctively knew, I think, that really opening himself to see things from my perspective would require a complete re-orientation of his own perspective and that was too radical for his carefully organized worldview.

His is a common human problem.  The first year of marriage was a huge struggle for me for the same reason–that my worldview made sense and Kimberly’s did not.  I tried listening to her and incorporating aspects of her perspective–trying to be more gentle and supportive, less critical and angry, tweek my worldview with cosmetic changes without moving any load-bearing walls.  I kept listening to her explain her struggle in our relationship, and I kept trying to adapt my behavior and avoid or use certain words while hiding certain attitudes.  I was basically saying to myself, “My worldview needs no adjustments, but out of love I will accommodate her weaknesses.”  It didn’t work.

Relational accommodation, making room for someone else’s differences, is much more loving than rejecting them as somehow “wrong,”  but it is a truncated love. When I continue to see others from my own perspective rather than trying to see with their eyes and understand them from within their experience, I cannot understand them in any deep way.  The relationship cannot be fundamentally supportive or transformational, but only touches the surface.  Our interdependence “being members of one another” is so much more than sharing our spiritual gifts.  Our interdependence goes to the core of who we are.  We need the corrective of the other’s point of view.

Most of us are willing to tweak our life map, add a street or railroad that is missing.  “Oh, I didn’t know that,” we say.  It is the natural process of learning.  As long as no one fiddles with the major features of our map, we won’t feel too defensive when they suggest changes because we basically have the “right” orientation.  But if the differences in our maps are profound–mine shows a grid of city streets where yours shows winding country roads–then we have no easy solution.  My initial reaction, emotionally and intellectually, is to reject your map, to assume you are wrong, confused, or misguided. When my father first heard I was struggling with depression, he was concerned and sent me a book that stated in the introduction, “Depression comes from a lack of faith.”  Thankfully, he did not stick with that perspective.

The next step in a positive direction is for me to stop rejecting your map as defective and simply assert that our views are incompatible and so we cannot understand one another.  The third step (with a smidgen of humility) is to see how I might learn from you, fit some features of the your map into mine, add a river here or a corner store there… but a river going through the center of a city, polluted and obstructing traffic, is very different from a river that is bordered by meadows.  When I squeeze this element into my map, the whole essence of it is changed.  I have distorted your view to fit my own, and though I may speak of a river, we see it so differently that we still cannot understand one another.  How you experience that river is completely shaped by your overall map, and until I can see that, I am blind to who you are.  “Okay,” I say to myself, “He likes pollution and traffic jams.  To each his own.”  Dad came this far with me on my journey, acknowledging that it was possible to be full of the Spirit and still suffer depression, though he could not conceive how that fit into his own theological framework, he at least allowed for it, a kind of exception to the rule.

But he was never able to get past this stage with me.  I spent years trying to explain to him my own experience and how I was coming to realize that his map of life did not work for me, but he always saw my experience as an aberration from the norm.  He was convinced that his theology and spirituality and values were spot-on and needed only slight tweaking to accommodate people like myself, maybe add a mission hospital to his map for that small segment of broken people like myself.  He instinctively knew that to open his worldview to my experience–using it to challenge his worldview instead of adding it as an addendum–would mean a complete revision of his thinking, a worldview that he had spent a lifetime perfecting and promoting through his preaching, teaching, and writing.  And thousands of testimonials proved that his worldview worked… at least for those who found it beneficial.

So I spent the last years of his life slowly accepting the painful reality that my own father would never know me, that our relationship would never get past the superficial.  In many ways it was like my mom’s slow decline into Alzheimer’s when she eventually did not know who I was or even that I was in the room.  Trapped inside her own mind, she could not relate to us.  That long grieving process seems to me more gentle on those left behind than a sudden death of an intimate.  Truly here “we see in a glass, darkly.”  We let them go with the joyful expectation that when we embrace them again all the obstacles to our relationships will be gone, and we will “know even as we are known.”


Postlude: Kimberly tells me no one will understand what I have said without an example.  So let me very briefly point out one serious difference in our maps.  Dad, being a choleric, grounded spiritual growth in behavioral choices and made God responsible for his subconscious mind–if he was not aware of it, he was not responsible for it.  As a result, he tended to see emotions as secondary to our spiritual lives.  This might work for people who are less self-reflective, but it is a scheme that is largely unworkable for us melancholics who are in touch with a great part of the tides of our hearts.  If dad had been able to fully accept this discrepancy, he would have had to rework his whole paradigm of spiritual growth, either suggesting different processes for different people or working out a new approach that fully incorporated the processes of those different from him.  This is a very tall order for anyone, especially in the latter part of our lives, so I do not mean to fault him for it.  He quite possibly did the best he could with what he had–and we cannot ask for more.  I only share this as an encouragement for us all to work at broadening our viewpoints.


Posted June 7, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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11 responses to “Death Has Many Faces

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  1. Well written very deep though but i like it. Thought provoking.

  2. I sure didn’t understand a thing, except, you and your dad didn’t get along. Happens to a lot of folks. Then get behind the wheel, and find your own road..on the ‘map’.

    • We got along fine. Not being close or understood did not mean we had a contentious relationship. We were cordial and friendly, and dad probably didn’t even realize the distance between us.

  3. Any thoughts/suggestions/resources on the “how-to” of this reorienting process? Obviously introspection towards increased self awareness is a prereq. And then careful, transparent, vulnerable sharing on both sides combined with a non-judgmental and engaged listening heart. All that sounds like a lot of work – got any silver bullets? 🙂 Or, absent the silver bullets, any particular insights into meta-thinking about map redrawing? I’m thinking of this as a “summer intensive” for my marriage…

    • Peter, you clearly have a good handle on the process. Yes it is a lot of work and takes a long time, but well worth it not only for a given relationship but for personal growth and understanding. Non-defensive, empathetic curiosity is a powerful tool (why does this person see things as they do), and by empathy I don’t mean feeling sorry for the person because they are wrong or screwed-up, but looking for how their views work well for them (and might then benefit me in some way). The ‘why’ questions are crucial both to understand ourselves and others I discovered, as you probably have, that experiencing another culture sympathetically can be a great primer in understanding our own more clearly and the same goes for family cultures, values, viewpoints. I think I would take it a step farther than being non-judgmental to actually trying to be an advocate for the views and feelings of the person with whom I disagree. It is in trying to understand how their viewpoint might be right or might be beneficial that I often discover my own blindspots. And of course the most strongly held and invisible viewpoints come from our upbringing, so I find a great deal of help in discerning my family of origin values, habits, assumptions, etc.and how they impacted me and how Kimberly’s impacted her. Also finding a supportive ear helps give us enough grace to be honest instead of defensive–if the subject is too touchy, that may not be a spouse. Thanks for asking! (p.s. it’s a great practice with kids also)

  4. as always, beautifully expressed clear thoughts. I have been traversing this same terraine for a long time-trying to look for, to see and accept the way others experience and see their lives differently. I do not have the emotional, spiritual, or mental strength to try and reconcile my maps with the maps of others who bring me a lot of pain from the way they follow through on their maps. However for a few decades now God has been gently leading me to be willing to walk over to another window and view the world through their eyes. So I am able to accept them as they are. I am, and have been since early childhood, very careful and cautious about revealing my own maps to others. I only connect through the parts of my maps that correspond in some way to parts of their maps. I have always, since earliest memories, lived with God completely open (and safe) about any and all aspects of my many evolving, changing, maps. And I try to, as best as I can at any given moment, agree to allow him to help me see the parts of myself that he would like to see me modify, let go, see the hurt it causes others and want to change. I don’t try to figure out how to do this; I just let him know I’m ready for him to work on that part of me. Then I go about my life and after awhile I suddenly notice I’ve changed. I keep myself safe by not sharing my personal maps (except the parts that will correspond with others) and by hiding with God in my own house. I can then extend understanding and acceptance to others – I just have to keep them out of my house.

  5. oh and the way I keep them out of my house is to learn what is important and meaningful to them and as much as possible give them lots of that — out in the yard or out on the sidewalk or on the other side of the street from my house. So they happily are unaware of where my house is! I should make this into a fairie tale!!

  6. Thanks for articulating that and “fleshing” it out, if you will. Your pursuit of your Dad and effort to be known by him is an encouragement to me, because I find it is much easier to give up and just settle for ‘what is’, rather than risk the disappointment.
    I was also struck by your title to this post. I am currently visiting my Dad for an extended period of time and as much as I long for him to be the same Dad I have always known, he has definitely lost some steam since my Mom passed, and I am having to learn to love him as he is, in all of his pain and disappointment and not expect much in return. Sometimes I respond well to his pain and others, not so, but hopefully I am learning how to ‘die to self’ a little along the way.

  7. Janathan, late for weighing in, but very thrilled with your insight and honesty. Father’s day caused a very slight ripple in my emotions. Even though my dad passed away several years ago we had been cordial for decades. The thoughts about how we form and/or manage our relationships are wonderful. I resonate with a part from Steve Martin’s book – “I left home at 18 and really never called or wrote because quite frankly (and this is embarrassing to admit) I didn’t know I was supposed to.” I think at the end he wanted to tell me that he was proud of me. Since at that time he couldn’t speak, I have to admit it might be wishful thinking.

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