Archive for the ‘family dynamics’ Tag

True Love Is Never Blind   2 comments

We humans are deeply flawed.  The Bible calls it sin, the evil and brokenness that infests our whole world, right down to the roots of our own heart.  It not only distorts our hearts, but our minds, our volition, our self-understanding… it taints every part of who we are.  One of the primary ways this plays out is to make each of us the center of our own universe, both perceptually and morally.  We have a default to justify ourselves while blaming others.

Self justification may at first glance seem like self compassion, being on my own side, but it is really a Trojan horse, the gift that keeps on taking, because it is rejection of the truth, and that never leads to health and strength.  Fleeing our shame makes us no freer than the prison escapee who is running for his life.  Our only hope is to embrace our shame, our failings, our faults, with the arms of grace, to openly confess our flaws from within the safety of God’s unconditional love.

I’m sorry to say that I often find it easier to see the failing of others than my own, and to then fault them for it as a moral flaw.  But fixing that tendency to blame others by trying instead to justify them leads to equal disorder in our minds and hearts and relationships.  Grace ceases to be grace when it avoids the truth.  Being generous-minded (assuming the best rather than the worst) certainly has its place, especially if our default is to blame (as mine sadly is), but our aim is to seek out what is true, not what is nice.  Flattery is deadly, especially when it is sincere.

Our response to our parents often falls into this unfortunate dichotomy–we either blame them or exonerate them, justify ourselves or justify them, and both responses are equally damaging.  In the complexity of processing through our emotional entanglements, we will likely go through stages of both blaming and justifying, I certainly did, but these should never be an end in themselves.  We seek to know ourselves through the dynamics of our early upbringing so as to find truth and freedom in which to grow forwards.  Things need to be unlearned or re-organized or re-evaluated or put into perspective.  Getting stuck in blame or justification cuts off true transformation.

One key tool in growing into a gracious outlook towards others is to separate the impact of someone’s behavior from its sinfulness.  To say that my father or mother impacted me in a certain way is quite distinct from saying that they are to blame.  They may have been doing the best they could.  We do not ultimately know what internal resources they did or did not have, the motivations for their choices, and so on.  “To his own Master he stands or falls.”  However, we have the emotional and spiritual obligation to carefully evaluate behavior as itself beneficial or harmful, otherwise we will mindlessly carry on those relational patterns into our own families by adopting them or by reactively adopting their opposite.


Posted June 25, 2016 by janathangrace in thoughts

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To Know Others, I Must Know Myself   4 comments

I’ve been muddling over a question for several days: why did Dad’s inability to understand himself so significantly affect his own children and his relationship with them.  I finally settled on a typical childhood scenario to sort it out in my mind:  being late for church.  In stark contrast to Dad, Mom was a spontaneous, disorganized soul who was not very good at time management.  Sunday morning she was inevitably running late.  Dad would finally stump out to the Oldsmobile and sit fuming, eventually honking the horn to try to hurry things along.  He hated being late.  It made for an icy car ride which suddenly transmuted into a smiling hand-shake with church folk, because Dad took charge of all our emotional exchanges, and he’d decided it was time to move on.  Yes, he was very organized, even with his emotions, and very take-charge, even with our emotions.

While Dad was in our driveway tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, Mom would be in the bathroom madly trying to finish fixing her hair and putting on her make-up.  Of course, traditional roles exacerbated this situation–Dad only had to get himself ready while Mom had to make breakfast, feed the clan, and make sure all us kids were presentable.  But she still would have accomplished all this punctually if she’d had the same personality and value system as Dad.  And since her promptness depended largely on certain unreliable munchkins, she would have had to heavily impose those time values on her children.  There would have been as much impatience, tension, and condemnation inside the home as in the station wagon outside.  Instead of a kind “where did you last see your shoes?” it would have been, “How many times have I told you…”  And we children, fearing that condemnation, would have worked very hard to conform.

When two people have similar values, perspectives, personalities and emotional responses, conflicts are drastically reduced, but when these vary in important relationships, such as with Dad and Mom, some sort of system must be worked out for negotiating the conflicts.  Those like my dad who have a behaviorist approach to life and relationship see growth as a process of adapting one’s behavior and language to avoid conflict rather than discovering a deeper understanding of oneself and the other. In other words, the underlying perceptions and dynamics remain the same, but one’s actions and words are tweaked to avoid offense–speaking more softly when angry or driving separate cars to church (my dad’s final solution).  Being late is clearly wrong, so either she fixes her behavior so he’s not mad, or he tries to be patient with her as the failing one.

At first glance it would seem that the first approach is somewhat legalistic and the second somewhat gracious… except in both cases the late person is in the wrong.  There is no option available for non-judgmentally trying to discover why this value is so important to one and not to the other–for instance that Mom put more value in accepting her kids than rushing them, that her immense creativity was enabled by not having a highly organized life, and so on.  Instead of differences leading to deeper self and mutual understanding, they lead to the slotting of behaviors (and individuals) into good and bad.

Clearly, if there is a disagreement and Dad was unwilling to reconsider his own position, then he could not in any meaningful way make room for the legitimacy of the other person’s perspective of herself.  If he was right, then she was wrong, and even if he is kind and sympathetic, that judgment sticks.   It is not possible for someone to come to a truly gracious acceptance and understanding of the other person without questioning his own underlying perspective about himself and his views.  In a remarkable way, lack of self-understanding prevents us from understanding others because we cannot shake free from our own blinders and so we distort our own perceptions.

Now, being over-zealous about lateness is a small issue that can be overlooked.  Everyone has their foibles and it is part of grace to overlook them.  The amazing thing I have discovered is that differences, even on small matters, can open the door into a huge cache of personal information that has never been discovered.  Our inner selves are well integrated, so that one concept enforces another in a web that makes up our worldview.  Punctuality is a small corner of the much bigger idea of efficiency, which is in turn a portion of the worldview that puts a premium on accomplishments.  I have struggled my whole life with a sense that my value as a person depends on what I accomplish, that God values me for what I do for him rather for me.  Most of my life I didn’t know this was at the root of my relationship with God–I thought all my zeal was out of my love for him.  Or I could follow punctuality down a different trail, one that leads to the importance of meeting a wide array of standards and how perhaps I am not loveable unless I pass a certain moral bar (while naturally holding others to that bar).  Or I could follow punctuality down a different path that connects it to respect, and what makes me feel respected or disrespected and how I respond to those feelings in my relationships.

Rubbing up against someone who experiences the world differently than I do is a great opportunity for that soul-searching.  But if I default to my unshakeable worldview, I not only fail to understand myself better, but fail to understand the other, having placed us both as characters in a world of my own assumptions.  Being blind to who I am inevitably makes me blind to who others are–their gifts, insights, and beauty.



My Dad Died a Hero to Many   16 comments

My father’s mind began to wane several years ago, and friends encouraged him to give up writing and preaching.  He acquiesced begrudgingly since losing his public ministry made him feel useless.  When visiting him, one of those friends  would ask, “How are you?” and dad would always say, “Terrible!”  “Why?”  “Because I’m still alive!”  He was ready to “go home” and last week he finally did.  I expect he was greeted with my mom’s loud, raucous laughter echoing through the halls of heaven.

Family, friends, and colleagues remembered him with admiration at his funeral.  He was a good man and a gifted leader, a hero to many.  Years ago he asked me if I had any heroes, anyone I admired and sought to emulate.  He expected me to point to him and was sad when I didn’t.  Though I respect him, I cannot emulate him any more than an ostrich can emulate an eagle.  An ostrich hatched by an eagle would simply be lost and confused and self-condemning as long as he tried to imitate the eagle, and all the eagle’s encouragement, advice, and example on how to be a better eagle would only make matters worse.

To his credit, dad eventually made room for my way of being, though he couldn’t understand it.  He tried to understand, but he was stuck in his own framework of thinking, as though the eagle saw his ostrich son running and interpreted it to be “low flying” or “slow take-off.”  His efforts to accommodate my way of being were inspired by love.  Instead of treating me like a deformed eagle, he accepted me as a mystery (because he was unable to grasp the idea of an ostrich).  I’m forever grateful that he did not condemn me for who I am and how I live.  For that reason, although our viewpoints were so contrary, we were never estranged.

And yet we drifted apart.  As I slowly discovered my true self and tried to share it with him, I could not make it comprehensible to him.  He could not see outside his own box, and so our relationship devolved into general, disconnected niceties because real relationship requires mutual understanding.  Over the years, I have grieved the loss of that relationship as I think he did, and so his home-going was only the final step in that loss.  It is sad, but the tears have long since run their course.  When I see him again, he will see me for who I am, and that is cause for rejoicing.

In the meantime I will give him his well-deserved honor.  God made him an eagle and he was determined to be the best eagle he could be and raise up a huge flock of eagles to follow in his flight.  He was admirably successful.  For that he will be remembered for a generation.  I am glad for those he blessed.



A Visit from My Boyhood Self   Leave a comment

Caroline came to me at work yesterday with an apology, “I’m sorry I was hard on you yesterday.  I was slammed with a lot of issues I had to sort through and was feeling stressed.”  I said that I understood.  But she was not finished with her apology which rather quickly worked around to her frustration at me, still evident in her look and tone of voice, because I was apparently inadequate at my job.  Tears had started pooling in my eyes when she finally finished her lecture and turned to leave.

Having no customers to attend, I had some space to reflect.  Why did this exchange feel so bad to me?  I was better than most at handling displeased customers and angry colleagues, able to be courteous and sympathetic without taking it personally.  I felt the powerful emotional tug and followed the shame back to my childhood fears. This dynamic was very familiar, the sense that I was fundamentally flawed because I was too slow or stupid or inattentive.  It was not simply that I had failed in this one thing as everyone does, but that I had failed in a way that others did not, at least not responsible ones.  As a boy I figured dad would be patient with average mistakes, the kind he too made, so his frustration proved some deeper flaw in me.  Children who paid more attention, who got it on the first explanation, who didn’t repeat the same mistake earned approval.  I just had to try harder… but I could never quite overcome that achievement deficit.  I was stuck in a permanent sense of inadequacy.

Now whether my dad was too impatient or I was too sensitive is beside the point… or rather it completely leads us down the wrong trail.  The point is not to identify blame, but to identify dynamics–this is what happened and this is how it made me feel.  And seeing that dynamic clearly, and being the melancholic that I am (tending to self-blame), I immediately noticed how I treat others in a similar way, especially those I supervise.  My mind flashed back to the previous night when I had given an exasperated look and tone to a new student I was training because she wasn’t getting it.  I could see her face fall, and realizing what I had done, I quickly changed into a non-judgmental re-explanation.  But it passed through my mind as a common interaction, not something that called for further examination, one of those things I see as a flaw in myself that I need to work on, but with such a minimal focus that I make only incremental changes.

Okay, that is unfair to myself.  I have actually grown a lot in this area.  I just have a lot farther to go. If I’d had a little boy when I was my father’s age, I might have been much harder on him than my father was on me.  It is nearly impossible to break out of family dynamics without a great deal of reflection and understanding… and grace to myself, not just to others.  Given my temperament, I could easily turn this insight into self-blame, castigating myself for being hard on others and trying to scold myself into being more patient.  But shaming myself just makes me feel even more inadequate, leading to further dysfunction in my life.

For me, this is where reflecting on my childhood becomes so powerful.  When I find a reason for a deep-rooted unhealthy tendency in myself, when I can locate the pain I felt that I’m passing on to others, I can see myself with compassionate eyes, as the wounded one.  I can grace myself into healthier interactions instead of criticizing myself into being better, a stick I used my whole life that simply drove me into deep, unremitting depression.  I find that grace must begin with myself before I can pass it on.  We live in a fallen world, we have all been wounded deeply, and tracing that injury back to its roots can give us the insight and self-compassion we need to finally begin healing under the gentle touch of God’s grace.

Posted September 3, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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When Family Personalities Clash   2 comments

As I unpack the baggage from my travels through life, I see that some of it came pre-packed, some I added by choice or accident, and some was dropped into my suitcases by other hands. I’m regularly surprised by what I find–why is this here and where did it come from?  I look for the answers by reflecting back on the interplay of family values, personalities, coping strategies, roles, relational dynamics, and assorted other influences in my growing-up years.  This is a large part of my blog posts since I started, but I’m narrowing down the focus just now to the greatest influence, my dad.

Dad and I are similar in some aspects and dissimilar in others, and that discrepancy and how we have each responded to it is a huge part of our story.  Perhaps most fundamental to our differences is our personalities–I am a typical melancholic and he is a typical choleric.  Generally speaking, life is straightforward for him and complex for me; he is an actor and I am a ruminator; he is confident, clear, decisive and I am uncertain, questioning, hesitant.  In his conscious thinking and acting in the world, his emotions are peripheral, and life seems to work best for him when he keeps them in their place.  He is largely unaware of his subconscience and the role it plays in his life and has little ability or interest in investigating that realm.  In contrast, my emotions speak to me loudly and constantly, alerting me to many aspects of my subconscious world and how it affects me, my perspective, my work, and my relationships.  He enjoys life most when he is doing something worthwhile and succeeding at it; I enjoy life most when I am gaining personal insight and growing.  In an open conversation, he likes to discuss plans, projects, accomplishments, what is happening in the world, and I like to talk about our internal worlds, what is happening in my heart and yours.

We can only see the world from where we stand, it only makes sense to us from our own perspective, which is heavily colored by our experiences, values, and, yes, personalities.  We can expand our viewpoint by trying to hear deeply and appreciatively another’s perspective, but it still remains our own particular perspective.  I experience certain things as comforting, stimulating, painful, supportive, frightening, encouraging, and I assume others experience them as I do.  It is hard to see all of this as particular to me because they feel like universal norms.  When the reactions of others differ from mine, I ascribe their fears to cowardice, their pleasures to immaturity, their anger to an irascible nature.  In short, if they see the world differently, they are wrong.  This myopia is especially hard to escape when it dovetails with our culture and significant others whose views are constantly reinforcing our own.

In a father-son relationship, the father is in the driver’s seat, so it is his personality which becomes key to the relationship, and to the extent his boy’s personality differs, the dad struggles to comprehend the world from that perspective. The more the father sees his own view as the correct universal one, the less he can understand, appreciate, and validate his children in the ways they differ from him.  It is always difficult to appreciate a point of view that clashes with our own, but it’s  especially hard for parents, who carry the heavy responsibility of guiding their kids, especially for those of my father’s generation, especially for those with less reflective personalities.

All in all my dad did the best he could, which is all we can ask of any father, all that even God himself asks.  But don’t suppose that all goes well when everyone does their best.  This broken world is filled with jagged edges, including our own shards.  If we are to relate at all, we must relate as fractured people, cutting and bruising each other unintentionally and even against our best efforts to be careful and kind.  Good, healthy relationships are profoundly healing, but even between best friends muck gets kicked loose.  In the end it will all work out for the best if we can stumble through the slough to a better place, a place of greater maturity and deeper, truer connection.  It is often in digging through the muck that we strike the truth that was buried beneath.

“There is a crack in everything.  That is how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

The President Is Just “Dad” to His Child   Leave a comment

My father has thousands of admirers and followers and a well established public persona through his writing and speaking and professional relationships, an image that has slowly coalesced over time through the collaboration of thousands of voices of readers and listeners, students and colleagues.  It is a fair enough rendition–dad had no secret fatal-flaw, no mistress or addiction or off-shore account, nothing for scum-mongers to dig up–but it lacks the depth and complexity, the humanness, that dissenting voices might bring.  We elevate heroes to inspire and guide us, but someone larger than life cannot be a realistic model for us frail humans.

A son (or daughter) is more poised than other voices to offer an honest rendition of someone’s life from a place of intimate and extended knowledge.  But the public and private records are not primarily competing for accuracy because they actually are records of very different things.  A child’s telling is an altogether different story of a public figure, as different as a tale of my truck Bernie versus the dealership’s glossy of the Ford F250.

Mine is not only a different story, but a unique perspective.  We are always the central figure in our life’s stories, so the account I give of my relationship with my dad says more about me than about him, but our stories are so closely intertwined that the more I understand him, the more I understand myself, both in ways that I am like him and ways that I am different.  Every year I discover important aspects of who I am and why, uncover tensions between conflicting values, recognize cracks in my foundation that have undermined my growth, and many of these insights come from reflecting on my childhood.  If this journey of reflection and discovery interests you, then hop on board.

Note of Clarification: My goal here is not eulogy but discovery, not praise but insight, so these posts may not be what you are looking for.  This is more the reflection of a son on his relationship with his father, and to that end, his public persona is a distraction from his role as an “everyman” father.  His admirers may be frustrated and disappointed by what they find here.

Posted August 10, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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