Archive for the ‘Relational dynamics’ Tag

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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The Emotional Complexity of Father’s Day   Leave a comment

Wherever father’s day is celebrated, it is packed with emotions, sometimes simple and straightforward (at either end of the spectrum), and often a complex swirl of thankfulness, regret, delight, anger, pain and comfort.  Relationships are always complex, wonderful in a hundred ways and awful too because our flawed humanity leaks out on everyone around us and distorts even the good that comes to us from others.  There is no “right” way to feel about any relationship, so do not demand of yourself or others some prescribed emotion.  Today is culturally designated as a time to think of the good in our fathers, and if you are able to do so honestly, then by all means join the festivities.  For those whose heart is not in the celebration, that is okay too.  Be gracious to yourself and others as best you can.

Healthy emotions are mixed emotions–it is okay to laugh over some memory of a loved one whose funeral you are planning and it is okay to be somber at a birthday party, even your own.  Feelings ebb and flow, mingle and separate, clash and fuse. Try to foster a context of safety for your feelings to find a voice within your heart, even if not expressed outwardly.  Giving them a space of their own is especially difficult on occasions when certain feelings are assumed, expected, or even demanded because we have a false notion that feelings must compete and the right one must win and and squash its rival.  Those who are happy feel threatened by sadness in others, those at peace feel threatened by the fearful or angry (and vice versa), and so we try to coerce or barter or cajole them into having feelings that agree with our own (or at least pretending to).  We even do it to our own feelings.

Unfortunately, this process feeds an unhealthy loop–assuming emotions are competitive, we feel threatened by the “wrong” feelings and push for conformity, and in so doing we create even more tension between feelings that could otherwise peacefully coexist, not only within a group, but within a single heart.  Life is complex, people are complex, and so we should expect a complex mix of emotions.

I have many, very deep reasons for being grateful for my father and his impact on my life.  I have issues around that relationship as well, but the very fact that I am honest about those with myself and those close to me gives me the full emotional resources to set those aside for a time and simply celebrate my father, who is a good man, flawed (like all of us) but good.  It is the practice of listening to my own feelings compassionately that builds my emotional security and maturity so that my heart is able to embrace other flawed humans with compassion and understanding.

So today I celebrate with you or grieve with you, whatever your heart needs.  We are in this together, this crazy dance called life.  We often get it wrong, even with the best intentions, and that has to be okay.  Let us give grace to ourselves and to our fathers on this day and find ways to celebrate the broken beauty of who we are.

Posted June 21, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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“Just” Is a 4-letter Word   Leave a comment

Assumptions, like fire, are dangerous necessities.  I assume the sun will rise, my wife will speak English, my car will start, my office will still be standing, my digestion will work, my dogs will not tear up our furniture, and I will be paid at the end of the month.  It’s not possible to live on a contingency basis, always second-guessing, third-guessing, infinity-guessing.  I need assumptions, but they can destroy me.

Some false assumptions are self-correcting, whacking me with reality till I admit I’m wrong: if it stinks don’t eat it; get it wet and it will break.  But some wrong assumptions are self-perpetuating because they’re in a groove of constant and unchallenged repetition, winning legitimacy by default, like squatter’s rights.  These free-loading assumptions can blindside a marriage undetected, and I’ve caught one of the traitors on my own lips: the condemning adverb “just“: “Can’t it just wait till tomorrow?” “I wish you’d just finish it.”  “It’s just one phone call!” That 4-letter word assumes that my expectations of Kimberly are simple and easy and so her refusal would be uncaring, irresponsible, or even contemptible.  I’m asking so little that denying me is shameful.

But what an arrogant assumption!  By what scale can I possibly measure the emotional cost to another person.  It seems simple enough–I imagine myself in her position and tally how much it would cost me: a trifling.  The obvious failure in this method is that, after walking a mile in her shoes (or rather imagining it), I still end up measuring myself, not her.  Every person reacts very differently to a given situation based on their history, perception, experience, energy level, knowledge, calculations, vulnerabilities and strengths (to name only a handful of factors).  Guessing how I would respond to a scolding from my boss or my father’s sickness has little to do with how she would respond.  In fact, my own responses change from day to day.  What is easy or hard for me is no prediction of what is easy or hard for her.  I think, “the average person would feel…” but where is this average person, this stereotypical amalgamation of median scores from across the spectrum of society?  In fact the “average” person is strikingly unique.  My imagination will always fail me.  I can only understand her as I hear and accept her self revelations.

Pushing her to ignore her inner voice in order to bend to my will is insensitive, selfish, and destructive, and those hens will come home to roost.  That “just” trigger can target me as well.  I’m equally vulnerable to the heavy sighs or raised eyebrows or the hundred other ways this attitude can leak out.  Kimberly could easily shoot down my failings to meet her expectations… only she doesn’t because she is more understanding and accepting of others’ limitations than I am. She suffers under my judgments without striking back, kind of like Jesus.

“Just do it” is the motto of those who wish to simply override objections rather than understand our hesitations and accommodate our limitations, usually assuming that finishing the job is more important than hearing the heart.  But in Jesus’ mind, the person always comes first, the task can wait.  Sometimes we must choose to act in spite of conflicted, unresolved, or resistant feelings, but we do so while we acknowledge, validate, and support those feelings, not by belittling and ignoring them.  “This is hard, this is really hard, but I am going to do it anyway” is a sentiment that refuses the insinuations of “just.”  Such acts are brave and selfless and should be acknowledged as such, they should be admired and appreciated, not dismissed and forgotten.  If I could just remember that!

Posted February 11, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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“You’re Not Listening to Me!”   4 comments

Yesterday Kimberly and I were walking the dogs in our neighborhood.  My brain was stuffed with thoughts that were spilling out everywhere. (This is not as common as you might think since I’m an internal processor.)  Towards the end of my rambling monologue I commented that I was slowly coming to realize people are not very logical.  She responded, “That’s what everybody thinks.  Everybody believes their arguments are more rational than everyone else’s.”  With that short exchange our conversation slid into the ditch.  It is our most familiar, but still unavoidable, conversational pile-up.  We don’t see it coming, we don’t know how to avoid it, and once we’re off the shoulder, we don’t know how to recover.  The best we can manage so far is an autopsy after the talk has crashed and the dust settled.

In short, we each hear the other stating an absolute position that leaves no room for our own perspective.  In this case she heard me saying that I was smarter than everyone else and I heard her saying that everyone is equally logical.  My approach is to try to make some room for my view, in essence saying, “Will you give me this half of the room?  This end?  This little corner?”  It seems to me that I am negotiating for space for my viewpoint, smaller footage with each argument I propose, and after the third or fourth try, I give up, growing silent.  There is not even a cubbyhole in her outlook for my perspective (in this case, that logic is important but underused).  She, of course, hears something entirely different.  For her, every time I give a reason for my view, I am demanding her total capitulation.  It seems to both of us that the other one refuses to yield an inch.  On this occasion I tried to assert, “Logic is very important… logic is kind of important.. logic has some small role to play,” but each time, she hears me giving one more argument for why logic is king and I am his chief officer.

When the topic is minor, we just let it go.  It’s not worth the trouble to sort out.  But when it is a personal issue, touches a core value, or has significant practical implications, we are  too emotionally invested to welcome the opposing viewpoint.  So this conflict pattern that needs a clear-eyed examination arises when the fog is thickest.  Initially we don’t recognize it, but the deeper into the conversation we push, the more emotionally invested we become, so that ironically, the more obvious the situation grows the less possible it becomes to resolve it.

All our standard relational conflicts take this path of growth.  We start to recognize the pattern in hindsight and discuss it.  Then we begin to realize when we are in the middle of it, but we still can’t figure out a solution.  Then we take some baby steps that slowly grow more helpful.  After falling in the same ditch hundreds of times, we find a way to sometimes avoid the ditch, slowly becoming more adept.  We’re still at step one on this particular dynamic.  But we’ll figure it out.  We always do.

Posted October 24, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Misplacing Myself   7 comments

I was walking in the misting rain today, the dogs pulling eagerly at their leashes to sniff out delights tucked into the roadside weeds, and I was thinking about my long journey back to myself.  At the age of 40 I realized I’d been fast-marching down the wrong road, chasing my false self–the self I thought I should be and could be with a little more effort.  It was not a journey of discovering myself and blossoming into that person God created me to be, but a suppression of my true self and imposition of duty-bound goals.  And as I grew ever farther from my true self, I had only a fabricated self to share with others.

So many of us are like bumper cars trying to connect, but instead deflecting.  “Hi, how are you?” bump, bump.  “Fine, thanks.” bump, bump.  “I had a rough night, but I won’t bother you with that!” smile, bump, bump.  It’s a dangerous place to be without a bumper, so we cushion ourselves well and keep at a safe distance.  As protection, I used tight self-discipline to outshine others, to prove my worth, to earn their respect, and to safely pad the vulnerable parts of my soul from access to others.  If you hide long enough, you lose your orientation and eventually lose yourself.

Who am I really?  Am I a naturally disciplined, organized person, or am I a naturally spontaneous, creative person who has wrapped himself tightly in this cloak of spiritual conformity?  Am I essentially easy-going and relational, or am I hard-driving and goal oriented?  Would I make a better therapist or lawyer?  I worked so long and tirelessly to become the person I thought God demanded, suppressing my true inclinations, desires, and gifts, that I struggle now to recognize the real me.  For the last 14 years I’ve been finding my way back, sloughing off layer upon layer of spiritual accretions that suffocated my spirit and that carefully buffered my friendships.  I still have a long way to go, but at least I’m on the road back to my true self shared in genuine relationships.

I often wonder where I would be now if my true self had been embraced and celebrated and my path had been the natural opening of my heart to a God full of grace and welcome.

Perhaps that’s only possible in an unscarred world.

Posted September 9, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Subtle Power of the Subconscience   2 comments

This morning a cool breeze was blowing through the windows and the sun was bright and inviting.  I decided I’d like to walk the dogs on my favorite country road.  Kimberly asked if I wanted to use the new dog harness she bought for Mazie, and I declined, but while getting the leashes, I felt a sudden shadow settle over my soul from somewhere vague and indistinct.  As I loaded the dogs into the car, I tried to sort out the feeling.  Something about the new harness was upsetting me.  We recently got a second dog Mitts, and last week we bought him a harness that would inhibit his tugging on the leash.  They have clever designs that force a dog into a turn when they pull, and I told Kimberly that I could add the feature to Mazie’s harness so we would not need to buy her another one.  Two days ago Kimberly mentioned that I needed to do it soon because she was not able to control Mazie on walks, then yesterday she phoned to tell me that she had bought Mazie a new harness.  I kept quiet, but I was exasperated.


Neither of us spends much money (we don’t have much to spend), but I am more austere than she is, so minor conflicts like this come up on occasion, especially when I feel I can solve the problem for free.  Of course, that means she has to wait, especially if my emotions are dragging their feet.  She is pretty patient, but eventually she asks me to either finish the project or agree to spend the money.  This time there was little waiting, no discussion, and a unilateral decision. Naturally, she had every right since by agreement only large purchases require joint decisions. In fact, if we hadn’t discussed it at all, I would have been only slightly and briefly irritated because the bottom line was loss of money, not loss of self worth as it now felt.

As a child, I was highly sensitive, believing that others did not care about my feelings and latching onto anything that might be construed as evidence.  As kids do, I blamed myself, sure that I was unloved because I did not deserve to be loved.  I assumed my own inadequacy until it shaped my heart into a subconscious outlook, easily flaring up into depression as it bypasses any conscious thought process.  I don’t stop to make a rational conclusion: “He was impatient with me because I’m too slow… I shouldn’t be this slow… it proves that I am a failure as a human being.”   I  just feel bad without knowing why.  Sometimes even my emotions take time to settle in–my initial reaction may be a self-defensive anger covering over the sense of shame that gradually seeps in unrecognized to color my days.

As I walked, I started pulling loose the tangled threads of subconscious assumptions that triggered this current sense of worthlessness.  Simply identifying the source released a good deal of its hidden power to subvert my heart.  The next step was to validate my own worth independently of how Kimberly thought of me or treated me.  My value cannot rest on another person, even on one so vital.  My worth is anchored in the infinite and unconditional love with which God values me.  Then having found some level of security, I took another look at what Kimberly’s behavior meant… and decided that objectively it had nothing to do with her opinion of me.  She may have been acting from a sense of urgency or expedience or need for resolution.  Buying a dog harness was not a telltale sign that she didn’t care about me.  It was a sign that she wanted a dog harness.

MITTS

MITTS