I've been thinking a lot about relationships lately. (And in response to the raised brows I hear sproinging around cyberspace, all I'm going to say is that, in the words of my late mother, if you keep doing that with your eyes, one day you're going to wake up and they'll be stuck that way. Of course, perhaps you want to look like Mr. Spock. But I'm just giving you fair warning.)
Specifically, I've been thinking about the difficulties faced by people who've grown up in families where there was not a lot of love and affection between parents, where there was ongoing unhappiness and anger and fighting and perhaps even outright abuse, when they in turn find themselves in a relationship.
I think perhaps the first barrier to cross is sheer disbelief. If you've grown up in a household devoid of parental love, it may be difficult to believe that anyone would in turn want to love you. Friendly overtures may be met with "Who -- me? You can't possibly mean me."
And with the disbelief may come a certain degree of distrust: What's the con? I remember, during my student days, sharing an apartment with two preppy sisters whose family was like a secularized version of The Simpsons' Flanders family. They were physically and verbally affectionate with one another; they were kind and considerate to one another; they were playful. They didn't bicker or yell; if there were problems, they worked them out in a calm and rational way. And my jaded first impression of them was, They put on a good show. Until I had the opportunity to see the family in action without their awareness of my presence, and I realized that this wasn't a con; that they actually were this way, whether someone was watching or not. And I recall feeling a pang of longing, and a stab of sadness.
If love does come to someone who's grown up in an angry, dysfunctional family, lack of context can also make navigating the normal differences and everyday frictions that occur between people difficult. I remember one epic fight during my childhood that began with my father's sarcastic comment about a cobweb in the corner of the ceiling -- a damned cobweb, fer chrissakes -- that wound up lasting for weeks, with much screaming and crying and divorce talk punctuated by terrifying silences. You just never knew what would set off my parents. And I find that even now part of me freezes whenever I'm around people disagreeing about anything, or when I find myself disagreeing with someone whom I care about: Cubbies versus White Sox, thermostat up versus thermostat down. I did not grow up in a home in which people could disagree about things, or offer constructive suggestions, without everything turning into A Thing. I might maintain a poker face and sound entirely calm and rational when I'm in these situations these days, but internally I'm frantically engaged in emergency cognitive self-therapy to keep my grip on a healthy perspective.
So what do you do if this is your personal history? One alternative is to simply repeat it -- to give into your childhood conditioning and become your parents. One alternative is to conclude that relationships are too much Sturm und Drang and opt out. And one alternative is to get honest about who you are and where you've been -- and garner the courage to take the leap anyway; to let yourself be transparent with and vulnerable to another human being; to be willing to mindfully live your way into the sort of relationship you wished your parents had had with one another, even though you know that it will take work, and more work for you than perhaps for other people with different family backgrounds.
The really interesting thing, though, is -- isn't this a reflection of our relationship with God? We're born into a dysfunctional, soul-killing world that turns us in on ourselves; creates barriers between ourselves and our relationship with God and with other people. Nevertheless, God loves us; comes down and claims us as God's own. Our natural inclination is to fear and distrust God; to resist God; to question God's love and motives, and maybe even God's existence. But God's love isn't daunted, and God continues to woo us into relationship. And even as we find ourselves moving in God's direction, find ourselves saying "Yes" to God, we still struggle with that disconnect between life as we have experienced it and the life we long to live into. But we find that the struggle is worth it; that it is a crucible in which our character is formed and transformed.
Just as God's grace touches and molds us, we have the opportunity to be agents of grace in others' lives. And, knowing what I know about the alternative...isn't that what I want to be? Even if it's difficult?
At my church, during our Prayers of the Day we include a prayer that our homes and relationships be places where God's love and grace are made real and immediate for us. And to that God's people say: Amen.