Friday, November 23, 2018

Navigating the Holidays As the Survivor of a Dysfunctional Childhood Family

We are in that strange stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, when some people are forced to confront the disappointing shortfall of their family life. 

In my case, I have so much to be thankful for. I have a happy marriage and two children I adore. We are able to live together. I provide for Mrs. Lopez so she can stay at home. My wife and children remind me each day that we do not have to repeat the mistakes of generations past. A new generation is a new beginning, as long as you, as a parent, decide that you will avoid the mistakes your parents and siblings made.

But to build a happy family in such a manner, you have to be mindful of your own history. If you did come from a dysfunctional family, you need to discern what went wrong, why it hurt you, why the hurt matters, and how much you are willing to sacrifice to avoid doing the same to your own children. 

Which brings me to the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. My happiness with my wife and children ends up juxtaposed against the tragedies of my past "family," most notably my parents and guardian figures, and my siblings. During this time of year many speak of their sadness and even suicidal thoughts as the world bombards them with images of joyous Thanksgiving dinners. 

You can forget, during this time of year, that many seemingly happy families are but façades hiding ugliness that few know about. You can forget as well that many Americans, probably most, grew up in broken families. You can mistake the endless photographs of eggnog-drinking clans in matching sweaters around tastefully decorated Christmas trees for some sort of baseline standard. Most families have problems, even traumas.

But knowing your life story is not unique does not make it any less hurtful. The month of December reminds you of how unlike the picture-perfect family your family was. It still hurts.

My parents and siblings hurt me very deeply. The hurt from what happened in my childhood afflicted me with myriad coping mechanisms that compounded my social ineptitude. From the beginning I found myself confused about who I was, not only sexually but also ethnically and religiously.

I cannot go into lots of detail but I was the odd one out in our family from early on and that dynamic has continued to this day. I have no cause to expect it will ever go away.

My mother encouraged much of this behavior inasmuch as she adored intellectual discourse. The discussions within our home were not small talk or fuzzy chatter. It felt like a dissertation defense every day, from the time I was about six years old. People felt the need to pick apart and score everything I said on a brutal scale. Along with this went a general belief that my accomplishments warranted little attention and no praise. My siblings disagree with my evangelical Christianity and my politics, so it is understood that I cannot discuss achievements with them. Since writing about the sexual abuse I suffered from gays and the pain caused me by my mother's struggles with homosexuality, they view everything I do as offensive to their colleagues and friends who are gay.

This is why growing up like that hurt so much. The abstract mattered more than the physical reality I had to live through. 

One uncle heard about how I was sharing the gospel around the world and called me to tell me a simple message: "Bobby, all that matters is the gospel. I am proud of what you are doing."

It was the only time anyone in my birth family ever gave me that recognition. It meant the world to me. 

The tragedy of what I just described feels gloomier when I consider that they never intended to hurt me and probably still do not understand how each of them individually contributed to the misery of my life before coming to Jesus. 

As Americans politicize their personal lives, this gets harder for me

Added to these pre-existing problems came one sickness of the Obama Era: the sudden need to personalize political issues when you speak to people close to you. The LGBT movement bears most responsibility for this. During the Obama years the LGBT movement began encouraging people to confront family members about their political allegiances. To say, in effect, "choose me or your political views." From the LGBT movement this spilled into all political issues.

The heightened personalization of politics makes my situation even worse.

While some people grow up in conservative families and carry their childhood politics into adulthood, I had a quite different trajectory. I grew up seeing hurtful, traumatizing, and inhumane behavior by people close to me, who inflicted emotional wounds on others while preaching incessantly about political justice, resistance to oppression, and overthrowing a mythical white male patriarchy. As I grew up I knew I hated these behaviors. I knew these behaviors estranged me from my birth family almost as soon as I was old enough to speak and observe people. But it was not until later in life that I connected dots and understood that these dysfunctions coincided with a political movement entrenched in elite universities. 

This was the "left." But my experience of it was neither political nor even intellectual. It was emotional. I grew up seeing the victimization, social alienation, abusive relationships, and profound unhappiness caused by a leftist worldview before I knew what the worldview was. The more I learned the liberal ideology behind these behaviors at the elite places I studied and worked--Yale, New York City, State University of New York, and so on--the more I realized that I had to reject the left.

Getting to January

Each year I have gotten stronger and less vulnerable to the seasonal depression. Since my life situation feels happier and I get more secure in my wife and children with each day, I consider sometimes just giving up on any contact with my birth family. Then the holidays come and they start texting pictures.

What am I to do? I am not 47 years old. I am willing to change but I have no reason to expect my siblings or aging father to change. I have to love them as people created in the image of God. The shared history between me and them is an obstacle to feeling that love. If they were strangers I'd find it easier to put what I know of their pasts behind them. 

One thing I have learned is that sometimes less is more. Expect less and you enjoy more. Focus on those family members' needs -- medical emergencies, crises, etc. -- and try to help with those needs without getting into deep emotional conversations. Make sure they have people to talk to, who can help them emotionally. But that is not what I can help them with, because I do not get along with them. 

Less is more. Talk less and bring more peace. To yourself, to them, to the world around you. God blessed me tremendously and I can thank Him for so much grace He has shown me. I have no right to demand of God that old relationships from childhood get fixed. They are what they are.

Less is more. Spend less time worrying about them and more time showing your own spouse and kids what a functional family looks like. 

Less is more. Speculate less and forgive more. Remember less about the past and focus more on the hope of eternal life with Christ.

And have a merry Christmas. Jesus loves you.