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Family Ties

The Circle Broken

Running Our Mouths

The number one thing that damages families is us running our mouths. 99% of family turbulence would not exist if we’d just shut the hell up. The troublemakers in my family, and, I am certain, in yours, are those with sloppy impulse control. People for whom you have to brace yourself before ringing the doorbell because you know the visit is going to be painful. It never starts out that way—with the hugs and smiles at the door—but these are people who have absolutely no awareness or concern of how hurtful they can be. They run their mouth and run their mouth and run their mouth, complaining, ridiculing, disparaging people who have driven great distances to be with them. These people are—and please write this down someplace—idiots. I don’t care if she’s your aunt or he’s your brother. He’s an idiot. Moreover, most of these very same people would never invite a co-worker or even a friend over their house and then browbeat them personally. But they feel free to do this to you because you’re family. We put ourselves through these rituals—knowing full well many occasions can and will end in fussing and crying—because this is what we’ve always done. It’s what’s expected of us.

About a decade ago, I stopped traveling great distances and stressing myself out rushing around trying to make everybody happy. Holidays were an absolute nightmare for me because holidays were always about other people. I am not advocating you avoid your family gatherings, but I am advocating accountability, responsibility, and loving not only your family but yourself. Subjecting yourself to negative, hateful people is not what God wants for us, not what He asks us to do. There is an implied covenant, in I Timothy, where Paul comments, “… if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” That verse cuts both ways: they have a responsibility to provide for you as well. If not explicitly monetarily, certainly emotionally and spiritually. To be concerned for your welfare.

In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, Paul put it this way, “…do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” —Ephesians 5:17-21

Submit to one another. That means be patient, be kind. Don’t lord it over folks. It means bite your tongue if you have to, but shut that mouth. The problem is, even if you’re observing Christian decorum and applying these principles, almost no one else at your family gathering will. Church Folk, most especially, will run their mouths non-stop, usually in the most critical and harsh expressions of hateful, gossipy put-downs, at a time of year when love should dominate the atmosphere. It’s been the extremely rare family gathering I’ve attended where there wasn’t some heavyweight—some insufferable, self-absorbed, Type-A dominant voice—who was being awful to everyone. An aunt, an uncle, a grandpa, whatever. Shutting these people down is not easy. I’ve seen them get offended at being called on their hateful, awful behavior and get up and leave, their leaving now casting a pall on the entire day. Worse, if the function is at their home, I’ve seen multiple family members leaving. Oh, they don’t say they’re leaving, they’re going to the store for cigarettes or something, and we don’t see them for hours. They come back, get a plate, and say their good-byes. Many times, on many occasions, I’ve gone out and sat in my car and listened to the radio, at times with cousins or what have you joining me to escape the lunatic making everyone miserable inside. Thanksgiving in the back of a Mercury Cougar.

I will admit my bias: I hate these things, these big family things. These are people who have absolutely no idea who I am. These are people who claim to love me but can’t bother to invest any energy in discovering who I am. They operate in the past, in who I once was. In the bespectacled 12-year old they remember. I’m 50. Get used to it. At some point, I simply gave myself permission to stop putting myself through this.  

Listen To The Stories: Richardson-Whitfield and Todd in I Will Follow.

Brace Yourself

I would think there should be some class, some group therapy, to prepare families for big reunions and holidays. Some basic training on how to conduct ourselves. Only family can push our buttons: chronically self-absorbed aunts rifling through our kitchen cabinets, parents making hostile, passive-aggressive comments at the dinner table, asking leading questions. It may be a cultural artifact, but I find it disturbing that parents seem to grow more selfish as they grow older. We’ve seen this in sitcoms: the unbearable, painful visit from the parents. The disengaged father, the passive-aggressive mother who invades our space and browbeats us—politely—all evening long. Most of these people have either no awareness or no consciousness of how much their visit is dreaded. Not because we don’t love them but because we do. We do love them, and it’s difficult. Calling Mom on any of her passive-aggressive attacks results in her instantly becoming offended and then emotionally blackmailing you with a feigned apology. It’s torture. It’s a nightmare. Uncle Billy smoking refer in the basement. The teens piling into cars and vanishing. The certain and unavoidable arguing. Yet, year after year we go to great trouble and expense to bring these people together. Mary J. Yerkes, writing for Focus On The Family, put it this way: “Families matter to God. That’s why few things are more painful than unresolved family conflict.”

Even Jesus experienced this:
[Jesus] returned to Nazareth, his hometown. When he taught there in the synagogue, everyone was astonished and said, “Where does he get his wisdom and his miracles? He's just a carpenter's son, and we know Mary, his mother, and his brothers —James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. All his sisters live right here among us. What makes him so great?” And they were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief.

Preparing for a family gathering should mean more than just baking cornbread. Families ought to send out a prepara-tory note along with the Thanksgiving or Christmas invite laying out the
Rules Of The Road:

Stop Living In The Past
Accept people as they are, even if they’re your own child. Turn off the time machine/auto-pilot. Make the effort to meet, engage, and get to know who they are now.

Be Respectful
Don’t show your family less courtesy than you do strangers.

No Passive Aggression
Don’t ask leading questions intended to criticize or humiliate. This is neither the time nor the place to settle old scores.

Think Before You Speak
Then think again after you’ve thought the first time. Half the battle is simply not taking the bait.

Emphasize The Positive
Encourage progress.

Avoid Negativity And Criticism

Think About
More Than Just Yourself

For Parents:
They’re Not Kids Anymore

They have mortgages. They deserve to be respected as adults.

—Matthew 13:54-58 NLT

What is Family and How Did We Lose It?

Several mornings a week I ride my bike down a winding country road past an old farmhouse where somebody’s grandfather is usually sitting on the porch watching the leaves blow. He is at least a generation behind me but I’m old enough to be chatted up by this guy and so he’s become a routine rest stop on the way back. I don’t know his complete story, but I am incredibly envious of the treasure he’s got over there: his kids and grands and all of that time. A vault of stories with which no iTunes database could possibly compete.

I remember having Christmas dinner with friends out here, my first friends here, who are now more like an adopted family. The father, retired military, wanted dinner served at the tick of his watch—12 noon precisely. Both he and his wife were amazing cooks and an invite from them was a prize to any who received one. And we’re around the table, the mother constantly getting up to serve, the little daughter vying for attention. The older boys, in their late teens, early twenties, kind of breezed in, made plates, went downstairs to watch the game. That was the end of them. And I remember thinking how sad it was that they were taking this for granted. That, even on Christmas day, they could not or would not slow down and retire from the self-absorption of youth to give the only gift that means anything to a parent or loved one: time. Turn off the TV, sit with mom and dad. Hear the old stories.

My niece spent the week with me once. We’d come back from wherever and she’d march into the house, head up the stairs to her room, close the door, and that was the end of her. She wasn’t angry, I didn’t take that as her not liking me or wanting to be around me. We’d just spent most of the day together, and we were done. I remember standing at the foot of the stairs, looking up, marveling at this phenomena. She was a teenager. This was what she was used to: she’s in her room, her mom is in her room and we’re done. She’s up there watching TV and talking on the phone, two things she didn’t need plane tickets to do.

This is, I suppose, the reality of parenting. Up the stairs, close the door, a head full of secrets. History, wisdom and experience are downstairs in the living room but she’s up there watching booty-shake videos. These patterns are not universal, but I’ve seen this more often than not, the invasion and undermining of family life by the exponential encroachment of media. We—you, me, the kids, everybody—are so plugged in, fed a constant, 24/7 stream of entertainment and information, that quiet, introspective scenes like those in I Will Follow seem alien and, somehow, inauthentic.

Tribalism finds its foundation in both an oral history and emulation of patterns of behavior. Your children will model your behavior. You will hear your voice, your values echo in them. But this only works if you actually make a concerted effort. I was nine years old in 1970. There were no cell phones, no Internet, no portable music players. There were cherry trees blossoming in the backyard of grandma’s house, and all that quiet. That magnificent quiet.

If only we could find our way back to that. If only we'd not take what little we have left of that for granted.

Christopher J. Priest
27 November 2011

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