In life there are some ideas that most people seem to have about natural order. Here is one: in the realm of life and death, the youngest should survive to the point of becoming the oldest, and sufficiently beyond to provide mentorship to the upcoming generations. As we know, life doesn’t always work that way. Here is another: in terms of wisdom, there is a general view that elders should be respected and provide mentorship for the younger generation. However, there seems to be a major problem, namely, that the elders often don’t seem to possess too much wisdom, and that their ability to articulate what they do have is not always the best. I have been witnessing this major problem affecting most of my clients’ lives, and as I will share below a little about the effect in my own life. The ideas outlined below would come under the heading of Process Oriented work.
The most dominant and pervasive experience is that elders do not really know their children, and children, even as adults, do not know their elders. From an emotional and psychological perspective, many adult children seem to exist at some distance from parental figures, as do many parental figures in relation to their children. Family members do not really know each other. They do not know what takes place in the inner world of their significant others, including that of their parents. Often the various members of a family do not even know about important life events. Each person will always provide a narrative as to why this information is not shared. This is cause and result of fractured connection and fragmented knowledge that children and parents have about each other, despite the fact that they would or could naturally be the closest people on the planet.
The implications of such fracture and fragmentation are immense and play out through the lifespan in most of your relationships. Primary learning about relationship comes from early experience. Here, the learning comes not so much from what is being said about relationship, as from what is modelled by adults, and by what is experienced by us as children with the significant adults in our lives. That is, I’m talking about implicit learning that gets to be encoded in our deep circuitry of psyche. If we are modelled by fractured relationship and fragmented understanding, then that’s what we tend to carry into our own adult relationship and relationship with our children. This is how we may end up perpetuating the generational cycle. And it is most important to note that the difficulties often arise not so much by what happened or was done, but are an outcome of what was missing; love, attention, attunement, and sensitive ways of being with you as an infant and as a child. This last statement is not at all intended to blame parents who indeed do their best. They, too, had parents who did their best. Unfortunately, that best is most often below the threshold of what would have been best for you. How can we transform this ever-recurrent cycle?
What is obvious is that such transformation involves not repeating the pattern. Since what’s been repeated is not knowing each other’s inner world, the starting point of breaking the cycle would be to get to know each other, through which intimacy of connection arises. The significant starting point for this ‘project’ is to become increasingly familiar with your own inner world, and at some point to engage in the possibility of knowing your parent’s inner world. And there is nuance to this knowing. For, intimacy of connection arises from how much or how little you ‘expose’ your inner world to others, and how much and how well it is received by another, and by how much you ‘know’ that it was received, how much does the other share their inner world, how well do you receive this sharing, and how much do you let the other know in a substantial and meaningful way that you have received it and that such reception had some effect. This is a complex and nuanced process, and involves significant learning about how to do this, what to do with what is revealed, and how to bring this into the outer world with others? Challenges of learning remain: how can we do this subtle, intricate, and complex connection when we haven’t learned such skills from our parents and elders? They didn’t learn it; they couldn’t teach us; we didn’t learn it, and now we are trying to teach.
In fact, it may not feel ‘natural’ that we should be teaching such skills to our parents or engaging in conversations that have the aim of ‘getting to know’ and being known. More importantly, we may even feel resentful towards our parents who, clearly, didn’t get their acts together, for themselves and for their children, and now they are in a sorry state to ask for help and support, or perhaps worse, evidence by their ways that they need help while saying nothing or denying that they have a problem. Fair enough, but we may also think about the situation this way: that it is through teaching that we learn most. It is most likely the case that we didn’t learn from our parents because they didn’t learn from their parents, and so on, but we are now aware of knowledge and skills that can go into healthy and generative relationship-making. By attempting to help and support our parents to do their inner and relational work, we can simultaneously learn these ways ourselves, and at least offer our parents the opportunity to learn. Needing to teach compels us to learn well.
Still, yes, I acknowledge what you may be thinking and feeling about all this: “I don’t want to be in this position of carrying my parental unit’s inner work load. And especially I don’t want to know the details of their problems, which are so triggering to me!” Indeed! However, think carefully, please: do you really not want to know? Do you really want to be ‘in the dark’ about the reality of your adult parents’ trouble? Or are you willing to actually find out what is really going on in their inner and outer lives? If you are choosing the former, then you are part of the cycle of maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the cycle of ignorance, denial, and suffering. If the latter, then you are opening a door to a different depth and breadth of relationship with your parent(s). As well, with this latter way, to re-emphasize, you are opening up possibilities of understanding your own life and ways of being, that is enhancing the possibility of understanding the legacy that has been passed on to you.
The issue here is about choice and knowing the reality of those who have brought you into the world, and of them having the opportunity to know you. You can find out more about who your parents actually are and how they came to be as they are. And they may also get to know you. As it turns out, parents and children as adult most often miss out on knowing each other. They become as ships in the night.
I believe your reflections on all this will be of value to you, no matter what you decide to do. This possibility of course exists for those whose parents are available, and who are willing. Working with not available parents is also possible. This is a different exercise: one to explore at another time.
Here is a little bit of my own story: At about the age of 35, I realized that I really had only a small idea about my parents’ lives prior to my existence. I decided to embark on this journey of discovery with both of them. My dad was most willing to tell me about himself, his shyness, his years in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII, how he and my mom met (a blind date on new years arranged by a mutual friend), his unfulfilled wish to be a physician, and so on. My mother was also open to the idea but, in reality, seemed to find it difficult to be very forthcoming. I knew that she was 26 when they married; rather late for a Jewish girl in the 1930’s. I did find out that she had a miscarriage when I was about seven years old: no doubt, the sister I strangely always longed for. When I asked her much later, towards the end of her life, what she was most pleased about in her life, she told me: “I raised two fine boys!” This was a revelation for me, as I had felt anything but fine in my growing up years. And I didn’t think my mother was happy with me, let alone proud of me. I subsequently had a conversation with both of my parents together, in which they acknowledged that there was much they wished they had known about raising children and that they would have loved to have had the knowledge that I gained about children in my years of working with seriously disturbed adolescents in a residential treatment center.
In the end I could see that the gap between my parents and me was much wider than I had ever imagined. This was disappointing, but it also led to me to appreciate what they had done for me with the knowledge that they did have. They were both first generation born in Canada of Jewish immigrant parents–my bubbas and zaidas. I came to realize that it was not for lack of good intent on their part that I had suffered as I did as an adolescent and as a young adult: rather, it was lack of knowledge, understanding, and requisite skills. My acceptance of the reality of my life and my relationship with them grew from these conversations.
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