I woke up this morning—slowly, not wanting to leave that mystical world between sleeping and waking, wanting to hold onto the dream I was having—with family on my mind. Maybe because of the plethora of Mother’s Day cards I saw at the drug store the other day. I can spend hours looking for a card with the right sentiment, and never find it. (I wonder if my children feel that way?)
Our 35-year-old son, Jonathan, retired from the Army in January and moved back to Memphis from Savannah. He’s been staying with us until he gets a job and/or rents out his house in Savannah. Jon hasn’t lived at home since he was 18—almost half of his life ago. (He will be 36 in August.) It’s been challenging for he and I to share this space (not so much for his dad who isn’t easily ruffled) but I treasure this time we have together. And I hope that Jon does.
I couldn’t remember the dream, but something was stirring beneath the surface as I came downstairs into my office, coffee in hand, looking at the stacks of books by my reading chair. On Fridays I try to blog about “faith” and/or “family.” A few months ago I did a(nother) post about my mother, “Love in the Intergenerational Ruins.” But it wasn’t just about her. It was also about families. The book that seemed to be calling out to me this morning was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. I found hand-written notes in the margins of the first chapter—“Honoring Symptoms as a Voice of the Soul.” And lots of yummy stuff in the Introduction about the difference in “care” and “cure” of the soul. I’ll save that part for another time.
Chapter 2 in Moore’s book is the inspiration for my post today—“The Myth of Family and Childhood.” I’ll share a few excerpts and comments.
Today professionals are preoccupied with the “dysfunctional family.” But to some extent all families are dysfunctional. No family is perfect, and most have serious problems. A family is a microcosm, reflecting the nature of the world, which runs on both virtue and evil…. The sentimental image of family that we present publicly is a defense against the pain of proclaiming the family for what it is—a sometimes comforting, sometimes devastating house of life and memory.
This brings to mind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” especially the line that says, “every Christmas card showed a perfect family.”
Have you ever been jealous of the families portrayed on the Christmas cards you receive every year? What is it that makes us think no other families have problems? But more importantly—and I think this is part of Moore’s point—what makes us think that we need to “fix” our families? And, in turn, to fix ourselves? What is family? Moore says it is
the nest in which soul is born, nurtured, and released into life…. It is remarkable how often the family is experienced on two levels: the façade of happiness and normality, and the behind-the-scenes reality of craziness and abuse.
Maybe this is why so many of us are enthralled with television shows that center on the craziness and abuse. My favorites? “Saving Grace,” which was a bit too gritty, evidently, and didn’t last. “Law & Order SVU.” “Nashville.” “The Good Wife.” But I also like “Parenthood,” which does an excellent job of portraying the wonderful tragicomedy of family life. Moore says that care of the soul of the family begins with “allowing stories to be told without slipping into interpretations, analysis and conclusions.” He wants us to embrace those stories—with all their shadows—as an integral part of understanding who we are as persons.
I was an overly controlling parent for most of our children’s lives. But as they’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve noticed that whenever we’re all together, they often fall into telling stories from their childhood and adolescence with a type of freedom they weren’t allowed to express growing up. They love to tell us the things they did that we didn’t know about, and their spirits seem light as they exchange knowing looks with each other during the telling. My husband and I join them in their laughter—withholding judgment—and it’s very healing, I think, for all of us.
For the remainder of the chapter Moore uses mythology to discuss the importance of the place of father, mother, and child in the life of the family, and symbolically in each individual’s life. Lots of archetypical images and other good stuff that I won’t go into here. (Read the book if you want to go deeper with this.) But the take home for me from his words today is that we are not prisoners of our family history. And neither are our children, which is a liberating thought for those of us who are acutely aware of how badly we screwed up as parents. And so, where can we go from here?
Recovery of soul begins when we can take to heart our own family fate and find in it the raw material, the alchemical prima material, for our own soul work…. To appreciate its shadow as well as its virtue…. If we were to observe the soul in the family by honoring its stories and by not running away from its shadow, then we might not feel so inescapably determined by family influences…. We assume we are ineluctably who we are because of the family in which we grew up. What if we thought of the family less as the determining influence by which we are formed and more the raw material from which we can make a life.
And what if we begin to think this way, even when we’re 62 years old? *smiles and leans back in chair*