Separation from family
Meet Marie who will lead us into this chapter. She was always daddy’s best girl, though she is an adult now and trying to find a man who she can please. Her body is not happy; she doesn’t seem to live in it comfortably. It causes her problems mainly because she is so out of touch with it, for all is sacrificed amid the unconscious drive towards a perfect marriage. For this, she will do anything; anything to win the perfect man.
Unfortunately, she is in love with an illusion - an ideal which doesn’t exist. Daddy’s best girl is searching for an idealized projection of her father. Do not criticize her. But rather, give her gentle space to weep and sob for the one she left behind: the dear child she abandoned - her small self - when she first set out to do the right thing, and please daddy.
Daddy is dead now, but that is strangely irrelevant. For just as Marie was unable to separate from him in life, so she is unable to separate in death. The rite of passage of leaving home is a most important rite, but not one achieved simply by moving out. It is above all a rite of inner understanding. In the following story, we come across a boy who appears to have discovered it early.
Every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. When Jesus was twelve years old, they went to the festival as usual. When the festival was over they started back home, but the boy Jesus stayed in Jerusalem. His parents did not know this; they thought that he was with the group, so they travelled a whole day before starting to search for him among their relatives and friends. They did not find him, so they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. On the third day they found him in the Temple, sitting with the Jewish teachers, listening to them and asking questions. All who heard him were amazed at his intelligent answers. His parents were astonished when they saw him, and his mother said to him, ‘My son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you.’ He answered them, ‘Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my father’s house?’ But they did not understand his answer.
So Jesus went back with them to Nazareth, where he was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. Jesus grew both in body and in wisdom, gaining favour with God and [people]. Luke 2.41-52
It is the lack of apology I find most striking, and the almost chill absence of concern for his parents’ feelings. Did Jesus really imagine they would be pleased with the way events had unfolded? He seems not to have been bothered either way. Whether his parents had been slack in their care of him, we do not know. It is possible this is an example of neglectful parenting. To travel a whole day without any knowledge of his whereabouts seems a little excessive. But perhaps there was a system of childcare in the wider community which could account for everything.
We do not know and since blame is generally the refuge of the frightened and hypocritical, we will not rush to join them on this occasion. In one sense it is not significant anyway, for whether they were or were not guilty of negligence that is not a concern here for Jesus. What is a concern for Jesus as his parents confront him in the Temple, is their imagined control over him.
It is a good scene. Having spent three days looking for their boy, his parents at last find him in the Temple. They stand astonished and relieved in equal measure, at the events being played out before their eyes. They can hardly be anything but moved at finding their son safe. But Jesus doesn’t play their game. He doesn’t for instance look sheepish and mutter something about knowing he shouldn’t have done it really, and he won’t do it again, promise. Neither does he run towards them to give each a huge hug, saying how much he has missed them and that they are the best mum and dad in the world. Instead, he treats them with something approaching disdain. They have spent three days fearing the worst, and yet Jesus gives them nothing to help them feel good.
As the writer winds up the incident, we can suddenly feel him beginning to worry a little, as the rudeness of the boy sinks in. And so he tells us how the boy then went back home, and was obedient to his parents. Maybe this was so, but such words sit slightly at odds with the encounter we have just witnessed. Jesus simply does not allow his parents, his own flesh and blood, either the relief at being united with him or the natural parental concern for his well-being. Rather, they are reprimanded for looking around for him, when it was perfectly obvious where he would be.
For Luke, it is a story about Jesus’ blossoming messianic insight. Here was a boy of twelve impressing everyone in the Temple, the heart of Judaism, with his astounding grasp of truth. But as I watch the scene, although I am suitably amazed by the learning, I am a good deal more amazed by the fact that here is a twelve-year-old who has effectively left home already. When Jesus speaks in this scene, he speaks as one separate from the concerns of his parents; as one confident in his own identity. Their worry was their problem, not his, and the only offence committed was not his disappearance, but their attempt to control him. Jesus had done by the age of twelve what most people do not manage in a lifetime - found the freedom of separation from family.
It is generally reckoned that we leave home when we physically move out of the building; leaving the family residence seems to be the decisive moment in most people’s eyes. According to this model, most adults have left home, and on one level this is clearly true. After all, most people are out there now having to cope on their own in some degree; do their own washing, buy their own food, clean their own toilet and stay in to meet the building contractor who is coming to have a look at the dodgy tiling. When they were growing up, their parents had to do that sort of thing. Yet most of these people have not left home. They’ve simply moved house.
Let us meet Amelia, who thought she had left home. She moved out of the family home at the age of seventeen and not before time as far as she was concerned. Her perception of herself was that she was an adult now, making her own way in the world, and in many ways she was, for she was soon running a company, and turning it into a success story. She found she was good at what she did, even if it was stressful. But her world unaccountably fell in when her nan died. Her nan had always been a very good place for Amelia. She had always been fond of her. But was such grief at her death really appropriate? Slowly, and fearfully, she began to realize that her parents, in contrast to her nan, had not been a good place for her. With the death of her nan, her one true place of sanctuary, she was having to confront the unthinkable.
But how could this be so? The confusion in Amelia was total. For parents were parents. Surely they must have been a good place? How could parents not be a good place? In her culture, even to pose the question was disrespectful. It was not until Amelia was 34 that she realized that her physically abusive father still held her in a vice-like emotional grip, even in his absence. And it was not until she was 39 that she realized quite how damaging her mother’s silence had been throughout her childhood ordeal. Her mother could have stopped it, but chose instead to ignore it, for the sake of peace and quiet. And anyway, it suited her to have her husband around, even if it did not suit Amelia. And so everything was brushed under the carpet, to keep the family peace, whatever the cost to Amelia.
Amelia was now seeing her parents for the first time, and in her seeing, and more importantly, in her feelings of anger and rage, she was able finally to leave home, as opposed merely to changing address and getting a job. It had taken a while, but she was slowly achieving separation; better late than never.
Having now achieved some sort of separation, she is hesitantly learning to relate to her parents again, but learning to relate to them as humans, as opposed to parents. It is a different relationship, and though threatening initially to her parents, a finer one by far.
In the end, it is not enough simply to be family, for family is a descriptive word, not a qualitative word. It was not enough for Amelia’s family to say: ‘But we are family! Don’t rock the boat.’ Frequently, people reserve their worst behaviour for those with whom they live. They reckon they can get away with it at home, in a way they would not in the world outside. If you can’t kick the dog, there’s always the child to be shown who’s boss. If you are frustrated with your life, and your baby is not helping, then you deal with the child firmly. Let it learn early what frustration feels like!
Most crimes against humanity are very average, very mundane and barely warrant a thought. But such behaviour is not made any more acceptable by the fact that the victims are family and therefore don’t count in the same way. Or that they will grow to understand in later life. No, it is not acceptable for me to imagine that because they are family, I do not have to try so hard. Or that I need to be tired and negative somewhere, and it can’t be in the pub or at bingo or on the golf course or at work or round at my friends or in church so it has to be at home.
We’ve all heard or sensed the justification which goes on: ‘And what are they going to do about it anyway?’ they say. ‘Tell me that! Go and live in a hostel? I don’t think so! They like their comforts too much. And it’s not as if I don’t provide for them. They never go without food on the table.’ But if there is no quality of relationship, then there is nothing, family or no family. We owe no loyalty to family as such. We owe loyalty to truth, freedom, beauty, mystery, openness, and justice; we owe loyalty to kindness and gentleness, emotional and physical acceptance; we owe loyalty to innocent victims wherever they are. But we don’t owe loyalty to family. Family is an arrangement we are born into, with no choice in the matter. When we are young, we must live what is, for good or ill. But one day, choice of a sort does come our way, and then, whether we stay with the family arrangement in some form or other depends purely on the quality of relating which we have experienced.
But how hard it is to separate! How hard it is to leave home, for we are conditioned to do otherwise. This was a conditioning which Jesus both knew and used to outrageous effect. Many years after the Temple incident recounted above, Jesus as an adult is trying to explain to the spiritually blind gathered around him, the radical demands of the kingdom of God. How could this best be revealed to these people, how best expressed? They are eager in their way, but seem to imagine discipleship to be something rather tame; something that can be stuck on to their existing life and assumptions.
What can be done to jerk them into consciousness? Jesus decides to shock. He names the two things that people most cling to - and declares them both to be worthless: ‘No one can be a follower of mine unless they hate their father, mother, wife, children, brother and sister! And no one can be a follower of mine unless they hate their own life!’ That is a big rug to pull from beneath people’s feet.
There are none left standing. We are reeling as our family values are turned on their head and our passion for our own survival laughed at. Jesus invites us to count as nothing all those things society has conditioned us to count as everything; Jesus asks us to stop clinging to all those things which conditioning tells us we should cling to. We cling to family, and we cling to life. Forget them both, says Jesus, for what you cling to will kill you. Separate from these attachments and live.
I am reminded here of Socrates. It was he who swam against the strong tide of meaningless clinging when he remarked that ‘there are so many things I have no need of’. He could say such a thing quite truthfully because of his personal sense of self. The story is told of the man who warned Socrates that people were slandering him in his absence. Socrates replied, ‘Is that anything to care about? It makes so little difference to me what people do with me in my absence that they are even quite welcome to beat me up in my absence.’
He was knowingly separate, and therefore unconcerned by other people’s reactions to him. Other people had power over Socrates only to the extent to which they could threaten his sense of self, and apparently, they did not threaten it at all. This did not lead to isolationism, however, or arrogant withdrawal from the flux of life. Rather, he related gladly. Socrates related well, because he didn’t depend on the relationships and what you don’t depend on, you can relate to truthfully.
But the words of both Socrates and Jesus have impinged little on people’s lives, for they are words spoken from a higher level, and such words generally have little impact on those listening on a lower level. Words spoken from the mountain top become wilfully distorted by the valley people below, who prefer their version of the truth. So on the subject of family, no one has listened to Jesus. These mountain-top words have been ‘put into perspective’ by the valley people, and therefore ignored by them, from generation unto generation.
It is a brave soul who questions the importance of family these days. ‘People being negative about family is the last thing we need. We need positive input, not moaning!’ Family is forbidden territory, as a true story from Germany illustrates with some savagery:
In 1987, a man called Niklas Frank wrote an article in the magazine Stern condemning his father. His father had been Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor-General of Poland, from 1939 to 1945. In that post, he had carried out deliberate torture and murder on a massive scale. Among other things, he had general oversight of at least three death camps whose only reason for existence was the killing of unwanted racial and ethnic types. His son’s article forty years later pulled no punches. It did not attempt to be even-handed in any way. It did not attempt to understand the actions of his father, nor did it make any attempt to forgive him. He just condemned the life of this man.
Such condemnation of a father by a son is rare. But that is not why I tell this story. I tell this story because of what followed the article being published; and in particular, the reaction it provoked in the letter pages. The feeling among many was that whatever the father had done, it was not for the son to say such things. As one reader said, ‘No matter what the father has done, his foulest deed was undoubtedly the procreation of this perverse monster of a son.’ Another reader came to similar conclusions: ‘Anyone else is free to, should, in fact, write this article, but not the son. In doing so, he acts just as inhumanly as his father once did.’ These are remarkable statements and almost demand a pause to reflect on their implications. I have to stop writing; and you may want to stop reading, to feel the disturbing forces at work here.
One thing is clear though: to condemn evil is apparently as bad as the evil itself, if it happens to be evil perpetrated by a member of the family. What is unsettling is the power of social and probably religious programming at work among these people. Family is declared by them to be a different zone, where different rules apply; where loyalty is placed above truth, and the honour of the family above respect for others.
The message here is that families should keep quiet, should not question things, but idealize the ghastly. And if Herr Frank was not allowed to question the past, given the nature of his father’s atrocities, what hope for us whose family have perhaps been involved in less infamous activity? And so we keep quiet, even though we have been greatly affected by things done to us, and attitudes imposed upon us. We stay quiet for it is unkind, unfair and disloyal even to raise the matter. After all, family is family, as the readers of Stern made very clear. And we don’t want to be deemed perverse monsters by others.
We are some way here from the attitudes of the boy Jesus in the Temple.
As we reflect on separation from family, we cannot help but reflect on self-image and self-identity, which enable healthy separation to take place.
Self-image has very little to do with our social position in life. We might clean toilets and travel on the bus, or we might be prime minister and travel in expensive limousines, but these are irrelevancies, for our self-image arises from our memory strands. These take us back to our earliest days, to our interactions with those who had primary care of us and in particular, the mother figure.
These strands of memory have a life beyond our consciousness, but remember profoundly, discerning well and knowingly the quality of relationships which were ours in those earliest of times. The self-image we emerge with as adults contains all these memories, whether from our bike or our private jet.
But though such knowledge may exist in our body, it does not exist in our consciousness, which means that as we grow, we are quite unaware of it. But gradually they crystallize into core attitudes which we carry with us into every situation and unknowingly live from. While these attitudes remain beyond our consciousness, we can neither examine them nor feel them, and there is no escape from their power. As slaves to the past, we find ourselves unable to live easily in the present; struggling to touch the diamond of free engagement with the now.
And so it was that an amazing thing happened: the head teacher of a school resigned when she was doing a brilliant job. How did it happen? Week in, week out, she had worked wonders in this difficult setting. She had always wanted to make a difference to something or someone in her life, and now she was doing so. Unfortunately, however, she could never celebrate what she did. Others told her she was doing well, but she couldn’t feel this herself, and worried constantly that she had done the wrong thing or that she was worth nothing and that no one liked her.
Sometimes she broke out in posturing anger and sometimes in inappropriate self-aggrandisement, but mostly it was just crippling worry. She was living and working from her memory strands, which discerned nothing helpful or nurturing in the mirroring of herself by her parents. She grew up superficially bright and vivacious, but it was a brittle show and hollow within, and life finds out the brittle and hollow. The official reason she resigned was the stress of the job, but that was an irrelevance. She was a brilliantly gifted head who resigned because she had never left home.
There are those who regret the fact that they did not say the things they would like to have said to a family member during their living years. They were never quite able to connect, to seize the moment, and now the time is past and the moment gone becomes an unspoken eternity. Some of these people will have held back out of politeness towards their elders, towards their parents. Maybe they also feared rocking the ordered and fragile family boat. Or perhaps it was a different issue - perhaps they wanted to say something good and kind, something appreciative and warm, but were simply too embarrassed to do so, because the family didn’t do emotional things like that. Good boys and girls stay in line, and for them, it was important to be a good boy or a good girl.
Others again held back not in politeness or fear but in rage. Reduced to wordless frustration in the face of their family, they are trapped in the prison of rebellion and unresolved feelings.
None of these people have achieved separation, from which true relating grows; for all are still struggling with their identity. The first group have opted to merge their identity with that of the family, while the second group have been forced to define their self-image by anger. One set lives fearful of war, while the other set lives by conducting war, and neither know peace within; for neither have yet acquired their own identity.
When we are able to recover our identity from the battlefields of our earliest interactions, it is then that we can enjoy the freedom of the independent. Independence is not indifference - but the place from which we can freely choose to relate. When we can know ourselves apart from our mother and father, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins; when we can smell the coffee of life in our own way, and not as we have been taught to smell it, then we are coming home.
We are told most parents just want their children to be happy. They don’t want fame or fortune for them - just that they are happy in whatever they choose to do. It is a fine sentiment. Yet if you scratch the surface a little, it becomes apparent that many of these parents want their children to be happy – but only on their terms. ‘Be happy, but remember you are family and all that entails. We have high hopes for you, and we know you will not let us down.’
If this desire for happiness in their children were genuine, then the first thing the parents would do would be to make some very specific apologies about the childhood they created for them. This is a unique conversation with each child, for no children are treated the same. The conversation to be had with my sister will not be the same as the conversation to be had with me.
People sometimes imagine that parenting is equal in a home; that it is the same for one brother as another, but this is not the case. Each child is born into a different family setting, a different chemistry of relationships and different attitudes from the carers, for life is a moving river.
Perhaps the first child was born into her mother’s depression, which was not the case for the second. Or perhaps in another family, unlike the first three, the mother didn’t want the fourth child, but had been coerced by the father. In such circumstances, she resents the presence of this new arrival, and so this fourth child might have to do more to win her approval than the others; he will certainly feel the cold winds of frustration in the mother, should he be difficult. Families are not places of equality.
Take Vincent Van Gogh, for instance, and Vincent Van Gogh. It isn’t a misprint. Vincent Van Gogh died tragically when young, and so in order to remember him, his religious parents decided to name their next boy after him, so when born, he too was called Vincent Van Gogh. This was the man who went on to paint pictures which were ridiculed and ignored during his life - he sold only two - but have achieved some fame since.
His childhood was deeply unhappy, for apart from the stern religiosity of his parents, they never forgave him for not being his dead elder brother. His dead elder brother - unreachable in the grave that Vincent was made to visit regularly - was the boy and man the younger Vincent never could be. Vincent even shared a birthday with his elder brother. The young Vincent was not an individual with an identity of his own, but a poor replica of someone else, someone better, someone untouchable in their perfection, someone who in death could never mess things up.
When in later life he moved to Arles in the South of France, Van Gogh discovered there a ‘kingdom of light’ and stunning colour. He was born again as an artist, with the ordinary becoming extraordinary to him in this new setting. He painted everything - cafes, children, streets, night, people, countryside, sunflowers, even his bedroom. The cold northern skies of childhood were no more, and a huge vitality overtook him, sending him into remarkable creativity.
But the child is the father of the adult, and the scars of inadequacy remained. He could throw off the religious shackles of his parents, but he could not throw off the cloak of despair which clung to his inner parts. If your parents did not celebrate your life as something wonderful and good, then it is hard in later years for you to do so. It is significant that Van Gogh never signed his paintings with that name. When he emerged as an artist, he was simply ‘Vincent’. Not a single painting or drawing from his adult years bears the family name. He rationalized it by claiming that foreigners could not pronounce ‘Van Gogh’, which may well have been true. But it was not the profoundest truth concerning this matter. By this simple act, Vincent was cutting himself off from both his father and the entire Van Gogh family culture and belief.
Instead, he was going to find his own way in life. ‘I am not a Van Gogh!’ he declared, after calling his father obstinate, unintelligent, icy cold and narrow-minded.
He tried to redeem the situation in his life, constantly falling and failing in love, trying to form a new family, a family of affinity. He attempted also to create a community of artists, an idea close to his heart. Paul Gauguin joined him in the ‘Yellow House’ and there was companionship of a sort until a furious row destroyed the fragile relationship and Gauguin left.
Van Gogh poured his feelings into his art. Perhaps there has never been a painter who painted more profoundly from his state of mind. As has been said, ‘He carried the sun in his head and a hurricane in his heart… he did not paint with his hands but with his naked senses… painting himself within those fiery clouds… in those twisting trees that seem to yell to heaven, in the frightening vastness of his plains.’ As he himself stated in his final letter to his brother Theo, he risked everything for his work, even madness and eventually his life.
It was a sort of madness, but there was no choice, for he had to pursue that which gave life to the moment, that which helped him touch the vibrancy of the now, which gave him a sense of self different from that imposed on him in his early years. For Van Gogh, this desperate bid for freedom was played out through the painting of feeling, both the torment and the hope. The hope he expressed in the colour yellow.
At Van Gogh’s funeral, some of his most recent canvases were hung around the room where his body lay, while on the coffin hung a single white drape and hundreds of flowers: sunflowers, which were his favourite, yellow dahlias and other yellow flowers. Yellow for him was the colour of the light he hoped to find in himself and in others. The individual who probably offered him most hope was his brother Theo - a blood relative and friend who was endlessly generous to Vincent financially, and in the encouragement he gave. He could not cure Vincent of his troubles, and often received little by way of thanks from him. But he was a friend amid them in simple and practical ways. Vincent placed his own torment on the canvas, ever the stranger on earth, the stunted plant fighting for life.
Yet for someone who saw art as a record of ‘the universality of suffering’ and who is often seen as a tragic figure, he also painted much beauty along the way, and we need not be surprised. Those who visit the darkness have within them the capacity for discoveries of amazing light, painter or no painter. In this book, we do not avoid the bleak, or ease its impact with soft-coloured words. But we continue on, feeling all things, for we keep glimpsing the beauty which honesty creates. Van Gogh painted his despair, but created light. To his parents, he was never as good as the brother who didn’t live; to his brother Theo, he was family, who needed help; and to the rest of the world, in time, he was a swirling and courageous gift from God.
Parents help their children best when they face the past, and reflect on what they were unable to offer the dependent baby in those early times; and therefore help the child to see the roots of so much of the quiet unhappiness in their life now. There is nothing which cannot ultimately be mended, and there is nothing to fear except denial. The white dove of possibility hovers always.
Sadly, the parent’s desire for their children’s happiness does not usually include such brave actions. When most parents say they want their children to be happy, they are merely saying they themselves want to be happy. Children are perceived as extensions of the parents; as those who must fall in line with that perception and serve that overriding requirement. After all, their own parents never apologized to them, and it hasn’t done them any harm! The very idea is ludicrous. Toughen up a bit!
But you cannot wish someone’s happiness and not apologize; and you cannot wish someone’s happiness, yet refuse to let them go.
It would be healthier, and less open to manipulation, if parents wished not so much that their children might be happy, but that their children might be free: and in particular, free from them. What a beautiful wish that would be. And strangely enough, if one was able to wish that for them, they might actually be not only free, but also happy as well.
How refreshing to find parents who wish their children freedom to separate from all things, including themselves, in order that they might in time relate to all things. For you can only relate to that from which you are separate.
Rilke was in this territory when he said that the prime calling in marriage was for each of the partners to protect the solitude of the other. If you don’t know who you are separately, then how can you possibly live together in anything other than pain and frustration? As the mystics say, ‘Knowingly separate, gladly relating.’
This is not a book about parenting, but about reclaiming the wonderful child which poor parenting destroyed - for beautiful families grow not out of parenting manuals but from reclaimed childhoods. It is for this reason that I write as a son, and not as a parent, for it is with the child’s eyes we need to reflect on these things. Whatever our age, we come to this subject first and foremost as children.
Much may have happened to us in life since those days, and we may have acquired many other titles and areas of expertise along the way. But the child remains our primary identity, for it was as children that our defining formation took place. So we may also be a parent or a grandparent, a bank manager or director of social services or perhaps a nursery nurse, a professor of theology or an enormously successful mushroom farmer soon to expand into organic parsnips. But these are secondary identities, and ones we are liable to struggle with, unless we have come to terms with the daughter or the son who we are.
I once met myself as a child in my imagination. It had been suggested that I try it, but I was wary. I could not remember being more fearful of a meeting than the one proposed. In the end, I did it. I sat quietly with a photo of myself on a beach, and then in my imagination, I went along to meet this character. I imagined meeting my little self on the beach, like in the holiday photo from way back.
Initially, there was awkwardness, so the adult I suggested to the child I that we went out in a boat together. Once in the boat, the adult I had to make most of the conversation, for the child I was suspicious. The adult even found himself disliking the child, impatient for the little person to be something different. The adult judged the child’s stupid clothes, fat little body and awkward manner. The child was probably familiar with that reaction. But given time, the adult’s judgemental irritation began to fade, and was replaced by warm feelings towards this small person, and a sense of camaraderie and connection. On meeting, the distance between the two had been huge. It was as if we didn’t know each other. But in the end, the adult I was crying at the sense of reconciliation, for this child was the father of the adult.
We returned to the beach and said goodbye. Perhaps we will meet again one day. Perhaps one day we will dance. I don’t know how we allowed ourselves to be separated in the first place.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published November 2011
Size: 229 x 152 mm