I left my hometown of New York City in the summer of 1986 and drove across the country to Seattle. Escaping from or escaping to… I’m not sure. Perhaps a bit of both. I was searching for what I was meant to do in this life and New York had all but used me up. Proximity to my family and my past and the daily influence they had on me confounded my search and kept me from thinking clearly. I knew that I had to distance myself from the familiar in order to get closer to my truth.
For too many years I allowed the question, “What would my parents think?” to serve as my guide, my conscience. When my thinking and choices began to conflict with what I had been taught was acceptable, I faltered. A parent’s criticism can sting like no other. A parent’s disappointment can wilt even the heartiest among us. I was addicted to approval, to the old parental nod. Who doesn’t know the conundrum of wanting parental approval, no matter how old we get, no matter how far we stray from the path on which our parents set us?
I strayed far, not only geographically, but also politically, spiritually, and socially. A year after arriving in Seattle I married and began a family. We bought a little house on Queen Anne Hill and faced head on the challenges of raising children in economically challenging times. I returned to work not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I quickly learned that life was tough without the comfort of my surgeon father’s income and that our political climate did not favor those in my economic bracket. As a mother, I could not reconcile the time in which I was living and the world in which I was raising my daughters with the conservative principles by which my parents lived and raised my siblings and me. My parents scorned my new (to them) attitude and political leanings.
But if I am to be completely honest, I was as guilty of rejection as I was hurt by it. I rejected my parents’ conservative ideals, taking personally the effect they had on my family and my life. It was no secret. They were hurt. I was hurt. Our tie to one another was not broken but it was definitely frayed.
Over the years, we worked – hard – to keep that bond from severing altogether. Regular phone calls, shared family stories, photos and visits helped. Both sides sought balance, attempting to maintain connection despite differences. But both sides continued to white knuckle their principles. Both sides demanded to be heard and acknowledged.
Just last week I traveled east for my mother’s 88th birthday. On the plane, I thought about how to approach this visit. While re-reading a book by Pema Chödrön on meditating, a light blinked on in my brain. I cannot expect to be heard if I don’t listen. I cannot ask for tolerance and understanding if I refuse to offer it as well. I cannot expect respect if I don’t give the same in return. I must practice that which I long for, stop judging and stop wishing for things to be other than what they are.
I tried it.
Rather than argue when I disagreed, I listened. Rather than take the bait when it was dangled in front of me, I changed the subject. I did not try to prove myself, to make my point, to show my family the rightness of my beliefs. And, the surprise of the century: I no longer need approval. At all.
If we can manage to unconditionally love our children as they move into adulthood, sometimes making choices that we don’t understand or agree with, if we can continue friendships with people whose political beliefs and lifestyles diverge from our own, why can’t we do the same with parents or siblings? By applying similar principles to interactions with my aging mother and my siblings, I was able to bridge the distance and focus on the positive aspects of our relationship.
What we learn from the painful lessons of family strife, we can apply to our daily interactions. And, similarly, what we learn from our capacity for tolerance when it comes to children and friends, we can use in dealings with our birth family. Judgment and active disapproval accomplish nothing. Instead we must find a way to practice loving kindness, to be parents to one another – all of us. To love unconditionally and to simply cherish the time we share.