Friday, July 16, 2010

Family Values

"If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
--Luke 14:26, New American Bible

I was raised on family values in the 1950s that were best exemplified by the Nelsons, the Andersons, the Cleavers, the Stones and even the crazy Richardos, those perfect families that we watched on our black-and-white TV while eating dinners in the living room on TV trays. My brother and I should have been Ricky and David, or even Wally and the Beaver, but my father was a pale imitation of Robert Young's Jim Anderson, and mom was no Donna Reed (sometimes she more like Lucy at her craziest).  Though we were outwardly the ideal nuclear family of four living in a California ranch-style house with an orange tree in the front and a swimming pool in the back yard, I felt like I was living with aliens.

There's probably a good reason why Jesus seems to hate the family.  Maybe it was because he had an absent father, an over-protective mother, and siblings whom he refused to discuss.  Christian apologists work hard to give this verse a positive twist.  But when he went to preach in the temple of his home town of Nazareth he was driven away by an angry crowd that could only conceive of him as the poor son of a carpenter.  "No prophet is accepted in his own native place," concludes the passage from the book of Luke.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is seated in a crowd of people and someone comes to tell him,  "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you." He replies, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Blood ties matter here less than friendship and appropriate actions.  It's hard to see how conservative Christians could turn these words of Jesus into instructions about family values and a creed that praises the nuclear family and condemns working mothers, adultery, feminism, premarital sex, abortion, and gay and lesbian relationships, to name only a few of their no-nos.  Despite Dan Quayle's condemnation of the non-traditional family values of single (TV) mother Murphy Brown (which he claimed were a cause of the 1992 Los Angeles riots), western politicians continue to praise the family as the primary source of moral values and the foundation for democracy and freedom in the world.  They have apparently forgotten that western civilization begins with the Biblical story of Cain, the farmer, murdering his brother Abel, the hunter-gatherer. It's been all downhill since then.   In history as well as myth and fiction, parricide, the killing of a parent, is common, from Oedipus and Norman Bates to Lizzie Borden and the Menendez brothers. Children are not infrequently killed by their parents (Singer Marvin Gaye was shot by his father and Peter the Great of Russia tortured his son to death).  Clearly there is a dark side to family values.

Let's not forget Rosemary's baby and all the other celluloid spawns of Satan.  There's a misguided notion that genetics must dictate familial relations, a modern update of the blood tie myth.  In the debate over nature vs. nurture, the jury is still out.  Identical twins are not clones and frequently turn out to lead very different lives.  It's impossible to raise children on an assembly line and often siblings from the same background turn out to be Cain and Abel redux, or, as, Yogi Berra put it, deja vu all over again.  There is no accounting for families, except in the blog world where we must try to explain why we felt like aliens growing up and why we are estranged from our families.  Despite conventional wisdom, they are NOT the ones who MUST love you.

Our father was a traveling salesman, a big man not given to many words.  After coming home late from work with a strange smell on his lips, he would fall asleep in his big easy chair while watching Lucy or the Ed Sullivan Show.  Mom kept to her kitchen which was off limits to the men of the house, so I never learned to cook or wash dishes.  Sometimes we would hear her screaming in the bedroom at our father, hysterical nonsense words behind a closed door, but the storm would soon blow over.  My father built things in his garage workshop, a cabinet for the TV and a whole cabaƱa for the pool, but nothing was ever completely finished and he didn't teach me how to use his tools.  I was forced to share a bedroom with my younger brother, an indignity beyond words, until our grandfather died when I finally got some privacy.  The kid was scrawny and surly and our father spent more time with him because "he doesn't have your personality."  After he started lifting weights and going out for sports, he outgrew me.  Our mother read Reader's Digest condensed books and our father listened to a recording of the Warsaw Concerto, the only music in our house until I discovered rock and roll.  I was mortified by their plebeianism, and moved out of the family home just as soon as I was able. 

I became a father by accident on a trip to Europe with my young wife at a bed-and-breakfast house in Scotland.  Several years later it happened again and my second son was born at a 7th Day Adventist hospital in Los Angeles where I had to go outside to smoke.  The only model I had for parenting was my father so I didn't say much and laid down the rules as the boys grew up.  But my wife was even more hysterical than my mother and I left her with the children because I thought she might kill herself without them.  Big mistake.  My second family was more intentional.  After a long courtship we created a daughter which had been my strongest desire at the time.  For five years she was the apple of my eye, until she discovered rebellion and we began a struggle that remains to this day.  Our second child was a gift to my wife who felt single children were deprived.  But after he was born, she resigned as a lover to become a full-time mother and I was cut adrift.  Silent, rule-giving fathers were not appreciated in that house.  I tried to change, to become a sensitive man during that age of women's liberation, but early imprinting was too strong.  I gave my youngest son the most time of any of my children, but he grew to see me as always angry and ineffectual.  When push came to shove, I lost it.  This time, however, at least I stuck around until the kids were almost out of the house. 

My family skills haven't improved much since then.  During a brief hiatus in the 1970s, my brother and I got along, perhaps because I was working in the music business and we had similar tastes, more from the zeitgeist of the time rather than genetics, I expect.  He grew up arguing about sports with our father and became a lawyer who raises his voice to make a point.  After the death of our mother, we argued bitterly over every facet of the estate settlement.  I tried to develop close relationships with my children but I just wasn't very good at it.  As I grew older and they grew up, any respect turned to disdain and I felt constantly apologetic.  I was closest to my second son, probably because we both made serious mistakes the others criticized; when he died of alcoholism last year I was left alone.  One of the many reasons I moved to Thailand was that I didn't want some day for my children to have to care for me.  Trying to establish a long-distance relationship from here with them by various technological methods of communication is difficult but the results are the same as when I lived in their neighborhood.  Mostly silence and disinterest.

I'm reluctant to blame my parents for not teaching me, or providing a good example of, parenting.  Most of my friends have terrific relationships with their children, even when living far away.  And I don't want to blame my children for their lack of compassion toward me or interest in my admittedly strange life as an expat in Southeast Asia.  My oldest son's last message to me was, "You are one of the most self-centered people I will ever know."  I resisted mentioning that it ran in the family, but only said "I won't bother you again."  I left him and his brother at an early age and deserve his accusations of abandonment.  And I resigned inwardly from my second family when my wife, a supermom, left me little to do because she could do everything better than me.  I found my curiosity and passion at the university and was reborn as an academic scholar.  And if the marriage hadn't ended at my wife's request, I never would have traveled the world and found another life here in Thailand.  For all of that I'm thankful and have few regrets.

But family, aye, there's the rub. 


Janet Brown said...

Your honesty never fails to stun me. And your opening scriptural quote I had forgotten was one that horrified me and led me from Christianity when I was under the age of 10. This might have helped me understand it better--"There's probably a good reason why Jesus seems to hate the family. Maybe it was because he had an absent father, an over-protective mother, and siblings whom he refused to discuss."

Tiff said...

Lovely writing, Will, and I appreciate your honesty. As the adult daughter of an absent and ineffectual and now apologetic father, it is interesting to read your perspective. My father & I have established a new relationship in recent years, but he will always judge himself harsher than I judge him.
I am thankful that my own husband had a wonderful father as a role model and is such a hands-on and emotionally involved dad. But, yes, family is definitely difficult terrain and the love and respect and security are not a "given."

Lee Evanz said...

We certainly can't undo the past but seeing it more clearly helps get us past it.