Parenting Fail: Forest Fires, Tremors, and Our Families of Origin

In my last post, I described how important it is to acknowledge the fact that there is within each of us a child frozen in time at the point we felt compelled to take on more responsibility than was necessary, when we were forced to grow up too soon, or when we experienced something so traumatic that we dissociated. These experiences set us off on journeys that from the outside look typical but on the inside feel increasingly discordant to an adult's sense of self, for on the sea of life we were pushed out on our boats toward islands not of our own choosing. Unfortunately, many of us do not realize we have reached the wrong soil until mid-life. For Jung and others, this period of one's life has less to do with a particular chronology and more to do with the kinds of crises that arise as they tend to spring up from the deep within us or are thrust upon us from without. Both feel like powerful but necessary betrayals of how we believe the world should work. We worked hard to get where we are, to have the picture perfect marriage, the house, the 2.5 children, a job that others admire, and a collection of things that when arranged just so reflect success and style. Yet in the midst of all this good and wonderful construction many are left wondering, "Is this it? I accomplished and built all the things I was supposed to build. Why then do I feel so empty inside?" It is here that the paradoxical possibility for hope arises, for it is the place where desolation creates the condition for new life not unlike the way a forest fire often bears the unusually brutal gift of setting free millions of seeds that have long laid dormant in the cones of burned branches.

There are usually signs leading up to these spiritual clearing experiences, small tremors that serve as precursors to the larger existential earthquakes of our lives. A depression. Increasingly volatile anger. Panic attacks that come on with inexplicable ferocity. An affair. Addictions of all kinds. Eating disorders. Changing jobs, changing cities, changing churches, changing looks, etc. Behaviors like these are often cries for help from people who have no idea what exactly is the object of their fear or anxiety but who are apt to focus the majority of their attention externally. I believe that these precursors are faint knocks on the door of the soul wanting to deliver a message about something deeply important about our salvation--not in the strictly theological sense but the more immediate experience of living in alignment with wholeheartedness. If we're lucky, we pay attention to these events as invitations into a deeper journey within and find ways to change our lives and live with greater integrity. If we choose to plug our ears to the knock on the door, we are more likely to blame others for our negative feelings and questionable actions and will invest ourselves in distractions of all kinds to keep from having to face ourselves, especially the child within us who certainly looks at the grown up version of ourself and wonders what in the hell happened to us. This middle passage offers the beautiful opportunity for surrender and resurrection. It also presents the tragic opportunity to double down and invest in the ego at the expense of the soul's growth.

The irony is that the inner child holds the key to our decision to embrace functional adulthood or to fall into an extended or permanent adolescence. Embracing the former entails a feeling of waking up from a deep slumber while the latter feels like perpetually hitting the snooze button on our life's alarm clock. The world is a cold place, and it sure feels nice under this blanket of inattention! Living growth-fully requires that we re/member the parts of our story that have been repressed, suppressed, and dissociated. To do this, most of us must get in touch with our experiences as children in our families of origin. What were the emotional dynamics of your family? In what ways did you pick up your family's emotional climate? A father's expressed (or unexpressed but poorly disguised) anger, a mother's tendency to ensnare the family in a web of guilt, a father's struggle with the need for control and perfection, a mother's lack of boundaries to meet her own emotional needs through her children. Of course, the genders are unimportant in these examples. I have spoken with numerous persons whose parents switched places in the examples just described. What's significant is the subliminal emotional transaction that occurs through repeated encounters that were less than nurturing. Without physical scars to show it, most of us fail to honor the emotional scars that developed unbeknownst to us. We are prone to minimization, denial, or delusion. Sometimes we cannot imagine (or allow ourselves to consider the possibility) that we didn't get what we needed growing up. It is more important for these persons to lift up how "perfect" their families of origin were because it aligns with a preferred reality. "I mean sure, my parents fought a lot, and there were a few broken glasses and mirrors, but that's normal."

It's hard to take a sober look at our families of origin. We don't want to judge the folks who brought us into this world. The journey toward wholeheartedness is really less about assigning blame and more about getting our story straight so that we can move forward toward recovering the inner child who holds the key to unlocking our vitality as well as our ability to parent in ways that will honor our own children. Given the difficultly so many have accessing childhood memories, especially traumatic ones, we must begin to listen to our bodies which are the containers for all that we've experienced as well as our feeling memories that seem to operate untethered from a contextual narrative. When pains arise inexplicably or when feelings arise that appear to have no causal link, we can trust that we are in touch with body or feeling memories that are just as valid as any cognitive memory. In order to refresh our memories (somatic, affective, or cognitive) it's imperative that we understand all the different ways we may have experienced something as less than nurturing in our childhoods. It is in this way that doing a fearless inventory of our experiences as children gives us a dangerous opportunity to awaken to long dormant memories that may help us to reconnect to our bodies and unite our feeling memories with a coherent and respectful narrative about what we should have gotten from caregivers whose primary task was nurturance and safety.

In our next post we will take a hard look at those experiences by enumerating the myriad ways we may have missed out on what we needed in order to cut through our defenses of minimization, denial, delusion, repression, suppression, and dissociation. Only when we approach our pasts with eyes wide open can we connect with the inner child with true empathy.