Why are some of our most challenging relationships with family members? “Aren’t family members supposed to love and support you? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to understand you the best and be there for you through thick and thin?” This was a question from a young person in my acquaintance who has constant heartache and struggle with a member of her family.
“Supposed to”…..this was at the crux of the issue. The myth of family is probably one of the most fundamental myths of our western society. Norman Rockwell epitomized this myth in his many paintings of the ideal American family. In truth, these paintings are very idealistic and portray the hopes of a generation that wanted to return to a better (romanticized) life after the ravages of two world wars. Interestingly, Rockwell himself suffered from depression and was treated by the famous therapist Erik Erikson. Erikson is reported to have told him that he did paintings of happiness but did not live it.
It is true that some families seem, on the outside, to convey this illusion of togetherness and to maintain this front. Just think of all those Christmas letters you receive that list all the wonderful accomplishments of their family members and conveniently omit all the real life struggles. I do believe, however, that some of them actually are genuine and authentic family units, made up of sane and healthy individuals who all sincerely care for and support each other, but they are not in the majority. The simple reason is that the health of that family depends on the health of the individuals in that unit.
There are often weak links in one or two of these members, which affect the whole. It is perhaps that their wounding has been greater, or they had fewer resources available to them to negotiate a rebound. However, all of us carry wounds that perhaps originated in this lifetime, or perhaps in previous lifetimes. Sometimes they seem to be more connected to the wounds of our parents, who in turn, could only parent out of who they were.
Jung has referred to the biblical reference of ‘the sins of the father being passed down to the son” as meaning that which is unconscious, and not handled or dealt with in a conscious way, then affects the child in a negative way. We can all see this more easily in others than we can in ourselves. Most of us can think of families where the wounding or dysfunction of the parent has impacted the children in a negative way.
The child is in the psychic field of the parent and simply absorbs their unconscious content as if it were his or her own. On the psychic level, boundaries are not nearly as discrete as they are on the physical plane where we can clearly see the outline of our human shapes. On that level, it is a field of energy and we interpenetrate one another. The child does not know that what he or she is picking up originates in his or her parent’s psyche, but just assumes that these are his/her feelings.
Karma is a concept I have used here because I personally believe that what we are living in this lifetime connects to our soul needs. I have always intuitively felt the ‘rightness’ of the principle of reincarnation. The eastern religions embrace this notion, as did the early Gnostics. Christ also taught this in the parable of the sower of seeds. He said that we reap what we sow. This is essentially the philosophy of karma, which fits hand and glove with the philosophy of reincarnation.
Some people have interpreted the notion of karma as punishment for wrong-doing in the past, and that if you are suffering in some way, you deserve it. This is simplistic thinking that is caught in the dualism of right and wrong, good and evil. Disease (emotional or physical) is multi-causal. On the soul level, it is more about the growth into consciousness and the transformation of the darkness into light. The lotus flower, which has long been a symbol of enlightenment, epitomizes this transformation. The dark roots extend down into the black mud at the bottom of the watery depths, and then raise that energy into the opening of the beautiful lotus flower that floats on the surface of the water, absorbing the sun’s rays.
Our human bodies parallel the lotus flower. We have a chakra system in the body – the lowest of which is the muladhara chakra at the base of the spine, and the crown chakra at the top of the head. As we transform our consciousness and our karma, we transform that which is painful, chaotic and mucky into the beautiful light of consciousness. At that point, the karma that we have come into this life with is no longer as heavy or painful. We come into a peace and acceptance of our path.
So in returning to my young person and her struggles with the difficult family member, I try to convey this message. “But WHY?” she cries. “WHY is this happening to ME?” Of course, we can analyze family dynamics, and the roots of problems and issues in the lives of her parents and how that affected her early environment. That may have shed some light of understanding, but it doesn’t seem to satisfy her.
Her child self still wants what it wants and balks at the notion that perhaps she chose this family dynamic on some level as she was coming into this life. She is not sure she can buy into the notion that her soul might have chosen this very situation for her own growth. I can see that this takes a certain level of maturity and acceptance. She is still invested in being angry and blaming the other. The problem with that is that although this allows her to let off steam, she remains stuck. It doesn’t really change anything.
When we can accept what is on our plate as our karma, then we can enter into a more creative, transformative orientation in our life. Then the work begins. We begin to nourish and protect the deep soul seed within and discover who we most deeply are. I remember one of my teachers at university once said, “If you can’t make a work or art, Be One.” Taking responsibility for your life and responding to what is on your plate in front of you with a desire for consciousness, is to live in an artful way.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still,
treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Learn the alchemy the True Human Beings know:
the moment you accept what troubles
you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment
brought by the Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes
and jackets that serve to cover,
and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful,
naked body underneath,
is the sweetness that comes after grief.
Listen to Joshua Bell or Maria Callas perform O Mio Babbino Caro, Oh my darling child, they are both divine.