I need a moment to be real about my family–the Cousins. They mean well. They really do. They are inherently good people as far as people go. They are extremely successful, and wealth and status do insulate people simply because the wealthy and successful tend to socialize with each other. This can create an Ivory Tower mentality wherein when a person enters their world they don’t leave their Ivory Tower and empathize with the other. The other person must climb up to where they reside even if the air is too thin for them to breathe.
One of my cousins emailed me yesterday. She and her husband are traveling together. She wanted some information from me–information I don’t have. She usually always says how much she loves me and bemoans the fact that we don’t ever see each other. I just nod my head, sigh, and say nothing. This is the script. This is what everyone in the family says. It’s what good, faithful people should say, but there is never truth. No one wants to tell the truth or ask truthful questions, and I’m just not wired for that. Denial prevents growth and healing, and I can’t thrive in a family system that cultivates the wearing of personae in place of the encouragement of identity development. My family would rather I say the “right” things instead of the truthful things, and this is why I don’t spend time with them. Whenever I tell the truth I’m met with looks of tremendous discomfort and then someone begins the social alienation game, namely my cousin’s daughter–if she’s present. She’s gifted at The Shun.
People judge what they don’t understand. I’m guilty of that. Unfortunately, one group that is often more guilty than most at judging what they don’t understand is Christians. Before a Christian jumps on me for that statement, I’m going to say that I admit this as a Christian. I grew up in the Church among many denominations both Protestant and Catholic. I can honestly say that when something is not understood by this particular group as a whole, judgment is the knee-jerk reaction. I’m not attacking anyone. I’m making an observation based upon a lifetime of experience. It is what it is. So it is within my family. Often within homogenous environments, the differences stand out. I am the difference, and, consequently, my children are different.
I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Texas. I went to public school. I didn’t attend a private Christian school. I didn’t go to a private Christian college either as everyone did. I went to the East coast for college and then left the country. I wasn’t a missionary. I don’t speak Christianese as they do with sayings like, “God bless you in it,” and “Walk in victory!” I am familiar with some Christian music, but I listen to a broad spectrum of music. I don’t view life through a sacred/secular lens. I’m also half-Jewish which my family doesn’t even know, but that profoundly affects my worldview and most likely my confusion regarding Evangelicalism and its cultural manifestations. I have only read one Christian fiction book. My family makes their money in Christian publishing. When I visit them, they load me up with all these books that I’m never going to read. I usually donate them. I don’t tell them that I won’t read them. They’re trying to be nice to me, but they assume I am like them. They have never asked me what books I do read. And, therein lies the problem.
There is an assumption that everyone they meet is entirely made in their likeness. They assume that their God is like my God. We may read the same Bible, but I experience a very different God than they do. That is quite possibly true for everyone. We don’t know how someone else experiences their world unless we ask. To assume such similarities implies a heliocentric view of the self in relation to others. It’s very important that we learn to connect with others outside of what’s in our own sphere of influence and comfort even if we don’t find it interesting or engaging. Just because it’s not of value to us doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile in general or, at the very least, meaningful to the other person in the conversation.
Avoiding “the culture” and withdrawing from meaningful connections with people who are different from the group actually cultivates myopia, self-centeredness, poor social skills, and insecurity in new social situations. I see this in my cousin’s daughter. We are the same age. We both have four kids. One of her children experienced a serious illness. One would think we might have something to talk about, but we don’t. She has always been rather elitist and judgmental. When meeting new people she name-drops her family’s surname to gain instant gravitas, and she does not like to be on the outskirts of social interactions. She will do whatever it takes to have the attention on her. A few years ago, I reluctantly joined my cousin and her daughter because I wanted to see my other cousin who was visiting. We were trying to have a conversation, and my cousin’s daughter wasn’t included largely because we were talking about my mother. It wasn’t because we were attempting to leave anyone out. Immediately, my cousin’s daughter started to sniffle. Our attention turned toward her. “What’s wrong?” She immediately began to share how her oldest daughter was having trouble making friends in her new school. Oh, there was a neighbor girl down the street, but she read “that awful vampire book” and who would ever hang out with a child like that? She said, “She has a look in her eye, and I think that she’s just…wicked!” She started to whimper and pat her chest. “My daughter would never do a mean thing to anyone,” she said. Just as she said that I heard a girl yelling. I turned my head and saw my cousin’s oldest daughter yelling at my youngest daughter. No child is perfect. Milly found me a moment later, crying, and reported that she did not like my cousin’s daughter’s daughter. She was mean. She was excluding her and yelling at her. I then turned to look at my cousin’s daughter who had subsequently moved from sitting next to my cousin’s sister (my favorite cousin) to sitting directly in front of me so that I was physically blocked from participating in any further conversation. That’s The Shun in action, and no one in my family seems to notice it. It’s simply what is done to outsiders to prevent them from returning or to imply that they are invited but never included. This generalized attitude of “invited but not included” is pervasive in group dynamics where elitism of any kind is the dominant ideal. It’s us vs. them, and “they” can join “us”, but “they” will never be like “us” no matter what they do. Insular thinking stokes this paradigm and justifies actions that follow it. A child can be called “wicked” because she read The Twilight series, but another child is completely justified in mistreating a child with a disability. Why? Both children aren’t a part of the group so they can be judged and mistreated because they are assumed to be bad while the other child is a part of the group so any action that she takes can probably be justified because she is assumed to be good.
It is this thinking that justifies the mistreatment of the mentally ill, the abandoned, the addicted, the imprisoned, the exploited and the like particularly by those who are called to show compassion and kindness. And it explains why my family behaves as they do. I can’t take it personally. I told my cousin that Grace wasn’t doing well, and she had no genuine response but went on to give me a laundry list of the family’s awesomeness. She and her husband were married for x amount of years and wasn’t that awesome. Her daughter and her husband had done such and such and wasn’t that awesome. Her son and his new wife had just done such and such and wasn’t that awesome. Her grandchildren had achieved superhero status and wasn’t that awesome. They could see through lead, fly, leap tall buildings, lift cars with one arm, and breathe under water. It was supernatural awesomeness. She thanked me for getting back to her and blessed me with awesomeness. I just sat there reading the email and sighed. I wanted to be competitive. I wanted to say something awesome, too! Uh…hmmm. How are we awesome? That’s when I realized that I just couldn’t enter into that. I’ve never sent out those How We’re Better Than You Christmas Letters. I certainly wasn’t going to start now. I’ve never name-dropped. I’ve never felt the need to flash my CV in people’s faces. So what if my family doesn’t really care to know the real me or the real Grace or the real Doireann or the real Eadaoin or the real Milly? So what if I don’t like it up high in their Ivory Tower?
This is life. Every person on the planet has to deal with stuff like this. We’ve all felt misunderstood, alienated, and mistreated, and it can sting all the more if it’s coming from within the camp. But, here’s the truth of the matter from where I’m standing. I’ve grown up in a family that has refused to include me because I wasn’t like them. I’ve lived with feeling like an outsider. I’ve lived with feelings of rejection. It hurts, but this makes me the perfect parent for Grace…and Milly…and even my other daughters. It also means that I have the capacity to empathize and show compassion to others who are feeling left out, hurt, abandoned, and rejected. It’s a privilege to include others in our lives. It’s a privilege to make new connections. It’s a rare privilege when someone else opens their life to you and trusts you with their pain because the human heart is a fragile thing. It’s like holding a butterfly in your palm. Kindness, compassion, being present…these attributes heal. I don’t have to fix anyone, but I can offer my presence, withhold judgment when I don’t understand, and never shun. I can allow others to expand and explore their potential and be a person that will believe that others who are different than I am are good in the first place.
Oddly enough, this is the benefit of being shunned, left out, and left behind. We are finally tuned into the frequency of the rest of the world, down below the Ivory Towers of those that would avoid suffering at all costs. We are finally effective.
We can finally learn to love.