People are strange and becoming stranger
And I don’t just mean in terms of acting strange, but more in the sense that we are becoming strangers to one another.
Perhaps this was always the case but we just didn’t share or talk about being estranged or how we got that way.
Estrangement seems a matter of blame. Separation and distance result from something else: drugs and alcohol, wild behavior, the friends you ran with, the in-laws (pick one: mother, daughter, son, brother or sister-in-law). Reasons and rationales lurk around the fringes of solitude. Whether people distance themselves out of spite or salvation, older generations rarely talked too much about why estrangement occurs and what to do if and when it happens.
A recent NY Times article “Debunking Myths About Estrangement” focuses on how many families are becoming fragmented as a means for individual survival. In other words some family members willfully distance themselves so they can operate in the world without unnecessary emotional and psychological crap heaped on by their families
Much has been and is being made about how in this social and political moment our nation, and maybe even the world, is “the most divided it has ever been”.
Frankly, I dispute this. There have always been divisions. However we’ve been afforded greater opportunities to share these conversations about who we are estranged from, why we’re estranged and how we’re coping.
On display are the stories of families, communities, and countries that face the weight of external consequences which seem to stem from internal divisions.
I think this feels “new” because more people are talking about it.
Beyond the Black Sheep
Growing up we’ve all had family members who were “black sheep” — the ones nobody discussed except in hushed tones and only when certain people left the room. Rarely if ever did we hear straight from the sheep’s own mouth
Sometimes– we were told — these “black sheep” suffered from addiction or in rare cases mental illness. More often than not these “sheep” were at odds over how to live their lives relative to the expectations of their family. As such they went their own way.
Yet, it seems as though something has taken the place of the “Black Sheep Syndrome”. When I consider our own story there’s a more frantic storm brewing one that may have been years in the making.
At least that’s what the Times article suggests: estrangement rarely happens on a whim.
Estrangements result from a culmination of forces. While, in our instance for example, there may be a single 1,000 pound straw that breaks the camel’s back, that camel’s back was already sore, tired and worn to begin with — he had no interest in carrying the load any further.
Rarely is it ever just one thing.
Interestingly enough, both “sides” of the estranged coin can attempt to claim victim status: Grandma is victim because she’s deprived the company of her grandchildren; Adult Son/Daughter is a victim of overbearing, intrusive and judgmental parents and so they limit or eliminate contact for their own sanity.
The Struggle Continues…
I can say that being estranged from my family has not been an easy ride after almost three years. Questions remain, doubts emerge, anger flares all of which is normal I suppose. It can get tough during holidays or other sentimentally significant moments.
I am perpetually reminded that life is here, right in front of us and that life must be lived. Sometimes easier said than done, as with most things.
Intellectually, I comprehend that the distance is a necessary requirement for survival. Emotionally, there is baggage that occassionally floats to the surface as if from a sunken cruise ship. Steamer trunks pasted with all sorts of labels bobbing on the water’s of memory serving as reminders that connection and obligation are what matters.
But connection to what and obligation to whom?
Inside that two part question is a learning curve. I’ve learned a lot observing the wreckage that litters the territory surrounding my household and my extended family. Denial, delusion, obstinate obstruction… I could go on.
Sanity rests in finding ways to embrace the simple notion that “I am enough”. Admittedly, I struggle with this because that’s not how I was programmed. I was not raised to consider myself as existing “apart from” but as a integral “part of”.
On the surface this sounds positive, yet I guess it depends on perception as much as practice. In measured balance these tendencies complement one another, but in practice knock them out of whack and shit goes sideways real fast especially in unpredictable situations which no one has actually trained for.
We are not unique
I suppose this is the most valuable insight I’ve taken from our family’s experience — we’re not alone. There are so many families who have similar stories to tell. Families dissolve; people survive.
Families held together as a result of familial coercion and emotional blackmail will fragment at some point — and chances are it will get ugly. Chances are it will be something small that sets things in motion: someone brought the wrong dessert to dinner, a snide comment made at a wedding or funeral, everyone voted for Trump except you.
BAM! Armagedeon ensues.
Families remain intact out of mutual respect, open lines of communication and realistic expectations regarding what every member can (and cannot) contribute to the whole. No scorecards, no hidden agendas, no investment in an inventory of resentments.
This is harder for some than for others. As a parent, I want my children to write their rules for their Game of Life. I refuse to tell others what they must do. I certainly don’t know best.
Maybe, as a culture and as individuals, we’d all be better off if we remember that we don’t know everything and stop pretending we’ve cornered the market on right-ness.