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Mutual Incomprehension

December 31, 2013
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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, pg 7

Ah, the holidays. So quickly upon us and just as quickly gone. I spent a lot of time this holiday season reading. I hadn’t read a whole book that didn’t have anything to do with parenting for a long while and in these last few weeks I’ve finished four and am well into my fifth. For the parent of a toddler, this is nothing short of miraculous. Part of the reason I had so much time to read was because, for the first time since we’ve been together, my husband and I didn’t have any guests and we weren’t visiting with any family for the holidays. It was just our little family, eating and drinking and being merry. And napping. The napping was when I got most of my reading in. 

Not seeing any family during the holidays is both a blessing and a sadness. A nice quiet holiday with no small talk or catching up or traipsing from one relative’s house to the next is quite relaxing. Of course, family is family and no matter how exhausting it can be to be part of a family, we are still drawn to these people; these people who share our history and our DNA. But, as someone who has invested countless hours and thousands of dollars in therapy trying to better understand my family of origin, my relationship to it, and my place within it, I fully understand those who find no joy in making great pains to be with family during the holidays.

I recently wrote an email to a friend in which I expressed that creating and maintaining healthy boundaries with family feels like it must be my life’s intended work, if the amount of effort I put into it is any indication. It’s something I really struggle with and have for a very long time. (see the aforementioned hours upon hours and thousands of dollars of therapy) I would like to start this next sentence off by saying that I just happened to be thinking about this when I stumbled upon something which has moved me closer to the ever-elusive place of acceptance, but the fact is I never just happen to be thinking of this stuff. At times it feels like it is all I think about. And I was doing just that when I came upon a sentence in the novel I’m reading that has… I don’t know… opened something up for me. The narrator is writing a letter to his son and in the context of explaining his own relationship with his father he says: “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension”.

When I try to articulate what most frustrates me about my relationship with the family I was born into (and the one I married into) it is this yearning to be known and understood that goes unfulfilled. Mutual incomprehension perfectly describes what is going on. They don’t get me at all and, no matter how much I’d like to think otherwise, I don’t really get them either. If I did, I wouldn’t be so frustrated by their lack of understanding.

When we meet people in our daily lives and experience this mutual incomprehension, a relationship usually does not form. But with family, our relationship is based on something entirely different. It is what we share – history, blood, memories – that keeps us linked to family. It is due to these that no matter our relationship with them, we feel loyalty to them. And there is always love, no matter how insufficient or conditional or painful it may be to feel it. And the fact is, love and loyalty are nothing to sniff at. Those are very real, very valuable things. They don’t make up for what may be missing, but in and of themselves they are meaningful.

I learned long ago the secret to finding peace with family, but that doesn’t mean I’m any closer to successfully implementing it.  Letting go of expectations, accepting people and circumstances as they are, and maintaining healthy boundaries, like everything else, is much easier said than done. Perhaps I love this sentence in this book so much because it very tidily explains, not only what I do not have, which I’ve perhaps spent too much time focusing on, but also what I do have, which I have decidedly not spent enough time appreciating.

I may not understand these people, but god I love them something awful.

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