Oct 052015
 

It was an unexpectedly tender moment. On a recent Sunday morning, as I sat at a local coffee shop, a friend approached. “Roger, I know you advise people on occasion. I was wondering if we might chat for a moment.” I’m not a counselor, but as a friend, I readily agreed to explore her obvious pain. Tears began to fill her eyes. “I discovered my daughter snuck out of the house late last night to be with her friends. She has never done such a thing. I don’t know what to do.” 

 Moments of vulnerability, when two people face our unknowingness with honesty and courage, are rare, but so pregnant with possibility. When we choose to inhabit those moments raw and childlike, they offer miraculous opportunities to learn together. All I know of parenting and adolescent psychology are random, often misguided, thoughts gleaned from being a parent. Since I know little more, if anything, than she, perhaps we could allow our experiences and wisdom to collide, and then simply be open to what we might discover together. 

 Seeing the pain in her eyes, I asked if she could let everything drop away and discern the deepest emotion prompting the tears. She paused, thought, and said she really didn’t know. I asked if I could suggest one—I knew what would be at the heart of my tears if I was living her life in this moment. “Are you frightened? Afraid? I suspect you love your daughter more than life itself. You feel yourself losing control, and are simply frightened something will happen to interrupt her life in some horrific way.”  

 With that, fresh tears appeared. In that moment, I knew we were touching on emotions all parents share and understand in much the same way. 

 She went on to explain she and her daughter had an argument several weeks earlier, and it was never truly resolved. “Our relationship is changing in ways I simply do not understand. I know it must change as she becomes an adult, but this feels so frightening.” 

 I asked how she discovered the conceit of the previous evening. She revealed she had surreptitiously taken her daughter’s cell phone and looked at the previous night’s texts. “She’ll be angry when she finds out I looked at her phone.” 

 The relationship between parents and children is complex and often confusing. There is little I know for sure, but I have a fundamental belief: love and honesty must gird the foundation of the relationship. But honesty is so very difficult when we forget to take the time to search deep inside, and show up stark naked and deeply vulnerable. 

 Fear, misunderstood, turns quickly into anger. The reptilian remnants of our brain flood the cortex with neurotransmitters that disable our ability to think. In those moments, we allow anger to throw us unbidden into the craggy terrain called retribution. “How dare she discount my wisdom as a parent? I’ll show her who’s boss!” In the short term, retribution can feel good. In the longer term it annihilates relationships; fractures the foundation built of honesty and love, and replaces them with compost made of distrust and disrespect. I know this dysfunctional path all too well. 

 There is an alternative to retribution. For thousands of generations in native cultures, humans believed in reconciliation rather than retribution. How can victim and perpetrator face one another to simply understand the pain and heartache that allows sometimes horrific actions to emerge? So often, just being heard is enough. We simply want others to see us, and acknowledge and honor our pain. 

 In the end, there is no painless path into relationships, especially with those we love. If there was, what value would they truly hold in our lives? Pain, and the often unfathomable heartache that comes when we fear the loss of those who mean the most to us, is the price we pay for love. 

Oct 292012
 

 

No matter what tragedy people are experiencing, their suffering is alleviated when they learn that others are standing with them. Some of my best teachers of this truth have been younger leaders. One in her twenties said, “How we are going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.”*
Many years ago, when our son was just a tyke, we visited a popular Renaissance Faire. Parking was difficult, forcing us to park on a muddy incline. As we tried to leave, the car became hopelessly mired, and I became frightened I would be unable to get it out. Before long my fear turned to frustration and then anger. David, who was strapped into a car seat in the back, began to cry and received the brunt of my emotion. We eventually extracted the car. On the way home, I fretted about my inability to control my emotions and the destructive nature of my words to the son I loved so much. When we arrived home, I pulled him aside and said, “David, next time this happens if you try not to get upset, I will try not to get so frustrated.” He turned to me and said, “Dad, next time let’s not park in the mud!”
I am happy to report that in more than 20 years since that afternoon, I have managed to avoid muddy embankments. I wish I could report similar success in avoiding being ambushed by my emotions. While I have managed on occasion to set initial conditions for the future based on compassion, caring, love and faith, I have, far too many times seeded it with my lesser self. Too often I have faced the world and allowed my insecurities about who I am to unleash fear, frustration and anger…and in doing so, have left those in my wake feeling less.
After apartheid ended in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed to heal the nation through restorative justice as oppose to retributive justice. Victims and perpetrators faced one another. Victims told stories of the horrors they faced, and in many cases, those responsible admitted to their failing, regret and sorrow. Time and time again, victims reported great joy at being deeply heard, and sought no retribution. In the spiritual traditions of Hawai’i, Ho’oponopopo is a process to move beyond violations of the human spirit through forgiveness and reconciliation as opposed to retribution.
Our actions change the future, but over time and distance we can never predict its trajectory. The same is true for the emotions with which we germinate the future. Every change in initial conditions reverberates through the interconnected web of relationships that make up the complex adaptive system we refer to as Pacha Mama. And while I wish I had never parked on that muddy embankment, the fact that I did would have receded from memory many years ago had it not been for the way I did violence to my son. I grieve to this day for my inability to avoid that quagmire, and my inability to seed the future with forgiveness and reconciliation. David deserved better…and so did I.

So Far From Home by Margaret J. Wheatley, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012