In the century since Freud, we have been seduced by our childhoods.
We have learned to look to our family history as the ultimate teacher, the critical enzyme that determines how our lives evolve. We feel we are essentially the sum of whatever, as a child, we were shown and taught, looking to the triumphs and ruins of our childhood to illuminate and explain our world and the nature of our place in it.
We share an unspoken cultural assumption that the real meaning of our lives will be found in some therapeutic revelation from childhood. As we try to uncover some story or trauma that will reveal the hidden truth about us, there is an unmistakable tinge of expectation whenever we return to the magical memories of our remembered smallness. There we will find the answer, the key to our life story.
But what if there are other explanations for our lives? What if the feelings we hold in our heart today are just feelings: the pain of growth, the fear of loving, the grief of deep sadness, the confusion of being fully alive? Must this pain, this fear or confusion ultimately draw its life from our parents, our siblings, our family history? Or might we simply be feeling the richness of being human, the symphony of sensations and feelings that all flesh is heir to?
We begin to reap the harvest of spiritual healing when we are able to transcend our emotional struggle with Mom and Dad. At some point we must let them go, allow them to retire, bless what they gave us, and mourn their passing. They fed and clothed us, gave us thousands of teachings about pleasure and pain in our lives and in the world. But our childhood with those parents is not the end of the story—it is merely the beginning. To continue our own story, we must first leave home.
Now, the act of “leaving home,” as many of us have found, is a lot harder than it sounds. Not only do our parents retain a certain investment in our remaining in their nest—both geographically and psychologically—but we ourselves are reluctant to let go of such a juicy and familiar set of villains and heroes in our own epic drama. Having defined our strengths and weaknesses through the teachings of our awkward and painfully unenlightened predecessors, how could we possibly respond to the joys and sorrows of life without the rudder of our parents’ behavior to steer us through? Who would we be without them?
Erik Erikson, the gentle sage of childhood development, spoke of the “repetition compulsion,” that tendency of a child to reenact painful experiences in words and deeds. According to Erikson, we all recreate situations that hurt or confused us as children, so that we may find some healing that was denied us when we were young. Through these repetitions, we work out the teaching, listen for the lesson, wait for some resolution to emerge. By acting it out again and again the child, according to Erikson, tries to “master a situation which in its original form had been too much for them by meeting it repeatedly and of their own accord.”
As we grow, we find friends and lovers and employers to play Mom and Dad as we repeatedly restage our childhood in search of some grain of truth that will set us free. In this repetition, we recreate familiar roles and problems that reflect how we feel about the world and our place in it. The same terrors, searches, disappearings, wounded rejections, triumphs and disappointments arise again and again as we reenact our stumbling struggle toward freedom. In the repetition of our childhood drama, it becomes progressively harder for us to engage others in an immediate, honest and intimate way. Mark Twain spoke of this repetition compulsion half a century before Freud, when he wrote: “History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”
The true saints are those who transfer the state of house-holdership to the house of God, becoming father and mother, brother and sister, son and daughter, to all creation, rather than to their own issue…
—Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth
The teachings of childhood are too limited to contain the depth and breadth of what it is to be human. At some point in our psychological and spiritual development, we become aware that it may be possible for us to move the focus of our awareness beyond the dilemmas of our biological childhood. The need for the child to leave home is universal; it does not simply arise because the family is dysfunctional. All families, even the most loving and supportive, must be left behind if we are to become strong and sound and whole. As we begin our journey toward healing and wisdom, we must leave the stage of our biological family. As Jesus said,
Every one who forsakes home, and brothers, and sisters, and mother and father for my sake shall have everlasting life.
There is a point in our spiritual awakening where we must let go of our family lineage, leave behind our primary identity as children of these particular beings, and claim a deeper lineage as a child of the earth. When we fixate on the love we did or did not get from our family, we miss the multitude of opportunities to love and be loved in the community of humanity. Our parents were just who they were—clumsy, giving, hurtful, playful, angry, loving people who held us in their lives for a few moments, so that we could live and grow. Now their time is finished; it is time to seek our fulfillment elsewhere.
The call to become separate, to follow our own heart’s desire, need not be anyone’s fault; it is merely a point in time when we must move toward the individuation of our destiny, drawing from our own well, that our spirit may drink of the particular water that feeds it.
Both the child who was terribly abused and the one who was deeply loved feel tied to their parents’ feelings about them. Though one may feel powerlessness and rage, and the other an overwhelming obligation to be worthy of love, both feel imprisoned by the inertia of their childhood roles. Peter, whose parents were perfectly loving and generous, feels totally inadequate and undeserving of what he has been given; he feels paralyzed by the fear that he will not measure up to the high standard set by his exemplary parents. Jack, beaten as a child by his alcoholic father, also feels inadequate and undeserving of care; he, too, is paralyzed by fear, afraid he will not measure up. Both situations produce a hook that seduces our psyche into trying to solve the dazzling puzzle of where we fit in relation to our family story.
Sara, beaten and raped by her father, spoke to me of her deep loneliness and terrible fear of getting close to anyone at all. Melissa, loved dearly by a mother who was exceptionally talented and intelligent, recalls that her mother always said that she was the “last of a dying breed.” Melissa inherited a sense of grandiosity and pride that separated her from others. Both children, one abused and the other loved, grew into deep loneliness. As grown men and women we find that the wounds of our parents color the fabric of our lives. Long after we move away, even after our parents have died, the old stories still feel like the truest stories.
We are drawn to these stories by the promise of love. Every family has a few magical moments of care and attention shared by parents and children, moments filled with exquisite gifts that lift up our hearts. The child sits at the piano and plays and sings with his mother, the music bonding them forever in some deeper harmony; the little girl goes for a walk in the woods, holding her father’s hand as he lovingly names the different kinds of plants and animals they discover along the way; the father shows the boy how to bait a hook when they are alone, together sharing the sacrament of fishing; a little girl proudly rides a horse, following the mother who taught her; little girls dance on their father’s feet; little boys pick dandelions for Mom.
Each of these moments is a gift that keeps us going back for more. But the father who so patiently taught us to fish might also be the same father who would scream and curse at us, or leave the house without saying when he would return. The mother who sat with us at the piano could be the same mother who got angry or depressed, or maybe she hit us when we “needed a lesson.” Sometimes we were loved, sometimes we were hurt. Both were true. And both were given by the very same parents.
Nothing seduces the mind like a good puzzle. Were we loved, or were we hurt? Was I a good or a bad child, were they good or bad parents? Could I have made things better? Did they really love me?
Our current fascination with dysfunctional, abusive and alcoholic families heightens the seduction of the dramatic family puzzle. While there is a rich teaching to be had in exploring the suffering of our family crucible, it can often intensify our conviction that the ultimate truth and meaning of our lives will be found in our family drama. Our compulsive recreation and repetition of those scenes becomes a deep, theological statement about who we are and who we were destined to be. When I say “I am an adult child of an alcoholic,” I diagnose my destiny in terms of my father’s illness. Consequently, I limit the breadth of my humanity to a caricature of where my family got stuck. My life becomes merely the residue of my family’s pain.
But the remarkable resilience of the human spirit is incapable of being contained in that pitifully repetitive story. The family story, however wonderful or gruesome, however generous or destructive, is only one story, one lens through which we may look at the panorama of our life’s unfolding. As a child we learned much from those who raised us, and much of what we learned remains within us. But in the quiet of our spirit, in the still small voice of our heart, we know so very much more.
We may never fully outgrow our childhood. The subtle developmental teachings weave a fabric of personality and style that serves as a ship that carries us through the flowing arc of our life story. But at the same time there is a developmental moment when we stand on the precipice of the freedom to choose another path, one not confined exclusively by the limitations of our childhood identity.
Wordsworth suggests that in our unfolding, we are guided by a deep memory of spirit:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God, who is our home.
How do we honor that childhood, honor all the teachings, pleasant and painful, that came from our parents—and then let them go, so that we may gently deepen our awareness of our own lives, our own true nature?
As a child, the Buddha was raised in the palace of a powerful family and groomed for a political career. His family provided him with many luxuries and tried to protect him from experiencing the tremendous suffering of the world. But the story is told that one day the young Siddhartha wandered outside the palace, and there encountered an old man, then a sick man, then a corpse, and then an ascetic monk. In those encounters, unlike any he had had before, he realized the impermanence of all things, that it was the nature of all things to change, to fade away. At that moment, feeling his own limitations as a child prince in the family palace, he decided to leave his family and seek the path that would lead to his liberation.
The Buddha, like Jesus, spoke of the need to allow the family lineage to fall away:
I have no scruple of change, nor fear of death.
I was never born, nor had I parents.
In leaving home, we leave behind the limited understandings that our family teachings gave us about life, joy, abundance, compassion and grace. These teachings were not limited because our parents were bad or evil; our parents were simply human, and could never be more than they were.
The story is told of Jesus sitting in front of a crowd, teaching. His mother and brothers arrived to beg him to come home. Because of the size of the crowd they could not reach him, so they sent someone to give Jesus a message that his family was waiting for him. Jesus turned to the messenger and said: “I have no family. I have no mother and brothers. These who are with me, these are my family, and my mother, and my brothers.”
To some, this may seem like an act of cruelty. Yet in many ways it was a gesture of great compassion, for in that moment Jesus set both parent and child free, liberating each to seek the path of their own heart. Jesus was honoring the tremendous shift we must make to allow our biological family to fall away as we begin our own path to God. Not out of anger or rage, not as punishment for what they did to us; rather, out of love for who we all are, to set each of us free from the limitations of our family drama.
Many cultures honor the need to leave home. The Sioux believe that, as children of the earth, “With all beings and all things we shall be as relatives.” Similarly, we hear in this poem by a fourteenth century Samurai the echo of the Buddha:
I have no parents:
I make the heavens and earth my parents.
I have no home:
I make awareness my home.
Some cultures use ritual rites of passage to mark the moment when the young man or woman leaves the home fire to become a member of the larger community family. In Buddhism, young people who seek to follow Buddha perform the rite of pravrajya, or the “Great Going Forth,” a ritual reenactment of Buddha’s going forth from home in search of his spiritual destiny. This rite of passage allows the young devotee—and the devotee’s family—to acknowledge that a significant shift has taken place in their relationship: the child is now a person in their own right, a member of the larger sangha.
Hindus use samskaras, or rituals, to mark the moment when the young student enters the larger community. Similarly, certain Native American tribes send young seekers out on a vision quest, a ritual journey of several days when the initiates, through prayer, fasting and other challenges, seek a vision that will become the new metaphor for their spiritual journey.
The Christian sacrament of baptism—immersion in the waters of life—recognizes a new birth as a child of spirit. The first reported event of Jesus’ ministry was his baptism by John the Baptist, not as the child of Mary and Joseph, but as a child of God. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, God spoke to those assembled: “Behold my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In that moment, Jesus claimed his spiritual parentage.
These rites of passage—these ritual baptisms, samskaras and ceremonies of going forth—enable us to hold the moment when we are called to leave behind the family that brought us as far as it could. Our own culture is relatively bankrupt in the ritual recognition of the moment of leaving home; we are left to find our own metaphor. For some young people, the moment of leaving home is the day they marry; for others it is the first job, or apartment; for still others it is the day they go off to college. Each of these is, in its own way, a “great going forth.”
In our own culture many have come to use psychotherapy as a ritual phase of home-leaving, a time to look at our attachments to the old, seek its teachings, find a new metaphor for our journey, and go forth. Psychotherapy can certainly be a skillful tool in the exploration of those points where we are attached to the lineage of our family history. But as a counselor and therapist, I find that the language of psychology sometimes falls short in holding the moment when we must leave the old family stories behind; for psychology, too, is enraptured with the old stories. We do not end our growth when we have put our psyche in order. As Erik Erikson asserted, the true task of psychotherapy should be to free us for our spiritual journey.
We may only leave behind the stories of childhood once we have identified our wounds and mindfully attended to the tender hurts we were given as children. But having named those unspeakable sorrows, we may begin to see beyond them, opening our eyes and hearts to the possibility that there is great healing to be found in the larger family of spirit to which we all belong.
Ranier Maria Rilke says there awaits a pleasant surprise when we transcend the confines and limitations of our childhood patterns in search of spirit:
At first a childhood, limitless and free
of any goals. Ah, sweet unconsciousness.
Then sudden terror, schoolrooms, slavery,
the plunge into temptation and deep loss.
Defiance. The child bent becomes the bender,
inflicts on others what he once went through.
Loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler, victor,
he takes his vengeance, blow by blow.
And now in vast, cold, empty space, alone.
Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart,
a longing for the first world, the ancient one…
Then, from his place of ambush, God leapt out.