You Can’t (Always) Pick Your Own Relatives

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Man From Snowy River, and one of my favorite lines from that movie comes toward the end of the film when young “Jessica” learns that she has an uncle she’s never met before. “Spur”, played by Kirk Douglas, chuckles and says, “One of life’s injustices: you can’t pick your own relatives.”

I’m not ordinarily one to remember movie dialogue, which often frustrates my husband when he drops a well-timed comedic line from a movie only to be met with a blank stare from me. Yet this one line has always stuck with me because, in a way, I’ve always felt like I somehow ended up in the wrong family. Like I never quite fit in with my own relatives.

I think most of us feel this way to some degree. Pretty much everyone I know has felt like a stranger in their own home at some point or another—usually during our teenage years when it seems that no one could possibly understand what we’re going through. For some of us, though, that feeling is more persistent. For me, it’s the main driver behind my fascination with human relationships.

Relationships are the ultimate puzzle for me. Why do some work beautifully while others are disastrous? How is it that two people, such as my husband and me, who are generally regarded as “difficult” manage to get along perfectly? What is it about certain personalities that rub others the wrong way? What is it about other personalities that draws people to them like moths to a flame?

I’ve been a student of human relationships for as far back as I can remember. I clearly recall discussing world history with my mom when I was about 8-years-old in terms of children on a playground jockeying for the uppermost position on the monkey bars until only one could shout from the top, “I am King of the Hill!” My mom thought my explanation was clever. My teacher? Not so much.

Well into my adult years—until I married my husband, really—my view of relationships didn’t change much from that early impression of kids fighting for control of the monkey bars.  I still saw relationships as primarily competitive and adversarial. More frustrating than fulfilling. Hence, hardly worth the effort to cultivate. Even with such a negative view of relationships, though, I’ve still managed to meet several people with whom I share collaborative, rewarding, and mutually beneficial relationships. I have some amazing friends, and I couldn’t possibly ask for a better partner than my husband.

After receiving a scathing response to my last blog post from my sister a female relative who shall never be mentioned again lest her identity be inadvertently revealed on my “worldwide bully pulpit”, I’ve been carefully examining why certain people relate to me so easily while others are unlikely to ever understand where I’m coming from. My conclusion? Fear.

Fear of what, is the million dollar question. Fear of vulnerability? The truth? Facing one’s demons? Fear of the unknown, perhaps? For a very, very long time, I was afraid of vulnerability. My trust was brutally betrayed by someone I loved deeply once. I was just sixteen years old at the time, and it took decades (not to mention seven years of talk therapy) for me to regain a healthy level of comfort with vulnerability, so I can at least relate to that particular fear. I’ve never been afraid of the truth, however. Lies are infinitely more destructive. As for my demons, I faced them during those seven years of talk therapy, too. They’ve since been reduced to harmless caricatures from my past. Every now and again I’ll cross paths with one of them, and I’m reminded of how ridiculous they are once exposed to light. It’s hard to believe now that any of them ever had the power to manipulate me. And the unknown? Well, I’ve always been more curious about that than afraid of it.

What is it, then, that people are afraid of when it comes to relationships? Seriously, what do we have to lose by being vulnerable with one another, or by being honest? What do we have to gain by keeping our demons securely locked in the deepest, darkest recesses in our minds? In a word, nothing. Yet, so many of the people we interact with on a daily basis would rather die a slow, painful death than reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to their friends, family, or coworkers. It’s no wonder, then, that my writing elicits such a fearful response from certain people. I am, after all, an open book.

I was born into a place of fear. I have certain memories from my childhood of being so afraid of being physically beaten that I peed my pants. It didn’t happen frequently, but it happened well into my teens. Until I was sixteen, as a matter of fact. And then someone else—my first love—wounded me emotionally so deeply and profoundly that my father’s rage and the threat of physical pain paled in comparison from that point forward.

There’s still some truth to that statement that you can’t pick your own relatives. My father and I are unlikely to ever be friends, but he’ll always be my father. The same can be said for most of my birth family. The majority of them are still as mysterious and puzzling to me as they ever were. It’s unlikely that I’ll commit the time and energy necessary to get to truly know or understand them at this point in my life, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we’re related. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find my people along the circuitous path my life has taken—the ones who really do know and understand me.

There’s the family you’re born into, and then there’s the family you choose. If they’re one and the same (as with my husband’s family), count your blessings; but even if they’re not you’re still blessed. My chosen “relatives” are scattered from Alaska to Germany, presently, so I don’t get to see or speak to them frequently. Just knowing that they’re there and that they’ll be happy to hear from me when I do get a chance to call or write is comforting, though. And then there’s the family I chose when I married my amazing husband. They’re a fearless bunch, and I adore them all the more for their willingness to tackle the hard topics head on and hash them out around the kitchen table.

Something I’ve learned firsthand over the past several years is that the human capacity for love is ultimately defined by our willingness to confront the things that scare us. Those who are afraid to explore the depths of their own souls will never know true love because it can’t be found on the surface, or even near the surface, for that matter. You can’t fully recognize or appreciate light until you’re comfortable in the dark. And because love comes from deep within, the only way to tap into it is to dive into the deepest, darkest recesses of your mind, heart, and soul. Trust me, the truth that you’ll find there isn’t nearly as scary as you think it will be. The lies you’ve been told and the lies you’ve told yourself are infinitely worse because they keep you stuck in superficial relationships where true love doesn’t exist.

Don’t let fear keep you from knowing yourself and the ones you love. And if the ones you love can’t let go of their fear, perhaps it’s time for you to make different choices.

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