I began writing this post when a friend talked to me about some issues with his family. They'd recently had somewhat of a crisis happen, and in response, a parent responded with the wise, but unhelpful words, "Well, all things work together for good, son!"
In fact, their response couldn't have been less helpful to him in that moment! It got me thinking about the growth we experience as we begin to grow apart from our family of origin. Our faith, whether active or not, undergoes drastic growth, change, and experiences that shape us into the unique beings we are. Sometimes, our growth comes at the expense of our faith traditions.
Here are just a few thoughts on how parents affect our spirituality.
Parents Are Who You’ll Eventually Become Or Who You’ll Be Running From
Every single day I wake up and face my receding reality in the mirror; I look more and more like my father every day. Deeper than looks, parents serve as a sort of image of who we will become—in its entirety.
I suppose this is easy to discuss in an academic sense, but this one hits close to home. A few weeks ago, I shared a sermon of my dad’s where he divulged some of the deepest parts of his young adulthood. Listening to his talk, I couldn’t help but see so many of my life rhythms in his story. It was an awful feeling. It scared me for my marriage and it scared me for my personal health. It scared me to think that I was, at my young age, falling into the exact same chasms that my father did. Yet, I have one thing that he didn't: hindsight.
I can’t help but be grateful that I got to hear about his challenges. Instead of repeat my parent's mistakes and struggles, I can (hopefully) learn from their mistakes and pursue a more healthy narrative for my life.
It's a very simple realization, but a powerful one at that.
They Hold You To A Version Of Yourself That You Might Not Like
This past Christmas, my husband and I visited my parent’s house for two weeks. Every person I explained this to looks back at me with shock and says, “You just shouldn’t do that, Austin.” After our fourth day home, my husband told me that I seemed to revert to being a teenager when I'm home. I stop keeping my room clean, I get in arguments with my parents, etc. I was offended by his observation, to say the least! I mean, how could he not see that I also felt exactly like a teenager again! All my insecurity, all my annoyance, and angst came back to consciousness.
Years ago, I heard a talk by a social psychologist named Ellen Langer. She ran a series of studies on the power of the mind to heal the body and change based on perceptions. She designed a study that focused on senior-aged dementia and Alzheimer's patients. She rented out a campground and her team of researchers retrofitted the campground to look as if it was set in a time 30-40 years prior. The patients would spend a week or two at the campground and the researchers would observe how their brains reacted to the ancient environment. The results were astounding. Within days of arriving at the camp, many of the ailments that the seniors had begun to weaken. Memory was improving, hearing issues were getting better. While the calendar never actually changed, these peoples' brains were living as if they were in a healthier, younger phase of life.
This is exactly what happened to me; except, it looks much more embarrassing to relapse 12 years when you're only 28-years-old. For those two weeks, I was at "home" again in the proverbial sense. A sort of regression took place where both I and my parents fell back into our old habits, patterns and way of treating each other.
It was dumbfounding. It wasn't even the same house that I grew up in! Yet, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I realized that my parents might also have a bit of a stationary view of who I am. As such, I think it's safe to say that we will always be children in our parents’ eyes. They’ll expect us to react the way we “always have.” At some point, they might even look at us and wonder where their kid has gone.
In some ways, I'm still the angsty 16-year-old kid of theirs, and I'm not sure I can every completely change that.
However, it may not be the worst thing.
They Are A Resource For The Inevitable Cleanup And Recalibration Of Life
In life, we all enter some sort of an inevitable identity crisis. While it looks different for each of us, life presses in and we find that we’ve lost track of who we once were.
We get married, we come out, we have children, we change careers, or we even lose our careers. We get angry with God, we go through a crisis that we're sure proves that God isn't real. We stop sensing Jesus and we drift from the tenets of faith we once had. We grow tired, we give up, or we just lose track of ourselves amidst life. We can almost count on losing ourselves at some point in this chaotic life we live.
Not all of us were raised in a picture-perfect faith through our parents. Some of us found God later, some of us left and came back to God. No matter the context, we’re given a sort of screenshot of ourselves through our parents. In the times where I’ve completely lost myself, I can reach out to these people who remember exactly who I was at a specific moment in life. They may miss that person or they may have condemned that phase. Maybe they aren't remembering the person that I would have hoped they remember, but their perspective can at least give me somewhere to begin again.
They Can't Always See Their Parenting As A Springboard Into Your Iterative Pursuit Of Faith
This is the most interesting insight I've had in both my own life and the lives of those around me. Our parents have raised us under a certain belief system. They've taught us how to see the world and, in a Christian sense, we begin to shape our faith (or lack of faith) accordingly. That is until we grow in a different direction.
Maybe our faith completely changes. Maybe some subtleties of our doctrine are less important to us than they were in adolescence. Parents can struggle to see their teaching and guidance as a springboard for their child. As they grow older, ideological changes can create major tensions in family relationships.
My faith is not going to look identical to my parents’ faith. This was no more obvious by the fact of my theological realizations surrounding my sexuality. My perspective on sexuality looks different than my parents. In fact, for a time, the acceptance of my sexuality was in direct conflict with their viewpoints. I moved to Arizona and had experiences of my own that helped formulate my faith into something that looks different than theirs.
Fortunately, this diversity is something that we can revel in if we choose.
Your Actions Affect Your Parents' Honor
Perhaps the most challenging idea is the notion that, for the rest of our lives, our actions will directly affect our parents’ honor. My mother illustrated this struggle quite well. Parents raise their kids and they desperately hope that their child does their absolute best. Parents want to be proud of their kids. So, each and every action that their kid makes in life has a direct impact on the honor a parent experiences.
The acceptance of my sexuality was so hard for my parents. For years, they felt that they couldn't process the matter with those around them out of fear that it would reflect poorly on their parenting. I'm not sure I blame them, but this pains me to relive.
I've seen parents find their own identity in the accomplishments of their children's. I've even seen it so bad that parents lose their own identity as a result. To a parent, nearly everything a child does is a reflection of the honor a parent feels. Thinking about it, I'm not sure people would have children if this wasn't the case! Yet, this is also a tough fact, and I’ve seen many parents crumble as their children make decisions that reflect poorly on parents.