I used to believe that there were people in the world who “made it.” They got it together, healed old wounds, figured out life, learned not to stress, didn’t let the turkeys get them down, they had crossed the finish line into “maturity.” They always knew what to do and how to live life, no matter what life threw at them. My father, a pastor and student of psychology, tried to convince me as a child that he was one of those people. I believed him. I was his captive student. To a little girl, he seemed impressive. He seemed really smart. He often talked at length to me on various subjects– perhaps I should say he talked “at me.” He wasn’t engaging me in conversation, he simply wanted an audience. He didn’t ask me about my own life or thoughts. He didn’t teach me how to think for myself, he taught me WHAT to think.
I never saw my father cry. To him, tears were for women, but even when I did cry, I was made to feel as if I were just a “fragile female,” moody, or hysterical. He taught me that to truly be emotionally mature, one did not in fact feel anything at all. Feelings were a weakness. I am 55 years old, and it is still difficult for me to feel my feelings, to allow myself that freedom. I can watch a deeply sad movie and while I do feel the sadness, I cannot shed a tear. I wish I could! Tears finally come when anger or hurt or disappointment has built up in me and the tears have no other place to go but OUT. But it’s exhausting. I cry then, for so many hurts. So many losses, so much pain, all built up.
I’ve been to a lot of therapy over my life, and only some of it was helpful. I’ve grown a lot over the years, and now in my fifties I feel like I’ve finally been able to heal, to strengthen, feel my feelings, and communicate more openly with the people I love. I’ve only recently been able to stand up for myself. For decades before that, I have felt that the other person must always be right, because who am I? I worked hard to adjust myself to what might make the other person happy with me, or like me. Or I tried to figure out what to say that would make the other person respond positively to me. I tried to figure out what other people wanted me to be so that they’d like me.
That was a DEADLY way to be when you are a pastor– or any leader of a large group of people, for that matter. Because everyone wants something different from you and you can never make everybody happy. But I was raised to believe that it was my role to make other people happy. I thought that I had no right to be happy if other people around me weren’t happy. When I write that, I want to go back and hug the little girl, the teenager and young adult that was me, and assure them, “Oh Honey, no. You are not responsible for everybody else, and especially not the whole world.”
I feel tired as I write that. Because I was tired for most of my life, trying so hard to be and to say and to do what made everybody ELSE happy. Because I believed I was surely too stupid, too naive, too sheltered, too emotional, too sensitive, too….too…too… whatever to be worthy.
About a week ago, my serendipity, or chance, or the breath of God, if you will, I stumbled upon more information about my family of origin. I’ve done the ancestry.com bit, as has my brother. I know that my mother’s ancestors were slave traders and soldiers in the Confederacy– which didn’t surprise me since she’s from Mississippi, after all. We discovered that my father, who grew up in India and fancied himself a Brit with a “little bit of Indian” in him, was, in fact, more than half Indian. Having left India when the country gained independence from Britain, this heavily disturbed him in the last 10 years of his life.
I received some information that triggered another search for the one last cousin on my father’s side that no one could locate. Before six years ago, I didn’t know the names of all my cousins on Dad’s side, nor did I know how many there were or where they were. Dad never talked about his family of origin in detail. He never communicated with any of his six siblings, except for the one or two times two brothers showed up at our door in the middle of the night and stayed a few days. These uncles didn’t talk to me or relate to me directly on those visits. They were mysteries to me. Apart from me, as if they weren’t related to me and had nothing to do with who I am. Because that’s how my father treated them and/or spoke of them when they were gone.
I didn’t find the last cousin, in fact, the last anyone knew he’s in France somewhere. I was in touch with his ex-spouse, who informed me that my cousin was under the impression that his father–my uncle– was an only child. My uncle, too, whom I met only once, hadn’t spoken to his own son of his family of origin. That relationship, in fact, was estranged while my uncle was alive, they weren’t close. The more I have learned, and the more I have asked questions of the few people who know anything, the more I was informed that either my cousins didn’t want to talk about it or they simply didn’t know anything. The more I discovered, the more I learned that none of us were able to have a close relationship with our parents– the children of my grandparents in India. It would seem that for whatever reasons, the one thing that the siblings of my father all had in common, was the inability to be emotionally connected to another human being.
This was a major insight to discover. And devastating. Bittersweet. All my life, I tried so hard to get my father to love me for who I was, to be proud of me, to bestow worth on me somehow, but it never worked. He was highly critical of me all my life, as he was all of us four children. He was impossible to impress. I thought I had to impress him in order to be of any worth. As the only girl in the family, he singled me out as even “less.” I was not expected to achieve much, because women don’t. They are too weak and inferior and stupid. And so I believed that for a long time. I believed too, that if Dad wasn’t happy– and he wasn’t a happy person– I couldn’t be happy. It was up to me to make him happy.
It was a weak ago, that all this information landed on me. I’d known a lot through the years, bit by bit. I’d learned much more about the Michael family through a cousin I discovered–I believe serendipitously– through Facebook six years ago. But this week, upon discovering and learning the story of the Last Cousin, I felt the weight of it all like an anvil. It was as if something pushed me down to the floor and held me there. The sadness and brokenness of relationships that was so pervasive in my father’s family (and therefore my family)– suffocated me.
On Monday, I wrote in my journal, “the weight of my family’s story feels so heavy on my back.” Later that day, I bent to pick up a piece of ice off the floor, and felt a sharp pain in my back. I stumbled around, put some heat on it, walked like an old lady all day. That night, I tried to get out of bed to go to the bathroom… and the pain hit me so severely I ended up on my knees on the floor, drenched in a cold sweat, while the room spun around me. My husband put cold washcloths on the back of my neck and after a while was able to lift me up and help me to the recliner where I was able to sleep.
I truly believe that we feel trauma or emotional pain in our bodies. I’ve known many people who suffer chronic pain who experienced great trauma in their childhoods that was never healed or addressed. I am not– in any way– saying that all chronic pain is psychosomatic or necessarily psychological. I AM saying that it is often symptom of something deeper. Not always, but often.
I have no doubt that the pain I felt at unraveling yet another Michael story that had wide implications for the whole family– contributed to my back pain. Whether it was the stress that tightened my lower back as I felt emotion that I couldn’t express or what. The pain is still there. I have done yoga, stretching and careful walks. I’ve applied heat and ice and done some meditation, all of which has helped. I’m feeling better. I’ve journaled, talked with my husband, and prayed. It may take yet another few days, and perhaps massage, to rid myself of the pain. But I do believe our bodies respond to those emotions that get clogged in us and very much need to be expressed, lest they make us sick.
It was also the week of the Chauvin trial, and more mass shootings, more police shootings. As someone who was brainwashed into believing that I was responsible for the whole world!– this, too, was a heavy burden. Of course, I know better now, that I am in fact NOT responsible for the entire world, but I still respond as if I am. I feel like I need to say something to help everybody get along, or to see the other side, or to help someone hateful be more loving and kind. I feel the tension of conflict in my body and suffer anxiety for not being able to do much about it.
I do come back around and embrace the Serenity Prayer: “God, help me to accept the things I cannot change, give me courage to change the things I can, and give me wisdom to know the difference.” I pray that prayer not as an addict of alcohol, but an addict of Responsibility. But I often suffer before I get there.
I can only do what I can in this small corner of the world. I can do the next right thing, and then let go. I am allowed to be happy even if the world is a mess. Even if Donald Trump is still a threat or people I care about think he’s the Messiah. I am allowed to be at peace, even if the world isn’t– which is good, because when have we known the world to be at peace?
I can love. Myself– finally!–my family, my friends, the people who cross my path. I can be kind and do what good I am able to do. But that’s all I can do. I don’t actually have to save the world. And that’s a huge load off my back.
But I bet I’ll have to tell myself all this all over again tomorrow.