Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fitting in and Group Think: Family

The story of fitting in begins with family, and my family set me up for both belonging and not belonging in some very useful ways.

My mother’s family, though quirky and unique as all families are, always felt like home to me. My grandparents set the tone for the group as far as I was concerned, although I caught glimpses of the source of their attitude every time we gathered with extended family. Grandma and Papa loved being surrounded by their family, and the power of their love drew all of us together over food and games and celebration at every opportunity.

My life took me places that my grandparents never went. I remember Papa telling me that if public school was good enough for him, it should be good enough for me. But he never said another word about my private education again. He celebrated my graduation from Charlotte Latin School proudly and helped host a pound party for me when I moved into my first apartment at Duke. (For those who don’t know, at a pound party, people give the new house-keeper a pound of this and a pound of that to fill the pantry and cleaning closet with staples.)

After I earned my master’s degree, Grandma told me she couldn’t talk to me or write letters anymore because I knew too much. When I pointed out that I knew a whole lot about a very narrow subject 99.9 percent of the planet didn’t care a fig about and promised that I would never, ever take a red pen to any letter she sent me because I just loved seeing her handwriting so much, she said, “Well, in that case….” And she wrote.

Love and acceptance are powerful forces to unite a family, or, for that matter, any group of people. My mother’s family modeled love and acceptance for me in powerful ways, but my father’s family operated on quite a different dynamic, one that demonstrated the negative forces of judgment and amputation in a group, and took every bit of the fun out of dysfunctional.

Again, from my perspective, it was my grandparents who set the tone. Details are unnecessary, but the first time I remember meeting my grandmother (I was around ten or eleven), my first thought was, “Do not ever trust this woman. She will hurt you.” And she eventually did try. My grandfather was a benign, gentle man, a poet, and far too weak to stand up to my grandmother and rein in the worst of her meanness. He loved her, if his poems are any indication, but she came to him horrifyingly damaged by her father’s abuse and neglect.

This is what the Old Testament means by the sins of the parents being visited on succeeding generations. It takes generations to heal this level of damage, generations for enough love and acceptance to grow over bald patches of ground repeatedly scraped bare by hate and judgment.

Healing does happen, though.


Considering my bipolar family situation, it’s little wonder that I’ve dealt pretty well with belonging and not belonging as an adult. Sometimes, as with my membership in Alpha Phi Omega, belonging felt wonderful and easy. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, belonging never happened. I can’t say that not belonging is pleasant, but at least I never took it personally. And that’s the subject for next week’s essay.

Please share an example of belonging from your own childhood, a time when you felt safe and secure and loved and a part of something bigger than yourself. How has that positive sense of belonging carried into your adult life?

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