“No one gets a crystal ball, and you can’t drive across the country looking in your rear view mirror.”
― Richard P. Alvarez
One of my lovely readers recently left a comment wherein she noted, “The silent rejection is one of the most damaging aspects of estrangement, I believe. Not understanding the reasons for the estrangement is the other. A question always lingers – “why?”” Her comment tied neatly with my own train of thought, since I too had been thinking about how often we get tangled up in why questions, especially wanting to know why things happen to us. I certainly don’t have a crystal ball to answer this question, but I’d like to talk about that a bit.
Everybody has a family
Sometimes we ask ourselves why estrangement happened to us, to our family. We don’t think we should be estranged. We live in a culture that repeatedly tells us that families “stick together” and nothing is more important than “the love of our family”. We’ve just come through another holiday season, where this cultural fallacy is made glaringly apparent. The media (movies, music, advertisements etc) seem to all feature these happy, connected families spending time together, as if it was not only normal but entirely expected that this is the way the world works. The media rarely features a person celebrating the holiday alone, and if they do, most often the individual is presented as an object of pity.
It’s pretty easy to measure ourselves against these stereotypical families and start questioning what is wrong with us, with our family, that we are estranged? Estrangement seems like an aberration, a fact that goes against the very fabric of “normal”.
Why me? Why my family? misses some really important context. It’s not just you (or me or any of us) and its most assuredly not just our family. We’re not the only people to have relationship problems with our family members and more broadly. Relationships shift, they change, they alter and sometimes they break. People get old, or sick and they die, leaving other people behind. People fall out of love or like. They get divorces. Friendships end. People move, sometimes because they want to, sometimes because they have to. Jobs change or are lost and colleagues are left behind.
The Buddhist notion of impermanence is tremendously affirmative when we must face and deal with loss of any sort. When we stop assuming that only messed up, dysfunctional families don’t keep it together, and only messed up, deficient people are estranged. We’ll also fare better when we are able to trust that family estrangement is not the end of the world, not by a long shot. People have healed, we can too.
Cause, Effect and Attribution
The thing is when something seems so off normal, we want to make sense of it, we want to know why. We also have a whole set of other social imperatives about the way life happens – for instance, we believe good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. So we can internalize a lot of guilt or shame when something “bad” happens to us, or our family. What did we do wrong? What’s wrong with us? Are we bad people? And if we come clear with a clean conscience, well, our heads skip straight to the next question, if it’s not our fault, whose fault is it? Someone has to be the bad person – because bad things can’t happen without bad people. Right?
Things get easier when we stop needing to figure out who is gonna take the blame. It’s not our fault that relationships end and estrangements happen. We’re in relationships and relationships sometimes change, or end. Sometimes we initiate it, sometimes others do. Relationship disruptions and endings will happen to everyone. Sometimes those relationships are family ones.
We come into this world into a family (or families). We’re taught to believe that family is forever and nothing will change it – but that’s just not true. Many people are estranged. Relationships mess up and end for all sorts of reasons. Why does it happen? Well, it’s simple, relationships changing and ending is part of being human. We often try to resist this truth. We want surety, continuity and always and forevers. We also want to think we have more control than we do. Estrangement is a reminder that we cannot escape the human experience – and the human experience is one of impermanence, movement, fluctuation, changes, endings and beginnings. This includes, especially includes, relationships.
Why not me?
Sometimes when I find myself asking “why me” and setting the table for a good ol’ pity party, I stop to think “why not me?” Life is happening all around me, to people all around me – why should I be spared? Do I think someone else deserves more to have estrangement in their family than I do? Why is that? What makes me so special that I should be set apart from the experience of estrangement? If not me, then who?
I’m human having a human experience. Why not me?