After watching this TEDxTelAviv video, called The Power of Connection, I found myself in conversation with a friend about parental relationships. I’ve been struggling with getting the words right to say what it is I mean, so this may end up as a somewhat incoherent ramble made up of disparate ideas. I hope I will be excused!
Many relationships are poisoned by disappointed expectations and parent/child relationships seem to be the most intensely experienced examples. Living in this world fills our minds with ideas that make it almost impossible not to be disappointed in ourselves and others. We’re not taught how to love, but to judge our own and others’ worthiness of love as a prelude to love, and we almost always find ourselves and others wanting, and love is thwarted. In other words, love is considered by our culture as something that must be earned, sort of like a payment for services rendered, when it could be considered as a gift given for the pleasure of the giving rather than a reward owed for ‘good’ behaviour or withheld for ‘bad’ behaviour.
I think that if a parent, or a child, or anyone else we encounter, is unable or unwilling to engage in loving interaction with us the best thing we can do for ourselves is to give up on the dream of being loved by them. We would also do well by ourselves if we gave up feeling responsible for not being loved, ie not feel guilty for being inadequate in their eyes – that means giving up on ‘improving’ ourselves in order to be worthy of love. If our parents, or anyone at all, do not appreciate us just as we are, but ‘encourage’ or nag us to do things differently, can we be okay with accepting that they find us unacceptable? It would be nice to think we could, instead of feeling aggrieved or – worse – complying with their wishes and thereby not being ‘true’ to ourselves (whatever that means) in order to ‘earn’ love.
Obviously the same applies the other way round – we need to give up on expecting others to give us what we want them to give us or behave how we want them to behave. This can be very hard when what we want is loving interaction and we can’t understand why others choose not to participate in sharing love with us, and while I do think it’s reasonable to expect that from parents, I also think, for our peace of mind, that we need to accept that for mysterious reasons sometimes people just don’t love us, and don’t want to love us, and sometimes these people are our parents. Is that our fault? No. Is it their fault? I don’t think so.
If we could get to a point where we don’t blame other people for not loving us and we don’t blame ourselves because they don’t love us and we don’t feel guilty because we don’t love someone we’re ‘supposed’ to love (like family members), we might find peace of mind, and we might be able to take this acceptance of non-love into all our relationships so that love (whatever that is) ceases to be a requirement of relationships. Then people could be as disagreeable as they like and it wouldn’t affect us and we could be as disagreeable as we like without worrying about what other people think (theoretically!). Then maybe we could stop worrying about the whole love thing.
Perhaps it sounds odd that I say love need not be a requirement of a relationship, but actually, I can see that it makes sense for that pressure to be removed. People are likely to be less self-conscious if they are less fearful about how their behaviour or appearance may be sabotaging their chances of admiration and love, and might therefore act more freely, so that even if they are not loved by others they would probably find relationships more enjoyable because they are free from anxiety, self-pity, defensiveness and anger. And if they are being less self-conscious, they are more likely to pay attention to others and see more than they saw before. And the other person is more likely to feel able to act more freely if they’re not worried about fulfilling what you might be expecting from them.
My only criticism of this video is that Hedy doesn’t explain HOW to bridge the gap she is referring to. She talks about meeting people from their perspective (or words to this effect), but I don’t think we can understand another’s perspective and it’s quite plain from the way people behave towards us that they rarely understand ours! I think there’s a danger in claiming to understand others’ perspectives – if you do, you may get it more wrong than you did before and create the opposite effect of what Hedy is referring to.
Also, she talks about bridging gaps between people, but I’m thinking it’s more about bridging gaps in our own minds – the gaps between what we want to share with someone, what we believe they want to share with us (based on what we perceive from their behaviour), what we actually experience, what we believe we ought to want or experience… I could go on… there are lots of gaps in understanding within our own minds, let alone understanding what might be in someone else’s mind. So, although I love this talk and find it inspirational, I don’t feel it’s very helpful with practical advice about how to put it into action.
Perhaps what she’s saying is that sometimes you just have to let the other person have things their way in order for them be happy and therefore to treat you kindly, which is what we want in these sorts of situations. The thing is that none of us ever thinks it’s us who is creating the difficulty, but if we take the stance that it is, and give in to how the other person wants things to be, we may feel like we’ve let them have a victory, but there might be more peace than there was before, which would be the compensation for ‘giving in’. On the other hand, with some people you can never win: if you’re not being disagreeable you’re being a martyr!
I think an unsolvable problem is that parents, unlike their ‘mindless’ infants, enter the parent/child relationship with dreams and expectations of parenthood and that places an unconscious expectation on the child to realise their parents’ dreams. I think there is an element of mutual hero worship at the beginning (a dreamlike drama we repeat, of course, in all our emotionally-charged relationships for the rest of our lives) that is dashed by the harsh realities of living in this world where behavioural conformity is more-or-less non-negotiable. That places conditions on the relationship and sets up a scenario where it’s almost impossible for children not to be heartbroken by their parents, and thereby justifiably aggrieved; and for parents not to feel disappointed by the experience of parenthood and by their children who turn out to have their own minds and wishes and have to be coerced into compliance, as well as feeling inadequate for failing to live up to their own unrealistic standards, and feeling harshly judged by their peers.
I think the drama of mutual disappointment, and mutual beliefs about culpability (ie, each feels responsible for being a disappointment to the other, while simultaneously blaming the other for their misery), is played out for the rest of the life of that relationship and is carried into all our other relationships, if we do not realise it (ie, bring it into our consciousness) and do something about it.
I think there’s a peace of mind that comes with accepting your parents’ shortcomings and giving up fighting the disappointment. Just accept the disappointment. Just accept that you’ve lucked out. If it helps, you could think about what the fools are missing out on (that requires a sense of self-worth, though, which you would probably have if your parents had been loving towards you!), what they are failing to see because they are failing to look, and how they are spoiling their own experience of parenthood. Of course this applies to every relationship you find yourself in.
On the other hand, there is another option: you are not obligated to put up with shit from other people. The world wants you to believe that you have a duty to your parents in return for the care you received from them as a child, and to feel ashamed if you don’t fulfill that duty (you ingrate, you!). I don’t agree with that. If parents aren’t caring towards their children, why should their children feel obligated, le alone grateful? Why should children put effort into making a toxic relationship peaceful? Parents are mere mortals and many mortals are obnoxious to others, including their own children. Accepting them, warts and all, doesn’t necessarily mean feeling obliged to have a relationship with them. I suppose, in such a scenario, you’d have to make a judgement call about whether you believe the other person wants o engage in loving interaction with you (and not all parents do), in which case you might feel it’s worth making the effort Hedy is talking about. But if you believe the situation to be hopeless, why bother?
On the whole, I think never a truism was more accurate than the ‘you reap what you sow’ adage. If children abandon their parents, and parents want someone to blame, all they need to do is look in a mirror. But it’s easier for them to say their child is difficult to love (ie, not only is it the child’s fault, but the child’s defect is used as justification for the parent’s lovelessness). I don’t know who reads these posts, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one who has been told this by a parent.
Mind you, I think many parents are scared of their children. I also think many people believe that parenthood will transform them into paragons of virtue and are shocked at the uncilivized behaviour that occasionally issues from them.
Can we give up believing that we deserve love from our parents simply because we exist and it was they who created our existence? Likewise, can parents give up believing they deserve their children’s love simply because they gave them life?
I suppose I’m saying something along the lines of not reacting defensively when you encounter lovelessness, regardless who it’s from, and I think Hedy’s saying something about being less self-centred in relationships. I reckon that would open up a lot of possibilities for enjoying yourself. I reckon it means your ego, with its voracious appetite for approval, would be less likely to spoil your experience of living in this world. Wart-riddled though this world may be, I’m convinced it’s possible to be happy in it and our dependence on the approval of others is a hindrance and a cause of much misunderstanding.
There’s a great quote from Rumi (13th-century Persian philosopher-poet) in Hedy’s video: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”