I ran across a fascinating question lately regarding how I view my life, and perhaps how you view yours.
How has disruption shaped us, you and me, during the various stages of our lives?
When I was in my very formative years, my family experienced significant disruption.
We were in fact, living during this time as a dislocated family, transplanted from Los Angles, California in 1957, to rural Missouri for my dad’s work. He took a job overseeing a Christian campground in the Lake of the Ozarks. We moved when I was five.
From the start, and always, we were outsiders in the Midwest. We were Californians, people from somewhere else, and there was always a sense of not belonging. My parents tried to join a local church. They were denied membership because they had been baptized in another denomination. They refused to be re-baptized. We attended. We were not in the circle.
I lived in Missouri from first grade through high-school, and I adapted, I fit in, but early on, my mom hated the experience. She was removed from her new house in Torrance, California and plopped down in a series of cold, small camp cabins, raising three boys in a foreign culture on little money while my dad immersed himself in his work. In the first few cabins we lived in, we didn’t even have indoor bathrooms. We went outside, we tramped through the snow, to outhouses. It was grim.
My mom made it work. She was tough. She was a very attentive and affectionate mother to us three boys, but the dislocation from her California city life to a rural campground was a bitter pill for her to swallow. In some ways she never recovered, and the painful legacy of those years, the forced march in foreign territory, influenced her perspective for years afterwards.
Our early years in Missouri were quite stable, my parents eventually built a home there, but in 1962 my older brother was sent away by my parents to attend better schools in other parts of the country, and he was gone from our family for two and one-half years. My dad and mom thought the small, rural schools in our community wouldn’t provide a good enough education. Again, as with church, so with education — it wasn’t our community.
Then in the mid-to-late sixties things began to unravel. My dad developed a serious back issue. He was in significant pain. I remember him sleeping in a chair at night with a board across the arms to rest his head on. Finally, he could take it no more and he underwent surgery. As a result of this, he simply couldn’t do the physical work that was a part of his job, repairing and building up the campground. Through the late sixties, struggling with his changing physical ability, he went through — in his own words — a “mid-life crisis.” He would have to change jobs. During this time I can remember him working hard during the week and sleeping through the weekends. I know now that he had anxiety and depression, about money, and he suffered significant uncertainty about his future identity.
In 1965, my older brother came home, and he finished school in our community. He had become unbearably homesick. The education he had received at California and New York schools had been great, but homesickness did him in. He finished his junior and senior years in our local community schools. In 1968 he got married to an amazingly fun, intelligent and cool local girl and they had a baby. Getting out —it hadn’t worked for him.
Who were we? Where did we fit?
For years after this, I wondered why my parent didn’t send me away to school. School was my thing. It was where I thrived. For years, I thought that they preferred my older brother in this choice. Now I know they simply gave up, on getting us out. My plight would have been the same as my brother’s. I needed home too, I need a safe place, I needed my family.
Shortly after my brother married, we found out that my mom had cancer. This was an unsettling shock to us all. Would we lose her? What would happen if we did? She went through a psychologically and physically painful treatment process. She had a very painful surgery. I remember sitting by her bed in her dark bedroom, wondering if she would die. She didn’t, but it was only later in life that I learned from her how much mental pain she suffered over this in the many years that followed.
In the summer of 1969, I moved away from home to work, to earn money for college, and then in the fall I moved into a dorm in Springfield, Missouri and begin studying at the University there.
Finally, in 1970, my father could take it no more, and offered a job at a church in San Diego, he finally left his job at the campground and my dad, mom, and younger brother moved from the midwestern United States back to California, our home state. We went home. It was heartbreaking for my dad. He lost the job he loved the most. It was relief, a homecoming, a restoration, for my mom.
In early 1971, I followed them. They had gone home. I wanted to go too. Even though California was a foreign place to me, I too wanted out of the Midwest. I wanted more. I inherited that from my mom, and from my first year at college. I wanted a bigger world. And I wanted my family. I think most of all, I wanted my family. I got it, somewhat, in California, because eventually both my brothers and their families relocated to there.
What had happened to us? In relatively short time frame, from 1962 to 1971, we experienced major disruption — illness, stress, anxiety, failure, relocation. We experienced the unknown; we experienced life in extremis.
The social backdrop for all this played an important role too. In the United States, during these years, a counter-culture revolution took place. I lived through this and became a part of this, this time when long‐held values and norms of behavior broke down, particularly among my generation. We — the youth of the 1960’s and the 1970’s — became experimental with music, politics, philosophy, drugs, religion, politics and lifestyle. We became political activists. We took on the establishment. We became a driving force behind both civil rights and antiwar movements. We increased the power and expanded the voice of the young.
I was a part of this. In my first year in college, 1969-70, I wore a torn white protest arm band — with a blue dove on it. It was an antiwar statement. I wrote a freshman paper on the war-ravaged children of Vietnam. I immersed myself in the new radical protest music. I eventually, from 1975 to 1978, lived in a church commune, I almost completely abandoned a materialistic lifestyle, I pursued as much education as I could get and opened my mind to new ideas and beliefs. I became a teacher — of literature and history — at the high school and college levels.
Looking back now, I can see from the advantage of time, that in my family, and in my world, there was a huge amount of change and disruption, during some very crucial years of my life.
How did this affect me?
For years I have never processed this adequately, I haven’t looked closely at the disruption — the events, the chronology of these events, the spacing of these events — the elongation and compaction of my experience — the experiences of my other family members, the social movements of my time. These, collectively, affected me during my adolescence and early adult years. Until recently, I hadn’t taken into account, just how much disruption took place in our lives during those years. But lately, through some questions my wife and my brother have asked me, I have begun to put it together
So much change — during the formative years when I was developing my early sense of self — left me a bit on my own to try to figure out my life, my identity, my relationships and my core beliefs. There was a high dosage of instability. My parent’s stay in the San Diego area was short. Only two year after moving there, they moved on to the Los Angles area, leaving me alone again — in San Diego. I suffered. I was a dislocated person.
As a result of all this transition, I had several years of insecurity, of uncertainty, of lostness, of alienation and of loneliness. I lost social and relational confidence. One thing was missing, someone to talk to, to completely and honestly open up to, about my emotions, about our family losses, about my philosophical questions, about how to handle pain, about how to process life, about what to believe. I simply didn’t know — on my own— what to do with the changes in myself, in my family and in my world.
Certainly I got some help at the universities I attended. There I developed a better understanding of history, literature, psychology, sociology, science, philosophy and politics, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In these places of learning, I greatly expanded my knowledge and experience of a bigger world, and I explored new and exciting concepts with my teachers. I came to understand social change, how it is initiated and how it morphs into mainstream culture over time, and I morphed with it.
Certainly, I also processed life during this time with my family, with my father in particular, as I questioned Christianity — the narrow, legalistic Christianity I was brought up with in the midwest. My dad defended his faith with a relational, authentic and personal experience. This helped me. And I processed my faith more when I returned to church in the mid-seventies, to a different, more radical, open, emotional, inclusive church — one I discovered with the help of my father.
But what I didn’t get, and needed, during some of my most formative years, was someone who was able to draw out my feelings, to process my pain, to help me develop my emotional and relational IQ, to understand how the events in our family were effecting me and us, our family identity, our shared history.
It would have been helpful back then to have had someone — a therapist, a parent, a sibling, a friend, anyone — ask me, “How is your family processing the pain they are experiencing? How are you processing this pain? Is what you are doing, to cope, working for you? Is it healthy? What are you feeling about your mom’s cancer? What do you think your dad is going through right now in his career? What do you think your brothers are feeling? What losses are all of you experiencing?”
It would have been helpful to have someone say, about my loneliness, my feelings of uncertainty, “The feelings you are having are normal. You are feeling alone because you are more alone than when you were younger. You are uncertain because you are questioning the beliefs you were raised with. Your whole generation is questioning these beliefs. This is okay, this is normal. You will work it through. You are afraid because you fear you may lose your mom. You are more alone now because your father is in crisis. He is anxious and afraid he won’t find a new job. Your dad is hurting. Your mom is hurting. They are experiencing loss and dislocation. This is not your fault, but it is hard for them to be there for you right now.”
In transition, during seasons of disruption, we are often deprived of needed emotional resources. In times of trouble, emotive issues are often not the focus of the family. Experiencing disruption, most families do not have the awareness, the knowledge, the time or even the money to get the emotional and relational support they need, particularly in the past. During the late sixties and early seventies, my parents were barely able to manage their own emotions; they certainly didn’t know how to talk about these; they didn’t even have the language to do this, and understandably they weren’t equipped to help me process mine. They were experiencing depression, anxiety, fear and uncertainty. They didn’t know what to do.
But what could they do? How could they know what to do? They were caught in health issues beyond their control. They were swept along by life. They too were caught in a changing
American culture. They were not equipped to process all they were experiencing. They came from parents who pretty much shut up and put up. From what I can tell from stories my parents have told me, my grand parents handled psychological pain by working more, and by talking less, by being stoic, and by being strong. This a good model for survival, its a good modeling of toughness in a tough world. It does not, however, lead to the self-understanding necessary for good emotional and relational health.
So what happened, how did my family come through this?
It’s fascinating how things turned out. We came through it pretty well. My parents stayed married — no easy feat, and retired well. My brothers and I all graduated from college. We found good spouses, had children, accumulated wealth, developed good friends, developed careers. And yet these events too were disruptions, these success, and with each one, we were again faced with change, transition, pain, process and recovery.
What to do?
What got me through it all — particularly on an emotional and personal level — was that eventually, I found places to talk, to process, to understand, to recover, to develop emotional understanding, authenticity and psychological congruency.
I found this at church, where my Christian community accepted me, valued me, and gave me places too develop and define.
And I found this in my wife — my very intelligent and very emotionally rich wife — and to her I give most of the credit for my recovery. She literally — over time — erased my loneliness and my relational awkwardness through her deep connection with me. Through her candor, her authenticity, her own emotional freedom, her willingness to be who she was and feel what she felt — I healed. She was much more open than anyone I grew up with. With her, no emotion was or is alien, taboo, hidden, unacceptable, inexpressible. She opened me back up, to process pain, to talk about emotions and thus to understand disruption and what it does to us.
And I also found great help in my therapists, the many counselors and doctors I have gone to through the years who have taught me how to take off the masks, how to process pain, how to identify my emotions, how to be congruent, how to reveal to people on the outside what is going on with me on the inside, how to talk about feelings, how to grieve and how to celebrate too.
Through talk therapy, through education — and through more disruption, for example, the learning and developmental disabilities of my oldest daughter, my own medical issues, my significant career change from teacher to pastor, my painful transition from pastor of one church to pastor of another — I have over a long period of time become more human, more accepting of differences, more understanding of emotions, less likely to be critical, more likely to ask questions, more able to accept differences, more able to understand the pain of others and my own too.
Disruption, pain, dislocation, transition — it’s normal, and we can learn from it, and we can get through it — and grow and mature in it — if we can understand it, and understand what it does to us and to the loved ones we carry along with us, and particularly if we can talk about it.
Increasingly I am making friends with reality, with disruption — with failure and success.
I am becoming more than ever, an advocate for emotional honesty, for personal openness, for relational authenticity, for psychological congruency, for the talking cure.
Is life hard?
Have we succeeded?
Have we been knocked for a loop?
Are we making a come back?