Sunday, June 7, 2015

Growing Up

In a recent conversation, a mid-30s woman posed the question: “When do parents stop thinking of their children as ‘children’?”  My reply was, “Never.  But the nature of the relationship continually changes.”  In retrospect, I am unclear as to whether her question was a generic philosophical one about all parents and their children, or a personal one underlying her particular relationship with her specific parents.  But in thinking about the conversation later, I realized tha appropriate follow-up question could have been: “When do children stop thinking about their parents as a ‘parent’?”   The answer, of course, is the same: “Never.  But the nature of the relationship continually changes.”  The parent loves the child; the child honors the parent.  But the tie that binds” is designed to unravel over time.

We have all seen examples of parent/child relationships that are virtually unchanged in spite of the ages and years of continuous relationship.  The pet names, the disparaging judgment, the unsolicited opinions, the critical judgment by a parent that ignores the age and maturity of his/her child, never stops.  Likewise, the quest for approval, the deference if not subjugation to the parent, the disappointed feelings of inadequacy, and the conflict over when/if to “rebel” lingers through the lifetime of the child.  Even the terminology – “parent” and “child” – remains unchanged for one’s lifetime, seemingly freezing each from moving into a new status with each other.  Ae there different terms that we could use instead?

The relationship between child and each parent is the strongest relationship we will have in the course of our lifetime.  Regardless of the nature and “quality” of that relationship.  Because it comes from such a basic premise – our birth and first years of life – and it is our first relationship with another human being.  For better or for worse, the parent defines for us what human being-ness is, what a human “relationship” is, and how interactions are conducted.  All subsequent relationships and interactions are molded and measured by these parental models.

The models can be “good” or “bad” ones, interpretations likely unique in the eyes of each parent and child, and not likely to be the same.   These interpretations stay with us, and guide or direct us the remainder of our life.  Yet though death may remove the physical stimulus of the continuing parent/child experience, the nature and effects of the relationship go on unabated long after the parent’s death.  The deceased parent and the stories live on fully in the child’s memory, even as they move from vivid consciousness to a vaguer subconsciousness.  And the interactions repeat as a result of the deep habits we formed (our “personality”); those interactions are now simply redirected to our contemporaries.  For ill or good, the parent/child relationship goes on intact, now cast on a wider scale.  The force of that relationship grows even stronger by its incessant replay in our mind, combined with our inability to confront and create a new relationship with the deceased parent to replace our past image – an image now frozen in time in our mind.

We experience a similar phenomenon with God.  We had some form of relationship with God before our birth; it was our first relationship, a spiritual one.  From some source – our parents, our community, our personal experience – we were guided into a form of ongoing relationship with God after our birth.  That form may have been based upon a perception of a judgmental, wrathful God with an ever-present rule book in hand.  It may have been a forgiving God, but forgiveness presumes that a judgment has first been made that requires forgiveness.  It may have been an always loving God, who recognizes our shortcomings but whose feelings and benevolence toward us are unaffected.

Whatever presumption we make about the essence of God, the same question still arises: does God, our spiritual parent, continue to treat us as a spiritual child, and we in turn choose to willingly remain as that child?   Or does God grow with us, stepping back a short distance as we both flounder and flower in pursuit of our own spiritual maturity?

Sometimes our parent holds us in childhood, both in their presence and in their absence.  Sometimes we choose to cling to our childhood.  Sometimes, with effort, we each find our path to growing up.

© 2015   Randy Bell