Monday, June 21, 2010

Metabolizing Our Parents

Mountain pine beetles killed these Lodgepole P...

"Like the pine trees lining the winding road, I've got a name, I've got a name...and I carry it with me like my daddy did, but I'm living the dream that he kept hid..." ~ Jim Croce

I just realized, a few moments ago, that I've had these lyrics all wrong for years. I always thought, thanks to the sound quality of my car stereo, that Croce the Younger was living a dream that was impossible for Croce the Elder, because the latter had died ("that he can't live"). Change two words and an entire song takes on new meaning. The life chosen by the son was a dream shared by father and son, though only one of them pursued it.

There's always the temptation to idealize someone after they're gone, overlooking faults and character flaws to create in our minds the person we wished they were, rather than the all-too-human one we really knew. I try to be careful, when writing about my father, to avoid that -- on the one hand, it doesn't do me any good and on the other, it creates a false image of the person he truly was.

I'm bringing this up since, like most guys, I find myself resembling my father as time goes along. It could be argued that it's the act of contemplation that results in likeness, and if that's true, then contemplating his positive attributes is definitely better than the other way around. For the most part, though, I think it's unconscious and I'll express one of his mannerisms unexpectedly. Fortunately, he was a handsome man and became more so with age, so at least I don't have to worry about turning into an ogre when I'm 99. Thank God for small blessings.

When it comes to the hidden lives of fathers -- or mothers, for that matter -- children can be in an awkward position. One of the developmental tasks of adulthood that seems to come up consistently in therapy is the reconciliation of who we've become or wish to become with some critical aspect of the unlived lives of our parents. Even if mom or dad never said a word, children pick up on the ways their parents have been frustrated, unsatisfied, or felt life had passed them by.

I'm not entirely sure it's a bad thing to try to redeem one's parents in the sense that having internalized some aspect of their experience, we've taken it in our own direction. True, some things can be dysfunctional as well as functional, the former usually being to blame for getting people into therapy. But because parents are a part of us, we can't excise their influence as easily as a surgeon removing a blown and ruptured appendix. For good or ill, we have to deal with what we've taken in so that it is a more accurate representative of us as persons.

I have an idea most of us do this without thinking about it. We marry, have children, become proficient in a career, and come to grips with mom and dad along the way. But when circumstances intervene and one or both parents are taken from us, the natural course of events may be altered. In those situations, we don't have presence to guide us and we have to rely on instinct and self-awareness. It seems unfair, our children don't have one pair of grandparents to look up to, but if we've done the work of "metabolizing" and reintegrating mom and dad into our own identity, the kids will have them, because they'll have them through us. And so will we.

(Public Domain image via Wikipedia)
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