I am slowly coming to grips with the realization that I have been ostracized by my family. And when I say “family”, I am meaning family-by-blood. As I reflect on the years leading up to the present, I can’t help but recognize that my family situation is simply a microcosm of our western culture.
Looking around at how we live our lives, at times I can’t help but feel a mixture of sadness and incredulous disbelief. How do I create a truly meaningful life amidst the insanity of our Western world? Our relationships lack honesty. Our conversations lack authenticity. Over 7 million Canadians are on anti-depressant and other psychotropic medication as a means to cope and now we even drug our children because we are unable to “deal with them”.
The underlying, “unspoken” agreements that I grew up with (and I continue to come up against today) are eerily reflected in our society as a whole, ensuring that the status quo is maintained at all costs.
These agreements include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Keep the peace at all costs
- Deny anything is wrong
- Punish those who tell the truth
- Reward bad behaviour
- Keep your true feelings to yourself
- Say the opposite of what you mean
- Do not think for yourself
- Do not ask questions
- Keep conversations as shallow as possible
- When in doubt, get angry, do nothing or gossip
We individually and collectively perpetuate these agreements by how we treat people when they do not keep them. This is evident in “whistle blower” situations where an employee exposes company corruption or mistreatment of staff. In many cases, the person faces punishment not only from their superiors (being threatened or fired) but almost more importantly – and less overtly – they risk punishment from their peers. In such cases, even when fellow co-workers are also angry about the injustice, they may avoid the “whistle blower” in the lunch room, voice their displeasure, “Why did you rock the boat? Now we’re all in trouble”, and even resort to bullying.
Social pressure, whether it be societal or within smaller groups, is enough for most people to “keep the peace”, to be dishonest and not engage in real conversations, maintaining secrets and ensuring the dysfunction remains intact. Throughout my life, this social pressure has been a struggle and I recognize my innate need to BELONG, to be a part of the tribe, to be loved and accepted. This need has influenced how I behave and what subjects I talk about when at family functions. Although I have often suppressed my innate, human need in order to address issues, it certainly hasn’t seemed to work in my favour. Hmm… or has it?
Am I the one that’s crazy?
Dysfunction may seem obvious to those who are willing to ask questions and be honest; but, to those who are expending huge amounts of energy in denial and “trying to keep it together”, an honest look at themselves or the situation threatens their very identity. So then, their perception of reality is skewed: making racist comments is acceptable, bringing a beer keg to Christmas dinner is acceptable, being passive aggressive is acceptable. The conversation then falls to the lowest common denominator, avoiding any real connection. Let’s talk…. but not about anything meaningful (how about Guitar Hero virtual video game or the latest Walmart purchase?). Other conversation pieces may include recent news stories of animal or child abuse, but obviously making no connection between the stories and their own lives. How are these issues separate? Where is the line? How is it okay to voice racism against visible minorities… as long as everyone in the room finds it funny? At what point do we say, “Enough!” – that we demand that people stop?
When it comes to dysfunction, rather than addressing the issue openly and honestly, it is much easier to blame and punish the one who is pointing out the truth, thereby enabling, supporting and rewarding the bad behaviour. This insidious pattern can also be observed, playing out on a societal level. Without honest consideration and reflection, any individual or group – family, co-workers, fellow board members – is in danger of becoming insular; furthermore, this narrow viewpoint does not allow for objective observation, understanding or clarity, let alone bring about change.
Due to what I had modeled for me in my formative years, to this day I struggle with overcoming my own dysfunction which I experience in the form of defensiveness, fight or flight responses, reactivity to misrepresentation and injustice. This has wreaked havoc in my personal relationships. Having learned to be passive aggressive (by not sharing what I honestly think and feel), I go out into the world wondering if others are saying what they really mean or if they are being passive aggressive.
Passive aggressive disorder, as described in Wikipedia, “may stem from a specific childhood stimulus… in an environment where it was not safe to express frustration or anger. Families in which honest expression of feelings was forbidden tend to teach children to repress and deny their feelings and to use other channels to express their frustration. Children who sugarcoat their hostility do not grow beyond it. Never developing better coping strategies or skill sets for self-expression, they can become adults who harbor vindictive intent.”
Is this the world we want?
In the greater context of society and our culture, I see dysfunctional social agreements being maintained regularly. Some of the many examples one might consider include high level executives (as demonstrated in recent financial bailouts) after receiving billions from our government going to a resort spa and playing golf; oil companies devastating people’s culture and their surrounding environment while making obscene profits; hockey fans cheering on the players when they beat each other up (like the gladiators in Roman times) giving them the status of rock stars; or, Survivor, a “so-called” reality television show, where the most manipulative and diabolical contestant is referred to by viewers as the most “skillful” player.
To create harmonious relationships that are based on mutual respect and appreciation, I have learned that risk taking is essential through being honest and vulnerable. Although I am not always successful, I do my best to at least begin the conversation.
This inner pull to maintain relationships with family members is surprisingly strong. So what do I do when family members are not interested in creating meaningful connection? The logical, reasonable answer is: direct my time and energy toward people who DO want meaningful relationships! I have been redefining “family” to include family-by-choice rather than simply family-by-blood which creates new opportunities for nourishing, engaging relationships.
Whether or not one subscribes to the notion that we chose our family before we were born in order to learn what we need to, my childhood experiences compelled me to seek honesty and fairness, to fight social inequities and injustice. This has directed my life path greatly, bringing me to where I am at this point in my life.
Creating New Agreements
Creating positive change within the “collective will” begins with individuals willing to create new agreements to interact differently, such as:
- Be clear in your intention
- Say what you mean – be authentic and truthful
- Be responsible for your own thoughts, feelings and needs
- Encourage honest feedback
- When in doubt, ask!
- If something is incongruent, speak up
- Address bad behaviour as unacceptable
- Ask more questions to explore on a deeper level
- Think and learn, and learn to think
- Hold in view the goal of creating a more meaningful relationship
As I continue on in my life, my desire to make a positive difference in the world increases and deepens. This process has lead me to continually ask how I can be more effective at accomplishing that. What I have come to at this point in my life is understanding that it begins with me – changing my way of being and encouraging those in my circle of influence to do the same. This means that I am responsible for consciously and consistently living in alignment with my beliefs and values. Daily, I can implement this way of being by how I am with others; communicating openly, honestly and authentically with passion. Doing this while holding a view of what I imagine as a better world engages me and those around me in a journey of more loving, compassionate, peaceful and harmonious relationships.
Nicole publishes this magazine, is co-owner of Compassion Farm and a board member of the Bowen Road Farmers’ Market.