I recently read Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher wrote the book when he was struggling with depression resulting from family problems. Decades earlier he had moved away from his family in Louisiana and established a successful career as a writer, only to move back again following his sister Ruthie’s death from cancer. After his return, he was perturbed to learn that his sister had been highly critical of him to others. Another problem was that his father expected Rod to change everything that made him different from the rest of the family and was critical of him when he resisted. Rod was quite hurt that his family didn’t accept him as he was. At first, he thought that his dad and sister were entirely to blame. However, his reading of The Divine Comedy revealed that the situation was more complicated than it seemed.
I particularly like the following passage, conveying Dreher’s growing realization that the things he doesn’t like about his sister and dad are closely connected with what he values in them:
“[A]ll that is best in my family cannot be easily separated from the worst. The Ruthie who trash-talked me behind my back for leaving home and getting above myself is the same Ruthie whose love of our Louisiana home and its people inspired me to return. The father whose steadfast refusal to recognize the limits and the harm of the family code and its ideology of family and place is the same father who made a good, loving home for Mama, Ruthie, and me. (p. 174)”
Both his sister and father valued close family bonds, tradition, and loyalty. These characteristics were appealing enough to Rob that he gave up his settled cosmopolitan life to return to Louisiana. However, these same qualities prompted Ruthie and his father to react negatively to Rod when in their judgment he failed to embody them.
Rod came to recognize that his sister and father weren’t all good or all bad, but were instead complex human beings who had both good and bad features. Each of us starts life unable to understand such complexity. The infant reacts to the parent as either all good (when that parent is meeting the child’s needs and wants) or all bad (when those needs and wants are being frustrated). Early on, the child can’t see both sides, but flips from “mommy is good” to “mommy is bad” and back again, depending on what mommy has done most recently. Some people never get past such part-person perceptions. Learning to see the whole person, including both liked and disliked qualities, takes psychological maturity, and that takes time. In midlife, Rod was achieving that maturity.
I wrote earlier that “we all need to recognize that there is more to our parents than their parental role if we are to fully be more than just their children.” Dreher’s point is much broader than this. With all family members–not just our parents–we need to see them in all their complexity. They have both good and bad qualities, qualities we like and qualities we don’t like. And many of their qualities, as with Dreher’s father and sister, are neither totally good or totally bad, but have both negative and positive aspects.
In one sense, we don’t want to see all these nuances. We, like Dreher, wish that things were simpler:
“What I expected, it was becoming clear, was a return to the innocence and wonder of childhood. I wanted to regain that sense of primal unity with my family, where things were rightly ordered by my father, and to climb into daddy’s lap with Ruthie at day’s end and feel loved and secure. (p. 174)”
Such childhood relationships probably never were as straightforward as we imagine them to have been, and, even if they were, we can’t go back to the former simplicity. I lived most of my adult life several hours away from my parents and siblings, and at such distance it was easy to ignore their faults and appreciate their strengths. My views of them didn’t change much during all that period. For almost four years now, I’ve spent most of my time back in the house where I grew up, helping my parents and having more contact with my brother and sister than I had had for years. As with Dreher, once I was in closer proximity to the family I noticed more faults, shortcomings, and oddities in everyone. I noticed more good qualities as well. I remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who saw more detail when the distance diminished; my faults, shortcomings, and oddities became much more visible to them as well.
My relationships with family members have grown more since I returned home than they did in the years I was away. That’s only been possible to the extent that, with Dreher, I see each family member as the complex human being that he or she is. I hope I’ll continue to be able to accept them for who they are, and hope they have the grace to do the same for me.