If There Is To Be Peace: Peace in the Home by Rev. Anthony Makar
My topic today is “peace in the home,” and the clip we saw earlier from that classic holiday movie “A Christmas Story” zooms us straight to the heart of it. Family space is crowded space, crowded with the needs and emotions that each member brings.
The crowding only gets more intense, come the holidays.
Youngest son Randy is ripping open his gift and his child voice pipes up with “Wow! Wowee! A Zeppelin!” while, at the same time, his father opens up a gift from his wife, and it is a can of Simonize, and the father’s response is the opposite of Randy’s. Simonize inspires no youthful dreams; Simonize is about car maintenance.
The father is old.
Later, the mother delivers to her husband another gift, plops it on his lap, and it’s heavy, he jerks up in shock and maybe some pain, and to accentuate this he says, in a squeaky high voice, “Thanks a lot!” He’s not unpleasant about it, but you get the feeling that something’s not right. We all know what the gift is before he tears open the wrapping: a bowling ball. But we are still surprised when it appears. As he says, “Well it’s a blue ball!” This is but one moment of a larger thread of sexual frustration and loneliness that runs through the entire movie. We see the father turning towards objects of sexual fantasy that are very different from the mother. He does not turn to her. He abandons her, instead, to the busyness of mothering. It angers her, but she is unconscious of that anger, and so it comes out in accidental ways, like how she just plops the bowling ball onto his lap.
It’s at this exact moment that the camera swivels to show young Randy playing with his Zeppelin, going round and round on the floor, but then he looks up to watch his parents. His innocent, round-as-saucers eyes, drinking everything in.
Children absorb the unspoken feelings and unrealized yearnings of the parents.
Nothing is truly secret, in a family.
But then comes the whole pink bunny suit incident. The mother is simply delighted about Aunt Clara’s creativity. Ralphie suspects that Aunt Clara thinks he’s still four years old, and a girl to boot. He wants nothing to do with it. His mother insists he put it on. He stomps upstairs, does what she demands, stomps back down the stairs, and his mother says, “That’s the most precious thing I’ve even seen in my whole life!” but what she doesn’t see is a boy that’s becoming a man and how the suit is wounding to him. Ralphie’s brother is cracking up, and Ralphie tells him to shut up—shades of sibling rivalry. Then his dad says, “He looks like a deranged Easter bunny! He looks like a pink nightmare!” Essentially, mom and dad are openly disagreeing on how they should parent their kid, and that’s also a source of stress in a family. They go back and forth on this, and finally, she tells him to take the suit off. “Take the suit off!”
All of this: from just two minutes and thirty seven seconds of a classic holiday film.
Family space is crowded space, crowded with the needs and emotions that each member brings.
The insight immediately gives rise two two key questions:
1. If this is what family is all about, then who needs it?
2. If this is what family is all about, then how is peace possible?
Take the first question: who needs family? It is a very strange question to be asking, because, first of all, a family of some kind is the biological and psychological prerequisite for becoming born and growing up. Egg and sperm have to come together somehow. But even if that meeting happens through in vitro fertilization, still, the single mother and her child are a family, surrounded by extended family, and from that context a child gets the raw emotional and intellectual materials out of which they will build a life.
No one can make a life out of nothing.
The raw materials come from family.
But let me hasten to say that such raw materials are going to be valid even if they don’t come from a certain kind of family, say, a structure that echos the iconic American nuclear family of the movie, with a married mother and father, together with children. If that were the case, then 80% of American families would be providing children with the wrong kind of raw materials. These days, only 20% of families are like the family in the movie.
The conservative conception of family is just not right. As a Unitarian Universalist, I define family as people committing to each other to be reliable and respectful partners in life, and if children are involved, then those children experience a loving home where they are able to grow into their beautiful human potentials. Opposite sex partners, same sex partners, single parent, or whatever other options there may be: all make for valid family structures if love is at the center.
A moment ago I called the question “Who needs family?” strange. There’s another reason why I said that. Desire for family is not really given to us as a choice. The deep desire is always there, born in us, but it can get fulfilled in ways that may look very different from popular definitions of family. Psychologist Thomas Moore speaks to this profoundly in his book SoulMates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship. “A family,” he says, “is not an abstract cultural ideal: a man, a woman, and children living blissfully in a mortgaged house on a quiet neighborhood street. The family the soul wants is a felt network of relationship, an evocation of a certain kind of interconnection that grounds, roots, and nestles.” (When he says this, I am reminded of our Unitarian Universalist song “Spirit of Life”: “roots hold me close, wings set me free.”)” Moore continues: “People working on a project together … may feel the presence of family as they talk, work, and get to know each other. When we hope that our nation can hold together as a family, or that the family of nations can live in peace, these are not metaphors, but rather the expressions of a profound need of the soul for a special grounded way of relating that offers deep, unconditional, and lasting security.”
Family is one of the soul’s most longed-for pleasures, says Thomas Moore, and we are busy building family out of whatever works. Because it a soul-deep need. Even for the person who doesn’t want a committed relationship or a marriage, even for the person who doesn’t want kids. Family for such a person is friends, is church, is work, is the place they go where everybody knows their name.
Family is not a choice.
So now let’s turn to the other question, about peace. How is peace in the family possible?
Well, how are we defining peace? By peace, are we meaning the absence of struggle? Are we meaning the absence of adults getting gifts that make them feel old? The absence of loneliness and anger? The absence of children absorbing the imperfections of their parents, side-by-side with all the good things too? The absence of disagreements on how to parent, the absence of sibling conflict, the absence of deranged Easter bunnies and pink nightmares?
I hope we are not defining peace like this. That way, peace will never be possible for we spiritual beings having a human experience.
I say it is better to define peace as Christian theologian Frederick Buechner does. He invokes the Hebrew word for peace, which is shalom, which means “fullness, means having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.” “Peace is not the absence of struggle but the presence of love.”
Imagine this love as a way of seeing and empathizing. We are messy, imperfect beings. Specifically, we have parts within us that are two years old or four years old in emotional age and they fully co-exist in strange tension with our adult sense of self. Love here is a capacity to accept this and tolerate the discomfort of this, and to recognize when it’s playing out and go, “Oh! Yes, the inner four year old is activated. Ok, need to calm it and comfort it. Need to honor it but in a way that serves my true good and the true good of the relationship.”
Philosopher Alain de Botton illustrates this in his exploration of “sulking.” How many of you have gone through episodes of sulking, or you’ve witnessed it in others?
“At the heart of a sulk,” he says, “lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add: it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.”
He goes on to say, “We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: ‘Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.’
“We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with — and forgive — the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.”
Unless the peace that is love is present in our families and relationships, and we can see with empathy the complexity underneath our conflicts, we can really get stuck in dysfunctional patterns, and we’re turning away from each other rather than towards each other.
Another example of this, beyond sulking, has to do with conflict. Each and every family has a unique style of conflict: sometimes it is loud and passionate and full-on; other times it is more emotionally-neutral but difficulties get addressed and talked about; and still other times it’s sheer avoidance and the difficulties are swept under the rug.
So let’s talk about what happens when two people come together to start building a shared world and their conflict styles don’t match. Let’s say that one person comes from a family that liked to lay into each other with sound and fury … and then make up. The other person comes from a family that practiced calm avoidance. These two come together, they love each other in the deep way that Alain de Botton talks about, and therefore conflict happens. The Shouter steps up, and then the Avoider steps way way back. Again and again it happens. And if it keeps happening, I guarantee you, they lose respect for each other. Worse, they can start to see each other as less-than-human, as a creature of maliciousness.
Have you ever seen that before? A relationship that started out with two people deeply in love, but it ends with two people treating each other like things to abuse and degrade?
The cause is because the two people fail to see beyond their adult exteriors to the powerful inner child needs that are repeatedly not being fulfilled, so that that inner child ends up feeling depressed, demoralized, and then lashes out in rage because it is trying to defend itself.
Or, a wife “accidentally” drops a bowling ball on her husband’s lap.
Here’s what’s really happening between the Shouter and the Avoider:
When the Shouter steps forward and does their thing, and the Avoider steps back, what happens is that the Shouter’s inner child is left alone with the problem. They are all alone. They are not seen. It feels horrible.
As for the Avoider’s experience: they feel unsafe. They feel attacked by someone who’s supposed to love them. They want to flee. It feels horrible.
Again and again, the inner child needs of the one are not seen and understood by the other, and vice versa.
But the peace in the home that is love—that is a capacity to accept and empathize and allow space for complexity—would help the Shouter and the Avoider get to a better place. For each to know, first of all, that no one is trying to hurt the other. Both people are just trying to get deep needs met. One doesn’t want to be alone, wants to be seen. The other wants to feel safe.
So how can the conflict happen in a way that both partners get their needs met? That’s your homework assignment today. Discuss that among yourselves.
Peace in the home is about people getting all the raw materials of life that they need to grow up strong and true, even as the experience is messy and imperfect. You bring compassion to that.
So often though, we bring perfectionism. How we beat ourselves up because, hey, it’s the holidays, and it’s all supposed to be Hallmark card-like, but sometimes we give or get gifts that aren’t very good. There is loneliness and anger. We beat ourselves up, because relationships can be strained, because siblings are bickering, because grudges are harbored, because we haven’t been able to insulate the kids or ourselves from every disappointment, because we haven’t been able to do everything “right,” because deranged Easter bunny and pink nightmare moments happen.
We beat ourselves up. But this is life. This stuff just happens.
Peace in the home is not a perfectionistic absence of struggle. It is the presence of love, it is responding to the struggles lovingly, empathetically, and humanely.
With a sense of humility—for who are we to expect perfection?—and a sense of humor.
“A Christmas Story,” remember, despite all the serious stuff, is comedy.
Reba McEntire says, “To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funnybone.”
May you and yours have all three.