Families come in a million different shapes and sizes. They’re big, small, many, few, noisy, quiet, outdoorsy, homebodies, book smart, common sense smart, gentle, bruising, pliable, stubborn, tightly knit and noisily individualistic.
Kind of like snowflakes. No two alike.
And yet families persist. Everyone wants to be part of one, even though there are times you want to knock ‘em all silly for being so pigheaded and stubborn, which usually means when the rest of your family is acting just like you.
As a teenager, I was convinced my parents were clueless goobers who just couldn’t understand my sophisticated and complicated world. So I was genuinely surprised to watch my parents grow smarter as I grew older. Parents get smarter — who knew?
But for all its joys, family life can be bumpy. My wife and I had a large family, and thanks to the miraculous math of grandchildren, it seems to keep growing with each passing year. Happily, we’ve lived long enough that all of our formerly teenage children have circled back to apologize for being formerly teenage children. We forgive them, of course, while smiling inwardly as we watch their own kids move steadily forward on the road leading to eventual teenage snarkdom. Karma.
So what’s the value of families? It’s in our families that we learn how to trust, to share, to cooperate, to support and be supported, to love selflessly and to be loved selflessly in return.
And along the way we learn to forgive.
I’m not sure that forgiveness is a trait that comes easily to everyone. After all, the need for forgiveness only comes after an inflicted injury — physical, emotional or both. As a child, when my 6-year-old friend from next door got mad and hit me, my 6-year-old brain wasn’t inclined to say “I forgive you.” I wanted to hit him back.
And, unfortunately, our 6-year-old brains sometimes linger long into adulthood.
In other words, sometimes we’re hurt as adults, and sometimes the hurt can come from within our own families, and instead of pulling the weeds of hurt out of our hearts, we nurse and tend and dote on our wounds as if someone gave prizes for the best rotten tomatoes.
And in time our nurtured hurts can become a second, self-inflicted injury, fully capable of committing greater emotional damage than the original wound.
Well, if the people who hurt us aren’t family, we can tell them all to just get lost. Fine. Whatever.
But here’s the thing: One of the most remarkable benefits of being in a family is that you can’t tell each other to get lost. Somehow, no matter how much you’ve stomped on each other’s toes, you have to figure out how to make it right. You have to apologize, and accept, and forgive, no matter how hard it is to do, even if it takes years, and even if the apology will never be enough. And you can’t just be the suffering stoic martyr on the mountain. You may have to forgive even if there’s no apology, and do it regardless of how intensely the hole inside you demands to be left empty as a decaying monument to your pain.
Over the years I’ve occasionally worked with struggling families in need. They’re all different, and yet strikingly similar as they grapple with the same lesson: you can’t just cut family members out of your life without cutting something of yourself out of your life.
The severity of the perceived crime doesn’t matter. The magnitude of the impact doesn’t matter. The time spent apart nursing grudges doesn’t matter. Even if you’re convinced that forgiveness is impossible, it doesn’t matter.
Because no matter what we believe in our heads, family bonds are never broken. The value of families is to learn that the only way forward is through reconciliation and forgiveness, even when reconciliation and forgiveness is impossible. We do it anyway, and in doing it discover that it is possible after all.
It’s been said that when you forgive someone you set a prisoner free, and the prisoner is yourself.
Is there anything more important to learn in life than this? I don’t think so.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in southern Idaho. Connect with Chris on both Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.