I am still living into the gifts of my 12-day trip down the East coast in March re-visiting family and friends, walking in familiar places with new eyes, tending to memories of formative times.
In the last couple of days of my trip I watched the film Into the Wild from my hotel room one evening. (Spoiler alert — if you do not know the ending of the film, I do give it away further down in the post). It is the story of Christopher McCandless’ journey away from the dysfunction of his parents toward the solitary promise of Alaska. It is an alluring theme, who of us has not experienced the pain our families can wreak upon us and not flirted with the idea of running away, far, far away. In Bowen Theory, this is called “emotional cut-off”, and this is a dominant cultural phenomenon. With greater possibilities for mobility than ever before, we can run farther and farther away from the things that scare us or have hurt us. We cut ourselves emotionally or geographically or both.
I appreciated this film because it dealt with this impulse very honestly. A young man sets off to escape from the trauma of a difficult family after satisfying their hopes that he would graduate from college. His father is played beautifully by William Hurt, a man filled with rage and pain doled out onto those he loves.
I could identify with Christopher’s longing to leave that pain far behind, to go in search of a place where he did not have to deal with the messiness of human relationships. In fact, several months before my father died, I cut off all communication with him because of his emotional abuse. I would not stand for it any longer, and I still do not regret the choice I made for self-protection. It was important for me to finally be able to say that I demand to be treated with respect and care. In the wake of my father’s death twelve years ago I felt relief and freedom, I felt like I could keep running in the other direction as far away from his compulsions as I could. I was not like him at all and so I did not need to reflect any more on his path of self-destruction through his compulsive drinking, gambling, and sex.
And then I discovered the work of family systems theory and became entranced by its power. It says — don’t run in the other direction, run right back into the family system to understand it better, but do so from a place of calm observance. Understand the anxiety patterns so you don’t have to engage them anymore. You no longer need to react from old wounds. This work demands courage to face the full legacy of our family stories, with all of their joy and sorrow. And when you re-enter the system from this perspective the system itself begins to change.
I am not like my father in so many ways, but his story is woven into my own. And of course he left me with many gifts as well. I carry the grief and pain of his having to flee the country of his upbringing for another land at a formative age during a horrendous time in history, World War II, a story he would never utter. Knit into my being are the unfulfilled longings that propelled him forward, the wounds that haunted him. It is my responsibility to begin narrating these sacred ancestral stories with a tenderness and care for the traumas they hold.
The mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade believes that before we are born we make an agreement to be born into the family system we end up with because what we learn in that system is deeply connected to the gifts we have to offer the world. He says that we may spend our lives running from our “issues” rather than listening to them as exactly the place where we may learn what we need to respond in fullness to the world.
Thomas Moore offers a similar idea in his chapter “Honoring Symptoms as a Voice of the Soul” from his book Care of the Soul. He writes that “care of the soul is a continuous process that concerns itself not so much with ‘fixing’ a central flaw as with attending to the small details of everyday life, as well as to major decisions and changes.” (4) He says that our focus should be on how the soul itself actually operates and observing and respecting this as an insight into who we are and what we long for most deeply.
“Observance of the soul can be deceptively simple. You take back what has been disowned. You work with what is, rather than with what you wish were there.” (9) It means looking at the hungers and compulsions of a life and listening for what is being revealed there. When I first read Moore’s book several years ago it sparked a tidal change within me for how I relate to my own “issues”, those things I struggle most with in life. Amplified by Michael Meade’s words, I began to recognize those struggles as the other side of a very deep longing that needed to be named. It is key to understanding my own story.
Near the beginning of the film, the poem above is narrated. I was struck by its words in light of the journey I was taking: “I want to go up to them and say Stop, / don’t do it–she’s the wrong woman, / he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things / you cannot imagine you would ever do, / you are going to do bad things to children, / you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of.” In my imagination, I re-create my parents’ first meeting and I wonder what really drew them to each other in light of how their stories turn out.
But then the poet pauses and says, “I don’t do it. I want to live.” Despite the pain I have experienced, I would not reject my chance to live, I would not un-do the person I have become. “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.” I witness to the lives of my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and I keep going further back in a quest for understanding and I begin to tell a story. My story. And yet a sacred narrative that is so much larger than me.
At the end of the film, the protagonist is dying out in the Alaskan wilderness. In his journal he scrawls the words “happiness never shared is not real” and as he releases his hold on life there is an image of him running toward his parents in the brilliant sunlight. In his imagination he runs right into their arms and receives their embrace.
For some viewers, this might seem like a romanticized notion of reconnecting with family influenced by hallucination and starvation, especially in light of his father’s abuse. However, for me it was a perfect moment in the way film can express, that claims this truth I have come to understand:
We simply can’t run away from the pain of our families, we can’t escape the drama and dysfunction of human relationship. We carry an ancestral narrative in our bone and sinew that is studded with these tales. Our task is not to forgive and forget, or act as though the abuse perpetrated is not important. Our task is to walk calmly and courageously back into that system.
Both my parents have died and I have no siblings, so for me I reach out to other family members, I walk again in formative landscapes and look with new eyes, I enter back into my imagination and listen with new ears for what is happening. I gaze at photos of family members, looking for clues. I cherish the images above where my parents, and especially my father, looks joyful ly at me — this new life for which he is responsible. I meditate with the image below of my father and I walking in the mountains of Austria, walking into the wild together. I read books about the cultural stories that have shaped my ancestors. I honor this web I am woven into.
The call of this work is to walk back into the family system and embrace the reality of what is, asking why, and looking on it as an essential part of yourself. And you ask, what of this ancestral narrative have I disowned that calls to me to be reclaimed?
What does this story have to teach me about who I am called to be?
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts