Here we are nearing the end of 2009. This has been a wild ride for most, with everyone recalibrating much of what was thought to be solid and permanent. Many are asking what truly can be counted on; is there a 'for sure' category? At times I wonder if we are holding on to what we perceive is real – with regards to our own lives and the lives of our family – instead of facing truths, sometimes surprising and uncomfortable, that exist beneath the surface. Well, my friends, the good news and the bad news is that there are few, if any, things that are solid and immovable, other than those enduring spiritual verities. But, I also wonder if there is great benefit from embracing the authentic in lieu of the ideal.
Two nights ago, we were at a Christmas party and met a lovely woman from Uganda. She is a medical doctor getting an advanced degree from Georgetown Medical School. She radiated kindness and joy and despite the snowstorm (she had never seen snow!), she was thrilled to have this opportunity to be in America. The training that she will receive will make a huge difference to her fellow Ugandans when she returns. So far so good. But wait, the full story of this talented professional woman was again, messier and more complex than at first glance. She has a husband and three young children back in Uganda. She will be separated from them for a long time. The pain of separation is intense. Her father who was a leading judge in Uganda was killed during the political and tribal meltdown some years back. Again, I discovered that her story was much more than I first perceived. Isn't that a variation on your life and mine?
I gathered the family last week to see the Robert DeNiro film, Everybody’s Fine. I thought it was a comedy about a family. Well, it was a bit different. The story line centered around the fact that following the death of DeNiro's wife, he was getting acquainted for the first time with his four adult children without the filter of his wife. After my family adjusted to the fact that this was not a variation of Meet the Faulkers, we leaned into the movie with keen though guarded interest. DeNiro had a view of his children that had no relationship to the reality of their lives. He wanted to believe that all four of them were 'alright': healthy, successful and living the life that he had made available to them through his hardwork and fatherly pressure. Yet, the truths finally emerged, which were initially for him an uncomfortable reality: one son who was addicted to heroine eventually died of an overdose, one daughter was going through an ugly divorce, another daughter was a lesbian who had just had a child with her companion...and on and on.
At first, all of this new information rocked DeNiro's world, but then he made a decision. This is likely the decision that all of us need to make: accepting that reality is quite different than the pretend world we hope is there. Once we accept the truth of things as they are, after an uncomfortable period of adjustment, we alter expectations and then a new freedom and different authentic connection is possible over time.
On almost every family vacation, 'it' occurs. The 'it' is a family explosion where instead of allowing the conversations and interactions to evolve naturally, I push for us to 'open up' and share our deepest challenges and heartaches immediately, and quite predictably and rightly so, everyone reacts. So why do I keep pursuing this failed strategy (kind of like the stunning US diplomatic successes with North Korea and Iran)? There is a wonderful side of this yearning for connection. I want us to bond and be on this journey together. But i surmise that my family can feel a bit like DeNiro's children feel. Dad really wants to hear that everything is grand, that we are all going from success to success, from strength to strength.
So why am i sharing all of this during a snowy season of celebration and excitement. The family gatherings which most of us will share are many layered with some joy and lots of feelings, some good, some not so good. Lots of history! But what I am learning is that my family wants to know an authentic man who accepts friends and family the way they are but hopes the best for them. By being authentic myself, and sharing, where appropriate, what I am learning about my own journey, this just might unlock them. In the past, I have been too much of a 'fixer' of everyone and everything. I think that I am finally getting it. The only one that I can possibly fix, with God's help, is me.
So I am saying to myself and to you: enjoy these next weeks, reduce expectations, be grateful, be authentic and celebrate the truth of your family not the mythology that has muddied the truth. Look for ways to be present and not always in the 'instruct' mode. As a father and husband, I can put pressures on myself during this season. This is good and bad. How about a new approach--try to relax, connect and be yourself. After all that's what everyone is yearning to see in you and me. Watch the Frank Capra film: It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey's life unfolded differently than he had imagined. There was always some circumstance which prevented him from pursuing his dream. He was tested to the point where he was ready to give up in bitterness. But in the end, the circumstances didn't change but rather his reaction to his situation altered. The final great scene was a celebration toast where his "successful" younger brother raises a glass and says: "To George Bailey, the richest man in town.”
I'm toasting you this season. You are unique and special. Give your family and a few close friends a glimpse of this amazing imperfect person. You might be surprised at their reaction.
May peace prevail within and without, Doug