Ram Dass and Eckhart Tolle both say that if we want to find out how conscious and grown up we really are, we just need to pay a visit to our family of origin.
Well, I recently went home to visit family after an absence of two years from them. My mother, God love her, is a wonderful person but sometimes gets stuck in the past. When I go home, she always brings up how difficult I was for her to deal with when I was a child.
I expected this to come up again on my recent visit and knew it would be a challenge for me not to be defensive or reactive. As Michael Brown, author of Alchemy of the Heart, would say, it’s not easy to avoid being emotionally triggered. My two brothers were there, whom I hadn’t seen in years. One of my brothers had a new girlfriend with him.
During dinner, what I had expected faced me: we started talking about the town and mentioned the local children’s home. When I was a child and acting out, my mom would drive me to this children’s home and pretend to leave me there. She at times even drove away for a several minutes, though she would always come back.
Mention of the children’s home opened a can of worms, leading into stories of my childhood tantrums. I felt my body cringe, felt the urge to react and be defensive. I even felt like hatefully saying, “Mom, you always do this to me. Please change the subject.” Instead, I simply sat there. That was a step in the right direction at least.
Then my brother stepped in, rescuing me from my distress. “Don’t worry, “ he encouraged, “your brothers have been dropped off at the children’s home many times also. It’s not just you.” I was thankful for this, and my tension then released.
When I realized my mother was like this with both of my brothers, it became apparent to me that I simply hadn’t been differentiated enough as a person not to personalize and internalize her actions.
My older brother seemed the most differentiated. My mother started to nag him about his twenty-four-year-old son living with him, which led to everyone else questioning why his son was still at home. Before we knew it, we were all lecturing him. In fact, it became the primary subject of our visit.
Finally my brother said, without emotion, “I didn’t come all the way from Texas for this. I would like just to visit and enjoy the family.” Because there was no emotional charge to his statement, we all woke up to what we were doing. It was powerful for me to see how calmly he handled the situation. Had it been me, I would have reacted.
Another scene came up a little later when we started to talk about his divorce. My mom kept asking why he was even attracted to his ex. What was he thinking to be with such a woman? He calmly responded, “Now I am with my present girlfriend, and that’s all that matters.” Mom again realized what she was doing.
I learned through this that responding rather than reacting is the most powerful form of being, difficult as it may be to pull off sometimes.
My brother even said this himself. “When we react to others,” he explained, “they don’t hear the words, but feel the emotional charge, which only makes things worse.” When we respond without an emotional charge, getting the point across is much easier.
I took away two things from that evening with my family: when there’s reactivity, it’s not just me; and it’s much more effective to respond than to react—a practical reinforcement of what I had been learning recently while reading Michael Brown’s Alchemy of the Heart.