I haven’t written much about family. To put it in euphemistic psycho-speak, family is a personal growth area for me. To be more blunt about it, I am tangled up in a bunch of splintered, fractured, impaired and unresolved relationships, and the only commentary I’m equipped to offer is more like that of the junior reporter in a rain slicker staggering against the wind and rain as she reports on the approaching hurricane than that of the news anchor safely ensconced in the studio. My husband (the second one) likes to say we put the “fun” in dysfunctional.
I have come to realize, perhaps reluctantly, that family, for all its messiness and imperfection, has inescapable spiritual significance. Hospice chaplain Kerry Egen explained it as poignantly as anyone in an article she wrote about what dying people talk about. Early in Egan’s Harvard Divinity School training, and having just started work as a student chaplain in a cancer hospital, a professor asked her what she talked about with patients. She said patients mostly talked about their families and she mostly listened. The professor derided her not only privately but also in class for failing to address big spiritual issues like God, religion and the meaning of life with people nearing life’s end. Although ashamed and full of self-doubt at the time, 13 years later Egan says she would answer his question exactly the same way but with confidence.
What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.
We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.
Egan points out that family is where we first experience love. It’s where we are first cared for and where we learn to care for others. It’s where we learn to trust and where our trust is first betrayed. It’s likely to be the first place we were hurt by someone we love. For many people, it is where we receive our deepest wounds. Some people respond to the wounding by repeating hurtful family patterns, while others respond by creating families that become the ground for healing and hope. Family is where we confront our spiritual reality in the midst of our daily living. It’s the framework in which we wrestle with the big spiritual questions about God and the meaning of life.
Egan shows us that this crucible where life’s journey begins is also where we return at the journey’s end. Our experience of family—the brokenness and the healing—gives us our most descriptive language for expressing the content of our human souls as we encounter the divine.
Join the conversation. What significance has family had on the search for meaning in your life?
Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.