by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
I’m starting by quoting Andrew Solomon quoting Jesus in the gnostic gospel of St. Thomas:
If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.1
I have such conviction about the truth of this statement that I’m sure it’s spilled out into just about everything I’ve written in this blog. I believe God wants most for all of creation to grow into what it’s meant to be – especially we human creatures. But we thwart each other; create walls and blocks against such growth. The freedom of mind and body we’re designed for eludes us. Because we don’t trust ourselves. We don’t love ourselves. So we have trouble really trusting and loving each other.
None of that is new. It’s just sometimes so obvious and glaring that I want to shout it from the housetops. Today I won’t focus on the harm in crushing a child’s inner identity, but on encouraging inborn difference to flourish.
“Far From The Tree”
This book, by the above named Andrew Solomon, is all about identities. Those which are inherited and therefore immutable (gender, race, culture, ethnicity, language) he calls Vertical Identities. We can alter aspects of these, but if we share these traits with the family into which we’re born, we’ll absorb many of the values and traits common to those of that vertical identity.
Inherent or acquired traits, not inherited and foreign to the parents’ own – though usually included in the wider society – are termed Horizontal Identities. Being different from his family members will require the child to seek out a peer group; which may be difficult to do. Being gay, having a physical disability, autism, becoming bi-polar or schizophrenic, experiencing intellectual disability, deafness or blindness are likely to be horizontal, unless the child is born to parents with that characteristic.
It has occurred to me that the challenge to parents whose children are quite different from themselves is not dissimilar to parenting teenagers.
Letting a Child Become Who They Are
Moving on from Mr. Solomon’s huge enlightening book, which encourages not seeing difference as illness or aberration, a familiar question arises. Should one raise a child to be as fully himself as he can – while still living with kindness among other people – OR work to shape the child to be the best person you think he should be, according to what you, the parent, thinks is “best”.
Profound “Horizontal” Differences
As a child grows and interacts more with the world beyond the family, problems with being different will grow but can also ease. The trick is finding others who are also different, sharing the uncommon-ness. It happens more easily if the parents aren’t frightened by how unlike themselves their child is. Acceptance doesn’t always come with loving, but parents who can achieve some degree of genuine equanimity about their unusual offspring are giving her or him a head start at making a way in the world.
Nature and nurture remain two sides of the same coin in that they act one upon the other and can’t easily be distinguished. However, the nurture side allows for modest control and here’s where we can concentrate on allowing nature to breathe.
Some schools – usually Alternative or Arts schools – seem to be more nurturing of uncommon natures. With smaller-sized populations, they are chosen by students (or parents) who realize a less-usual child may be overwhelmed in a huge conglomerate institution. A smaller school body focussed on creativity or specific skills can celebrate eccentricity; friends may be more easily made. Gay youth can proclaim itself and be safe.
What is like for the parents? How long does it take a parent to absorb and become relaxed about having a gay child? Or a deaf or disabled or autistic child? If the condition isn’t life threatening, if the child isn’t doing damage to herself, can a parent begin to let go his ‘normal’ expectations, and choose to like the child as she is? It’s not easy, but probably necessary if life is to be able to flow again for the adolescent who has likely by now identified his difference. Solomon, a gay son, describes his parents’ experience as “having a child who spoke a language they’d never thought of studying”.2
An Example From Everyday Life
Not uncommon in ordinary families is the horizontal identity of being “highly strung”; a pain for everybody else in the family, emotional, self-doubting, easily embarrassed. Unfortunately, these are precursors of depression if intensified over time.
An example: in a family where children are exposed to playing table games with their family, there is an expectation of learning how to win and lose ‘well’. It is verboten to mope or sulk when losing. Worthy learning. Yes, but. Some children can skate over their mistakes, their losing, with a laugh and the urge to try again and win next time. The odd child, and I was one, feels a big surge of emotion when losing in a group. Shame predominates: it’s terribly personal. Becoming withdrawn, or sulky, the child might be sent away from the game until able to shape up and change her reactions. Or kidded mercilessly.
Fair enough, you might say. Learn to be a good sport. Toughen up. What if that child really becomes a poor sport? Who doesn’t hate that!
But I do wish that for small over-sensitive people, some caring relative would recognize a need for help, and let the child know he’d seen how bad she felt. I’d hope there’d be a chance for her to express the frustration, the embarrassment, the inner humiliation that losing brings on for her. The point would be to bring the child back into relationship, reducing the sense of isolation and loneliness, allowing her back into a loving fold.
If being highly emotional is a Horizonal identity, Solomon comments: “…how isolating an exceptional identity can be unless we resolve it into horizontal solidarity”.3
One can learn to accommodate one’s eccentricities, such as too-quick emotional bruising. Many would say YES to suppressing the child’s ‘wussiness’, to toughen him up. Others see the value of giving permission and support to feel what one does, and help to move through it. The latter may help divert the self-loathing that grows if one believes one isn’t acceptable as one is.
Something Hits The Fan
Leaving strong Horizontal identities aside, teenagers give most of us a lesson in acceptance. They want to stretch beyond how their parents see them. They want to know who they are. Testing limits is perpetual. (“Who needs limits?”) A little child may have been beautifully compliant and the parent – poor sap – was fooled into thinking they were raising a little version of themselves – essentially someone who would (if secret wishes were known) be a stand-out in high school. Whoops.
Dealing with the increasing distance between oneself and one’s beloved child is one part of the difficulty. The fact of separation just keeps having to be learned. But the harder part is realizing that one’s child is on a different trajectory. Her own. Can’t choose for her, can’t really advise very much, can’t extend my wisdom (ha ha). Just love.
But those with the heart keep moving forward and becoming generous spirited adults. I hope we encouraged our daughter in becoming who she is – though the journey is never over. We likely tried a lot of molding. But you do your best – that’s all.
1 Solomon, Andrew, Far From The Tree, 2012,Scribner, p.19
2 Ibid., p.15
3 Ibid., p.13