the Empathy List #75: Family Traumatics
Pain can straddle generations, but so can God.
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Hello friend, Liz here.
Since the theories of Freud gained popularity, much attention has been paid to the ways that families shape their children—that is, “nurture.”
“Nature” are those inherent attributes that make up who you are as a human, ranging from genetic predispositions to eye color to the timbre of your laugh.
“Nurture,” which is everything else: the sum total of the environment that you experienced as a child, including the people who raised you, whether you lived in the suburbs or on a house boat, what you tasted, whether you learned to read or not, what language you spoke, which TV shows your parents preferred, etc.
While American culture prefers the idea of “nurture,” the theology of evangelicals tends to lean into “nature” more.
This starts in the Christian narrative of the Bible. The Bible proposes that our nature is evil, bent against God and other humans, all of us living east of Eden, as did the first murderer Cain. It doesn’t matter how much positive nurturing we receive, we’ll still rebel, scratching and pummeling anyone who gets too close.
Evangelicalism particularly emphasizes the individual propensity toward depravity.
Sin is about an individual failure, an individual’s faulty desires, an individual’s rejection of God and neighbor. But this individualism goes against the Bible’s actual view of sin and consequences—certainly some individuality is present in the sacred texts, but the Bible tends to talk more corporate and communal than we Americans evangelicals naturally do.
To ignore the parts of the Christian story we don’t like, leads to errors that echo into our living.
For example, when we ignore the effects of “nurture” on humans, we tend to create scapegoats. This is the “one bad actor” syndrome. This is also how we can label entire people groups as superior or inferior—we can claim that superiority (or the opposite) is just built into our “natures.”
Worse, we forget the chilling words of Scripture when it talks about God “visiting the sins of the fathers on the third and fourth generations,” a repeated refrain throughout the Pentateuch. On a first read, these words smack of a God who holds lasting grudges: you’ll suffer punishment for your grandfather’s lie told in the fifth grade.
But the Scriptures repeat another theme: that God does not punish children for their grown-ups’ sins.
So what does the visitation of sin across generations actually mean?
I believe any therapist (or therapy enthusiast, like myself) would understand the connotation of this phrase immediately.
Generational “sin and consequence” does not necessary refer to the lightning bolt of God continually striking members of the same family for the same bad deed for 100 years (an inherited curse), but instead refers to the way that sin can jump across generations.
As in, your grandparent’s drinking problem taught your parent codependence, who in turn placed heavy burdens on her children to care for her in ways her parent couldn’t.
This is the law of “nurture”: your environment and community will change you and, in turn, affect those who come after you.
For myself, I find it most helpful to think of generational trauma echoed across family lines.
This week, as the holidays near, I’m finding myself considering this theme of family pain because the holidays are hairy for everyone I know. All that time with extended- and families-of origin can feel especially tender or disappointing or hurtful or exultant: every emotion in bold print.
I myself tend to slip into a morose around this time of year that can be hard to shake, due to my own challenging family-of-origin situation.
Yet I find it comforting that God can straddle generations as easily and with more endurance than any generational harm can.
By which I mean, as time passes, God’s the part of the equation that never changes, not human screw-ups.
If we believe that God is always seeking people to hear God’s voice, then we can also trust that pain we and our parents and our grandparents have experienced has not gone unnoticed by God. Nor does God desire any human to live in pain.
So why doesn’t God take the pain away? These are head-scratching ideas, and evangelical theology does not know how to make room for God’s divinity (always present and existing, all-knowing, all-powerful) and also the fact that God constrains Godself.
Sometimes God does not rescue us out of our most wounding family shenanigans, and the why behind God’s interference or not can feel like another wounding.
I have certainly felt God’s inaction to be wounding myself.
Yet God still arrives as an infant, born into a tenuous family situation; undoubtedly, Christ experienced many awkward family holidays around a shared table.
Even if I cannot isolate the answers to my every question about God, I can hold the kiddo I’m currently nannying in my arms and remember that once, God was a baby, too.
So maybe the question of pain is not the greatest mystery of my faith, after all.
Thanks for reading. Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
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Enjoy these short looks at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, wrapped in fabric.
(The actual wrapping—or “packaging” as the French call it—occurred on September 18-October 3, 2021.)