“You can’t choose your family.”
I respectfully disagree. I believe we choose our path before we get here. Some people call this our “contract” with our Highest Self – kind of like a road map or manifesto for what we’re here to accomplish this time around. This includes the people with whom we spend our lives – from beginning to end. Yes, even those of us who have had difficult or abusive childhoods, those whose parents were neglectful, or alcoholics, or couldn’t afford basic necessities. And including those who have lost parents or siblings at a young age, or never really knew their birth families, or who lived in a time of war or natural disasters or suffering. Our lives are purposeful and deliberate, and we’re here to learn. Yes, I believe the old chestnuts like “everything happens for a reason,” and “there are no accidents.” Often, the more difficult the life we choose to live out, the deeper and more profound is the potential for growth and learning, if we embrace the lesson.
As I write this, I’m winding down a wonderful holiday spent with my family. Now that my children are adults in their late 20s (one is over 30, and another is pushing it) and maybe contemplating looking forward to the fast approach of my sixth decade, I’ve been thinking about “family,” and what it means to me.
The Spiritual Community recently lost Baba Ram Dass, a great teacher and Spiritual leader. It’s no coincidence that, when I began researching this month’s blog, the first Google entry to come up was one of his writings – on the importance of having a Spiritual Family. He wrote:
As your spiritual practices start to work, your reasons for being with people start to change, and who you want to be with changes too. Sometimes it’s not easy, as longstanding relationships or jobs are discarded. Your old friends might find you a little dull because you’ve experienced a taste of a certain kind of truth – a deeper truth connected to a different quality of being. Social interactions that used to be engaging pale next to the attraction of the Beloved, and social life begins to seem surreal. Not everyone can “hear” the quality of the spiritual experience you are having.
So “family” is an evolving, undulating, dynamic lifetime connection. It begins with where you were born, then changes when you begin to make friends and start school (and every time you moved and/or changed schools, if that happened for you), changes when/if you further your education, when you begin work, and then when/if you find a partner and/or add children or pets into the mix. Every time you join a group, make a new friend, adopt a pet, you are changing your family to incorporate a new learning or understanding of who you are becoming. Change (into who you were meant to be) or die (Spiritually). And your family changes with you along the way – a constantly developing environment for growth. You may not realize for a long time why a particular “family” member is a part of your life, or why on Earth you chose to have that person as part of your family. You may not even realize until long after the relationship has ended, or the realization may cause you to ease that person out of your family. But what is always true is that the person belongs in your life, and is a catalyst for you rising to your greatest and highest self. In fact, sometimes it’s the end of the relationship that leads to the positive change.
I spent my youth in a family in which I didn’t feel I belonged. I was the person no one else in the family understood. My authoritarian parents saw my differentness as defiance, and wasted a lot of time trying to force me to conform to their idea of how a person should be. But I found love and acceptance from my grandmother and aunt, and gathered to myself some kindred spirits (who remain friends to this day) who made me feel less like I was an alien in a foreign land. College was a bit of a relief, because I found success in a more diverse environment. I found a few more friends who, although not as offbeat as me, understood and accepted me for who I was. Then law school threw me back into very black and white expectations of how to conform (and I later found the same debilitating constraints as I worked in the legal field). I had a tough time finding anyone to relate to. During this time I found what I thought was someone “like me” in my first husband. This started about sixteen years of joy and pain – joy in that it brought my children into my life, and allowed me to realize long-held dreams of living in the country, raising animals and doing creative work – but pain in realizing that I had made a very poor choice of life partner. Now, in hindsight, I understand the growth that this difficult period of time afforded me. I realize the strength it built in me (especially through an agonizing divorce process that lasted a decade), and the compassion for others living what would seem to be an impossible life. It helped me to accept that what others thought of me didn’t affect who I was. I brought those lessons with me to difficult work situations, uncomfortable interpersonal relationships and untenable life decisions.
What does my family look like now? My children have grown into friends – with changing family roles I can see how much they bring to my life. The relationships I have with each of my four children haven’t always been positive, and I’ve sadly been estranged from one of them for many years. But I can see the life lessons they’re helping me to understand, and I’m grateful for that. I’m waiting to see what our continued growth, together and individually, will bring. My new husband has brought joys and challenges, but, happily, no pain or regrets. My cats are cuddly, expressive and comforting companions.
Also part of my family are the friends that I have retained from grade school and from high school, friends from various jobs I have held, friends that I have gathered along the way of finding myself. I am blessed to have found loyal and supportive people who accept me as-is and see my quirkiness as interesting rather than weird. Or weird but acceptable.
As we begin a new decade, look around you at the family you have chosen. Ask yourself why they are in your life at this time – what are they here to teach you? Do they support you, comfort you, bring you joy? Or do they bring you pain, make you feel like an outsider, rob you of your happiness? Make a list. In this New Year, resolve to spend more time with your loving family, and bless the others, wish them well, thank them for the lessons they have given to you (you don’t have to do this out loud) and send them on their way. There is no virtue in keeping people in your life who cause you heartache, self-doubt or make you feel less than what you are. And there should be no guilt or shame for protecting your inner peace by gently letting go of those who hurt you. If they truly belong in your life, you will find them again at another time, in another place, a place where you each are in a position to appreciate one another. And if you need help in extricating yourself from a particularly damaging relationship, please reach out – there is help available, and if you can’t find it, please contact me and I will show you where.
Are there people that you have caused harm or pain, and to whom you would like to make amends? What are you waiting for? Swallow your pride and fear (no one likes to be rejected) and extend the olive branch. Apologize. Explain how you have grown since you’ve hurt him or her. Ask for forgiveness. Know that if your apology is accepted, things won’t be as they were – you have each grown and need to form your “family” relationship again in its new iteration. This will take time. If your former friend is not ready to accept you as family again, or rejects your overture out of hand, accept that this relationship has run its course in this lifetime, and that you may rebuild at another time, in another lifetime, or never again, as your Spiritual contract with that person has been fulfilled. Thank the Universe for the learning, and move on.
Once we have reached adulthood, our family is ours for the making. Draw your family close and celebrate the joys you bring to one another. Accept the dynamic nature of the relationships you have formed. Be willing to invite new family in, and to say goodbye to those who are passing through to something else – always being grateful for what’s developing in your soul. And, to those reading this, thank you for being a part of my family – the very fact that our lives have touched one another, no matter how briefly, makes us kin. Blessed be.