Years ago in a Marriage and Family class, my professor drew big circles on the whiteboard to represent family systems. He talked about “closed” systems and “open” systems, and all sorts of other terms that eventually filled his circles with arrows and scribbles and a general sense of disorder. This holiday season I found myself thinking a lot about those circles.
Every day I live in my own circle. It’s the “Me and Husband Family System.” It has its own set of priorities, entertainment preferences, conflicts, and agreements. This Thanksgiving we loaded up the minivan, drove four hours, rang my parents’ doorbell, and stepped back into the “circle” that raised me. Mom and Dad’s family system. It was as familiar as my mom’s fried rice, and yet it fit like skinny jeans after a pregnancy. How can something that made you who you are, no longer fit who you’ve become?
My answer came three weeks later when Christmas rolled around and we spent a week living in another “circle,” the one that raised my husband. I realized that marriage is a little like tossing two family systems into a bag and shaking it until they smooth each other out. In the end what you take out of the bag is entirely new.
Sometimes it’s beautiful, like a stone polished with friction. And sometimes it’s broken. Sometimes we realize the pieces we were given were never whole to begin with, and trying to build something healthy is like assembling a bicycle with broken parts. Even if we can make it look normal on the outside, it will never race down a road. So how do we make peace with family systems? Here’s what I’ve been mulling over:
Recognize that every family system is flawed. From the moment sin entered the world, nobody had a shot at doing this “family” thing perfectly. So, what if we just admitted it? What if we gave our parents, and our in-laws, and our parents’ parents the freedom to be human? To have made mistakes that impact us and yet to be treated with dignity, love, and forgiveness–the same way Christ has treated us?
Acknowledge the specific failings of the family system. I think there are two unhealthy tendencies for dealing with the failures of a family system. We either want to sweep them under the rug, or we want to frame them on the mantel. Neither is beneficial. Think about your own children. Would you really want them to pretend they haven’t been hurt or negatively impacted by the mistakes you’ve made? To quietly grow bitter toward you? Or worse yet, to repeat those mistakes? As terrifying as exposing the failures of a family system can be, when it’s done with a commitment to love one another, it can be liberating. Messy as a bachelor pad, but liberating.
Lay the past to rest. None of us own a time machine. Which is why framing past failures on the mantel is so devastating. Nobody wants to be defined by their mistakes, nor made to pay for them again and again. At some point we have to deal with the ugly under the rug, then forgive and lay the past to rest. Throw it in the trash with the turkey carcass and all the other things we’re officially “done” with. That is grace. And we all need it.
Accept personal responsibility for the family system you’re creating. Believe me, I know how comforting it can be to blame someone else for all the things you dislike about yourself. Your inability to trust. Your penchant for shutting people out. That anger problem you have. But the hard truth is nobody will be held accountable for our lives except us. The beautiful side to that truth is we’re not slaves to the past. In Christ we have everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pe 1:3), everything we need to grow, to change, and to overcome.
As I move into this new year, I’m reminded again that Jesus is the essence and the fullness of Hope, one of my favorite things about Him. There is no hurt He can’t heal, no relationship He can’t restore, and no failure He can’t redeem. His presence within us is our hope of glory (Col. 1:27). Our only hope of glory.
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