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Healthy Families

Healthy Families

Michael Jinkins

Research that has stood the test of time deserves reflection. And one piece of research I came across several years ago reported that healthy families tend to be the ones in relationship with other families and individuals. Unhealthy families tend to keep to themselves.

Since this study was first reported in the mid-1980s in a distinguished series of essays, family therapists have seen it confirmed repeatedly. The implications of the study hold true for all sorts of human organizations and societies. But let’s focus on the family.

Members of healthy families tend to interact with people from other families in a variety of social settings, informal and formal. And, like bees picking up pollen from a variety of plants, they take what they learn back to the family unit. A healthy family tends to test the new ideas it gathers, discuss them, ask questions about the implications of the new ideas for their standard practices and beliefs. In other words, a healthy family exhibits a healthy openness to learning from other families.

A healthy family also tends to open itself to being seen and understood by others outside the family. And its first “reaction” to the questions of someone outside the family isn’t resistance or denial or defense, but curiosity. This requires a family (like any individual) to hold its dignity lightly, with good humor, and willingness to grow. A family that wants to be and to grow healthy holds deep inside a belief that its failings are not fatal, and that its worth does not depend upon discovering mistakes it makes.

Of course, I’ve just described a really, really healthy family. And most families are not that healthy. Mine sure wasn’t.

I grew up in the classically Gothic South, on a two-lane highway about halfway between Tennessee Williams and Billy Graham. The soundtrack of our family was a rich and dark blend of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and Muddy Waters, with a generous sprinkling of shape-note gospel singing thrown in. I’ve often wondered what our family motto was back in the Old Country, and I suspect it was something like, “We Keep Secrets.” Only in Latin, of course.

The little village I grew up in doesn’t really exist anymore (as John Knott knows), but when I was a kid it boasted three grocery stores (the largest of which was run by my grandparents), several gas stations, two churches (the Baptist one believed you couldn’t fall from grace and the Methodist one believed you could), its own public schools, first grade through high school, and a run down hotel. Even the Baptist church is gone now, and an East Texas town that can’t support a Baptist church isn’t anymore.

I’m sure we believed that Norman Rockwell was the only painter up to painting a true portrait of our village, though I now think Edvard Munch might have been a better choice. Come to think of it, we might have feared deep down that if Rockwell had ever stopped for gas in our village, he wouldn’t have unpacked his painting gear.

Folks, especially out in the country, mostly kept to themselves. And families sure did. Small nearby settlements were named for the families who lived there, like Allentown, Modisetteville, Parkertown, and Fenley Flat. Most of these were clusters of family houses, pastures, and farms separated by dark woods. My memories of those days are halcyon, but I know now that behind the doors of many of these houses were closed worlds of great suffering, great want, great shame, and big secrets. And these big secrets were guarded with great care. They showed others just what they wanted to show, and not much of that.

“I don’t want nobody comin’ around here when I ain’t home,” I heard a man shouting through a screen door. “But you don’t want nobody comin’ here when you are home,” answered the woman. A screen door slapped closed and the man disappeared into his truck.

As a boy, I rode with my grandfather, a rural mailman, and I saw small vignettes when doors briefly opened and worlds were revealed. And sometimes, when the ladies gathered at my grandmother’s house to quilt (which they did with regularity), they didn’t stop talking in time to keep me from hearing if I wandered into the front parlor. Little ears hear a lot. Some of it true. Gossip lives on the marrow deep inside of secrets and the lies that cover them. Perhaps the gossip is told to deflect curiosity about secrets the teller wants to keep. I don’t know. But I do know that folks in my village guarded their secrets with their lives.

These days, I feel a certain sadness, looking back. Where there’s so much shame, there’s such a need for grace. Now I regret that our Christian faith didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the shame people carried. I wish that folks (including me and my own) could have just bathed in grace like they bathed in those baptismal pools our churches had back then. Or, were we just resistant to the grace we did hear about. I don’t know.

One of my favorite teachers of family therapy once said in a class that a therapist and a client enter into an unspoken contract. The therapist promises, “I will do everything in power to help you toward health.” The client promises in return, “And I promise to do everything I can to keep you from succeeding.”

{By the way, this contract works for everyone, not just a few. If you put a really smart therapist in therapy, they tend to get just as defensive as anyone else. We’re human. And becoming open to real growth just rubs us humans the wrong way. It’s crazy, but true.}

So how do we (not somebody else, but us) learn to open ourselves to mental and spiritual health?

  1. We get healthier by trial and error. It’s a fact. There’s no foolproof formula. We will, if we allow ourselves to listen to others, and watch them, and be in relationship with them, learn some new things about ourselves. Some of the things we learn will be pleasant. Some of the things we learn will be painful. Some of the things we hear about ourselves will be true and others will be false, and it will take patience and courage to winnow through it all. We have to exercise a lot of self-control to keep our natural reactivity to a minimum, so that we can learn to respond better and to keep the learning going.
  2. We are stronger than we think, and if we stay at it, we will grow. I suspect that many folks (and many families) do not open themselves to others because they fear judgment. Maybe they even sense that they wouldn’t survive a rigorous unbiased inspection. Maybe there really are hidden secrets that would not be accepted by outsiders. But the secret sources of shame will only grow if not subjected to what someone once called “the disinfectant of sunshine.” Those who lie the most are most fearful. Only love casts out this kind of fear.
  3. We are also better than we can imagine. God only works with sinners. Even saints, as Ambrose Bierce (author of “The Devil’s Dictionary”) once wrote, are just “dead sinners revised and edited for posterity.” There is that in the human being that God seeks to find and redeem, and redemption is not a solitary activity, but a group one. We are “saved by grace through faith,” says the Apostle, which means that unconditional acceptance requires trust, and it takes at least two for this tango.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about isolation. Natural, I guess, when social lockdown is safer than a contagion. But the time will come (really, it will) when we’ll be able to be together again. And as that promise looms large before us, it is worth remembering that healthy families welcome relationships with outsiders, and so do churches, and so do communities, and so do states, and so do nations. The better we know others, the better we know ourselves, and the healthier we are.

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