Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Family Matters

The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina is: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". This is a good axiom, but all axioms, even good axioms, have notable exceptions when examined closely. There is no such thing as a completely happy family. All families are dysfunctional in some way and to some degree. There are no perfect parents, and therefore no perfect families.  This observation includes families of origin, families of choice and families made up of loved ones to whom we are not related by blood or marriage.


We all struggle with personal conflicts and unexpected circumstances which cause us to unravel and sometimes break open at the seams. There is nothing that has a more profound influence on who we are and how we relate to other people than our early childhood experiences. We are shaped by our past. We all struggle in webs we did not spin, some of which were spun long before we were born. We cannot change our past. It is what it is. Our best hope for personal happiness and fulfillment, as well as our hope for developing the essential skills for successful personal relationships, is to come to terms with our past; our long ago past and our recent past. This consists of doing the emotional work of understanding and disengaging ourselves from the hurtful experiences of our past in which we were wounded, and embracing those parts of our past that are positive and strengthening. This is not an easy process, but one that is essential to our emotional well-being. It takes intentional effort and discernment, and it can be facilitated by objective counsel. It is a life-long task.


Sometimes we discover that not all of the unhappy things that happened to us when we were young were as bad as they seemed at the time.


Recently my seminary classmate and friend, Dr. William Doran, who is retired in Nebraska sent me an email story of a personal experience that illustrates this salient fact. This is what he wrote: " I was on the high school basketball team. We were getting ready to leave for an important game at a school in another county. It had rained and then turned cold. The roads were iced over.  My dad called the school and said I couldn’t go to the game with the team. I had to come straight home. Needless to say, I was angry. Several days later I heard a man talking to Dad regarding the matter. Dad’s response was: 'I canceled sending a load of hogs to market that day because of the roads. Why would I let my son go out on them?'"


Most of us can recall some similar experience in which a parent who knew how to exercise tough love saved us from peril we did not understand at the time.


We live in a culture that constantly reinforces the illusion that we can make profound changes quickly with minimal personal effort. Some years ago Dr. Edward Teller observed that "Life improves slowly and goes wrong fast, and only catastrophe is clearly visible".  In his book TOO SOON OLD, TOO LATE SMART, Dr. Gordon Liviingston has a most insightful chapter titled 'Only Bad Things Happen Quickly'.  "When you think of the things that alter our  lives quickly, nearly all of them are bad; phone calls the middle of the night, accidents, loss of loved ones, conversations with doctors bearing awful news.....Apart from a last minute touchdown, an unexpected inheritance, winning the lottery or a visitation from God, it is hard to imagine sudden good news.  Virtually all happiness-producing processes in life take time, usually a long time...". (Page 82-83)  In another chapter, Livingston opines that the statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.. (Read the book!!)  There comes a time in which we must accept the painful truth that we are responsible for most of what happens to us.  Until we come to that understanding of reality, we will never grow up or find real happiness.


There is more on family matters. Stay tuned next week.