In a very unsolicited moment this past week, I learned a valuable lesson about myself: I am a survivor.
Many of you don’t know this about me, but seven years ago I shared a pivotal piece of information about my life with my family. I grew up in a highly conservative religious setting and my personal revelation clashed with their theology. The result was two years of hateful rhetoric and estrangement that was incredibly painful and quite damaging. It was a period fraught with bitter irony because the faith tradition in which I grew up places a heavy emphasis on the importance and eternal nature of families.
Eventually, I took a job in D.C. and moved back to the area. My parents and siblings live in Northern Virginia, but I approached being in their vicinity with great caution. I consciously chose to live in the city proper as a means of putting a little physical distance between us. I’ll admit, too, the idea of having the Potomac and a bridge separating us also helped me feel a bit secure—like I was living in a castle surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge as the only means of entry. In other words, not so far away that it was impossible to see them, but not so close that it was convenient.
Over the last five years, I’ve worked very hard to build some semblance of an adult relationship with my family members. They have continued to worship in their religion “according to the dictates of their conscience” and I have respected that. I choose not to participate in the faith of my upbringing and I have asked for, but not always received, reciprocal respect for my choices. My lack of activity in church is a point of disagreement for my family, but it is one I choose to largely ignore.
This past Friday, my brother participated in a series of religious rituals that constitute a rite of passage for faithful members of the church they attend. These rites represent milestones for each individual; their equivalent would be like attending hajj as a Muslim or visiting Lourdes or the Vatican as a Catholic. The purpose is meant to raise the participant to a higher plane within the faith and distinguish them as “one of the washed.” (I wrote my entire master’s thesis on this, by the way.) Just as a Muslim becomes known as a hajji and is elevated in status within the Muslim community, so, too, are Mormons elevated in status once they have been “endowed” by participating in temple rituals.
I knew my brother was preparing to participate in these rituals and I respect the importance and significance they hold within his faith community. I may no longer participate in those rituals myself, but I respect them for what they mean and the sociological role they play within the community of believers (see aforementioned note about thesis.) Regardless of my lack of participation, I was genuinely happy for him.
So, where am I going with all of this?
As I mentioned, this past Friday, my brother participated in these rituals, but chose not to include me by failing to call me and tell me he was going to the temple for the first time. While I am not able to physically go with him, due to my lack of active church participation, I would at least like to have known so I could tell him how happy I was/am for him. As it was, I found out after the fact, which left me pissed. I’m still not clear on why he didn’t tell me beforehand, as he has yet to call me or email me and set up a time to talk. What I do know is, I was incredibly hurt and angry at having been deliberately shunned.
I’ve spent the bulk of the weekend being emotional—angry one minute, weeping the next, baffled in general, sick to my stomach in particular… Name the emotion, I’m sure I’ve covered it in the last 96 hours. I was suppose to have my family at my house yesterday for Sunday dinner, but I canceled. I just didn’t have the energy to make the kind of effort I put into my cooking and entertaining. My heart was burdened with other things and any cooking I would have done would have been poisoned by the effect of their actions.
But last night, I had an epiphany.
I’d raged and ranted. I’d even hit a wall (note: hitting things is a bad idea. Your hand will really, really hurt, especially if what you’re hitting is almost 100 years old and made of plaster and lathe.) I’d cried and lamented. I’d thrown my anger around at myself, for thinking I could have a relationship with my family after being estranged; at my family, for so deliberately doing something they knew was wrong and would be hurtful; at the church, for indoctrinating their members in such a way that something like this could even be possible and might even be seen as acceptable.
Eventually, I dried my tears, blew my nose, and realized I am a survivor. I had been through this range of emotions and conflict before with my family and, while I was bloody and bruised previously, I wasn’t broken. I managed to get through the horrific rhetoric and hatefulness and still live. This weekend was horrific and hateful again, but I pulled through and I’m going to be okay. I still love my family, but I’m much clearer on the parameters of my place in their life. As a result, I’ll be modifying my parameters regarding their place in my life.
My therapist often use to say two things to me during those years gone by. First, “you are not broken.” And second, “I know you feel icky now, but you’re not always going to feel this way.” This weekend was pretty icky, but somehow I’ve arrived on the other side of it a bit more impervious to meanness. I’m still angry, but I’m not seething with bitterness. I’m glad I’m not always going to feel this way. More than that, though, I’m glad that I can not only survive, but thrive.