Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Long Line of Defiance

There are some benefits from my family of origin, especially as one who has adopted children with varying special needs. Of all the diagnoses represented in the family that Claudia and I have formed, the one most represented statistically is oppositional defiant disorder (or conduct disorder, the "grown up" version of ODD). Oppositional Defiant Disorder is characterized by consistent refusal to comply with even the most basic, inconsequential requests of an authority figure. And we have dealt with this diagnosis on a daily basis for more than twelve years from any number of our children. We are fortunate that they have not yet all risen up in one mighty oppositional defiant coup d'etat. For whatever reason the ODD episodes are well spaced out over the course of a day, and over months and over years. Some of our children seem closer to resolving the issue than others, but it is still tiring work.

Fortunately for me the behavior is not unusual or surprising. I grew up with it and, I think, probably resemble it, although I try to funnel it into appropriate expressions. I come from a long line of defiance, so I know both its detriments and its possibilities.

My maternal grandfather, whom I knew very well all of my life until he died fifteen years ago, represents the beginning of defiance as I have known it. (There are probably other, earlier generations, but they stand outside my purview of remembrance). As a young man in his late teens in the early 1930's he hopped on his Indian motorcycle, leaving behind the small-town farming environment of western Illinois for the towering timbers of north-central Minnesota. He had relatives who lived in what was then still a fairly remote part of Minnesota, and when he could leave his hometown he did. His parents were, from all I knew of them, doting, adoring, affirming parents. They had two sons, the oldest of whom was my grandfather, and in their eyes he could do no wrong.

He had a tendency to be belligerent, cocky and sarcastic. His work style preference was seasonal work (non-snow months in Minnesota) during which he would work hard for pay and then spend winters doing what he wanted, which included, at various stages in his life, snowmobiling, hunting, cutting wood, motorcycling. He was not one to be told "no." He was not one to be directed. Authority structures riled up his sensibilities, and he was on perpetual guard that no one take advantage of him.

A colorful figure, I can remember spending many after school moments with grandpa. When I was too young to care he would take me with him to the local bar, where he would have a beer and I would have some kind of pop and a snack of sorts. Although I did not understand it at the time, he readily flirted with and occasionally propositioned the women we would encounter in stores or other social locations. He seemed to enjoy the process, although I am not sure how far the process ever went. I have heard intimations and seen raised eyebrows, but I've never felt the need to do much verification.

Because for me he was my grandfather. He was the guy who prized me because I was his firstborn grandson, born to one of the four daughters whom he worked most closely with. My mother, an early feminist in her own right in an isolated community of snow, logs and lakes, is no less defiant than her father before her. My mother was smoking corn-cob pipes as an older teenager that were only "appropriate" for males, wearing pants in an era when dresses or skirts were socially the required dress of young women. My mother worked with her father for years on the tractor, in the hay field, in the woods, cutting, splitting, piling and selling firewood.

And my mother is not one to be told what to do. She has a fairly clear vision of life and her role in it, and she is not unwilling to share it, although she is not much of a nagger. It is from her that I have learned over the years the value of being true to my personal values, whether others agree or not. To speak one's mind authentically and clearly is a virtue that has come to me from my long line of defiance.

And then there's me. At least a third generation of defiance, and a conundrum at that. How likely is it that a naturally defiant person would function in a vocation (clergy) so often characterized by status quo, tradition, consistency, inflexibility? Perhaps that has been part of the "call" for me. To serve within a context that has so much potential ripe for personal transformation if only some of the dead layers of institutionalism could be stripped away. It is, I suppose, one of my daily missions as a pastor ... to discover the depth and majesty of a Creator who chooses to connect to humans, who in our nature are oppositional, defiant, self-centered.

No surprise, then, that the fourth generation of my family line (although not genetically a reflection of my experience, quite close emotionally to my history) is blessed with defiance. I say "blessed with defiance" because children who grow into adults who can transform natural contrariness into social justice or mercy or care for creation or simply care for neighbor are what the world desperately needs.

Our world needs fewer passive, self-centered, uninvolved blobs who are complicit in the decline of our humanity. We need more defiance ... defiance that rails against inequality, injustice and human suffering. If only I can help shape the natural tendency of so many of my children into something that is transformative, I will consider my life's work a success.

So, here I stand. Another defiant from a long line of defiance whose history will continue for at least one more generation forward. I hope my grandfather, who never had the opportunity to know any of my children, might smile with that glint in his eye, proud that his firstborn grandson carries forward the family tradition.

1 comment:

Jerolyn Bogear said...

Love your writing and love this post. Can so relate -- and since you know my mother, would understand why.