I will be the first to admit that I am something of an emotional cripple at times. Either true to my Minnesota culture or to my unusual childhood, I do not readily hug people who have a surface relationship with me. I have become through the years something of a relationship cynic, although I regularly pray that God will use me in spite of myself. I am not always generous with praise, and I hate emotional situations with no sense of closure in sight. I do not always have a lot of patience for children in my family whose lives head in directions that are blatantly antithetical to the values so dear in my life.
As a result, it is never pretty when I have an altercation with an emotionally handicapped son or daughter. Some of our children are in very good emotional health, for which I give God thanks, but others have been so damaged over the years I sometimes wonder if they ever will be anything but handicapped. I know that I shouldn't expect any more than that from kids whose early years were desperately painful, but somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that attentive, nurturing parents might be able to transform such a person's life.
Maybe my problem is that I expect too much too soon. I always have thought of myself as a fairly patient person, but I am beginning to wonder. I have been involved in a protracted conversation (of sorts) with our oldest son over the past week regarding some lifestyle choices he is making. While the details are too twisted and involved to bother with here, suffice it to say that the biggest issue is a consistent series of mistruths and lies. We have clearly been operating on two levels of trust which can be challenging to even the best of relationships.
I have periodically asked over the past few years (since his departure for college) very specific questions, to which I have received the answer he thought I would want to receive, not the truthful one. My intuition, though, has told me for some time that things were not what he wanted me to believe. So I finally said, "Have I put you in a position where you have had to lie to me?" After several minutes of "What do you mean?" the truth was revealed. When I explained that the chief issue to me was the deception not the actions in question, his response was simply, "Well, dad, I wanted this to be on me, not you. I knew that if I told you the truth it would break your heart." I'm not sure he understands that what breaks my heart is the dishonest and the torment I witness in him as he shares with me that his is a divided life.
So I listen. I do not judge. I do not threaten. I do not replay the "this is our family values" emotional tape one more time. I simply respond by acknowledging his frustration and disappointment. I can now identify the emotional "wedge" which has been gradually over time been creeping in our relationship.
And it makes me wonder. It makes me wonder whether it has ever really mattered that he became my son when he was eleven. Have I been able to spare him any of his hereditary predispositions or the dysfunctions of his birth family that caused both of his parents to lose their parental rights. I ask myself why I have, over and over, initiated a connection with this oldest son of mine. I wonder why I cannot simply walk away and be done with it all.
I am practicing the best principles of family systems theory, to maintain a non-anxious presence, to be who I am in the situation and identify it as such without setting up an emotional cut-off. But it is so very hard. Because I know the person he really is. He knows the person he really is. And it is not the person he now appears to be. I want to grab him by the shoulders, no longer childishly smooth, look into his face peppered with facial hair and into the lambent depths of his brown eyes, and declare, "You are my son, born in my heart twelve years ago at the age of ten. This is not who you are. This is not who I want you to be. This is not who you want to be." I want to embrace him and remind him that he will always be my son, and that there is nothing he can do that will ever change the depth of my love for him.
But I cannot. I cannot because we are sitting in a car, and I am driving as we talk. And even if we were not in a car it would be awkward to treat my young adult son as the emotionally struggling child he is. I cannot do it that way because he is emotionally handicapped. And well, maybe I am, too.
So I settle for words and as gentle a tone as I can muster. I do remind him that I will always love him. I do my best to free him to make the adult-like decision he needs to make for himself. I affirm the honesty of our exchange, that while painful to hear truth is always better than deceit. I listen as his self-imposed torment fills the car where we sit, but this time is somewhat different. In the past his basic emotional response has been anger in varying degrees supplanted by blame. But this time it is different because he does not blame me for his choices. Not this time. He does not blame our family for his situation. Not any more. It's one of the basic young adult struggles. Will he own the values of those he says he has learned to trust (his parents) or the values of those around him. "It's my friends, dad. That's just what we do when we're together."
"Even if it is not really who you are?" I query.
Silence. "It's hard to explain, dad."
And we come to no conclusions, we find little common ground except our shared pain in a situation that while, not intractable, shows no immediate resolution. It is times like these when I feel lowest as a parent, for I am ill-equipped to deal with it all. As a pastoral counselor I can deal with it. I have heard plenty of painful, horrifying stories and offered comfort, direction and solace as a minister. As a friend to another family struggling with their own children I am able to offer good advice, strength and hope.
But I am not my son's pastor. I am not his friend. I am his dad. And I'm not sure who is more emotionally handicapped, he or I.