Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Ties that Bind

Elise made a comment on the last blog post that got me to thinking. (Hi, Elise!) She said:
It took me 40 years to wise up about my N-mom. And that's without a framework of Christianity (or any other religion) in my head.

If I'd had those expectations to deal with too, I shudder to think how much longer I might have wrestled with trying to "fix" her and trying to be the "good daughter".
I have made the observation here that it can be extremely difficult for a Christian to justify leaving off all contact with their abusive parents. There is a plethora of Bible verses that are misused to keep adult children from holding their abusive parents to account. In my posts on the 5th commandment I deal with biggest Christian club of all where it concerns the parent/child relationship. Then there is the culture of "nice" that seems to have taken over Christianity. Hurting someone's feelings is a sin now.

I contemplate Elise's comment and ponder the difficulty all decent people have in cutting off an abusive and unrepentant parent no matter whether you as a person is religious or not. What makes families from around the globe put up with so much shit from their narcissistic family members?

There is a long historical account of the many and varied peoples who have engaged in ancestor worship. Sometimes it isn't so much worship as just veneration and respect. Stick with me. I'm not calling Elise an ancestor worshiper; let's just explore this concept a little. This is a new thought to I'm exploring it with you here.

People groups from ancient Indo-European and Roman cultures had a strong tradition of ancestor veneration. Of course, many and varied oriental cultures engaged in various types of ancestor worship and/or veneration as well as some African peoples. Many of the smaller people groups who are generally described as "animistic" in their belief system were also big into ancestor worship or veneration. There is a strong strain of ancestor veneration in Catholicism. My point is: History's testimony reveals that humanity shows a strong proclivity toward this form of thinking and belief. Widely disparate people groups (many of whom had no contact with each other) engage in a common belief that venerating their ancestors is necessary and right.

What is basic in the culture of ancestor worship and/or veneration is how it affects the living and relationships in the family. Quoting from MSN Encarta:

Ancestor worship is a strong indication of the value placed on the household and of the strong ties that exist between the past and the present. The beliefs and practices connected with the cult help to integrate the family, to sanction the traditional political structure, and to encourage respect for living elders. Some scholars have also interpreted it as a source of individual well-being and of social harmony and stability. Because it is practiced by family groups, ancestor worship excludes proselytizing and rarely involves a separate priesthood. It has no formal doctrines and is ordinarily an aspect of some larger religious system.
Emphasis mine. Notice how ancestor veneration or worship is primarily focused on the living. It is not just about dead ancestors, it is more about the structure of the family, reinforcement of family loyalties and political advantages and ensuring good treatment of the living elders in the family. Notice, too, that it has "no formal doctrines and is ordinarily an aspect of some larger religious system." This underlines the reality that this type of belief system is not attached to any particular set of religious beliefs. Which means it could be a belief system not attached to any religion. In a sense, this strong and universal penchant of humans to venerate their elders is more basic and pervasive than any other form of religious practice or belief.

It appears that humans are hard-wired to keep families intact. This is not a bad way to think except when it gives a pass to evil-doers. What proves the religious aspect of this veneration of elders (be they alive or dead) is that it is nearly impervious to reason which means it is an emotion based belief system. When emotions are appealed to more than the mind then blind faith is the result. When we're talking about an emotion-based faith system we are talking about a form of religion. There is sin and the need for virtue. Both are defined, not by any "formal doctrines", but by the rules and desires of the living elders. The lack of "formal doctrines" means there is a subjective set of rules depending on the culture or family. The ones at the top are making the rules. This explains why this is such a universal adapts to any people group or family. Better hope your ancestors are righteous and not evil. Obviously, if you have grasping, evil living elders then the penalties for non-compliance can be very severe. They may even come back to getcha after death! (As some ancestor worshipers believe.)

Ancestor veneration is a lot less about the dead and a lot more about the living. It is about the living elders and how they try to enforce the treatment of themselves in a human society. It seems that undergirding natural human emotions about family units is this propensity to venerate our living elders. We should be able to respect and look up to them. I believe that was in God's original design, but because evil exists this proclivity of humanity to venerate their elders is exploited by those who want to prostitute power and control to their own ends. When narcissists get a hold of a system which demands unquestioning obedience to elders who make and enforce the rules -- then tyranny thrives. They abuse the power because narcissists abuse all power they manage to grab a hold of. The narcissist will corrupt the family system for their own selfish use. Anything that is good can be corrupted.

The more we are prone to venerate the family unit above principles of right and wrong...the harder will be our escape from broken family systems. You don't have to be religious in a formal sense to have a religious view of the family as the center of all things. We have to consider the very real possibility that we are blindly venerating the family unit when we find ourselves unable to justify severing ourselves from evil family members. Christian or not, we serve our own families best if we adhere to principles of morality above blind veneration of our living elders. Because any good thing can be corrupted by bad people we must remain dedicated to objective moral principles more than to blood relations. Blood relations are not "holy". Neither is age. Age is not the only qualification for respect. Respect must be earned. When the aged have lived a long life with a clear record of being respectable then we honor them with respect and listen to their advice because they have proven themselves wise. If they have lived unselfishly we are better able to trust their insights and advice as being truly in our best interests. Humanity likes to believe that with age comes wisdom, but as the saying goes: "Age doesn't always bring wisdom; sometimes age comes alone."

I'm trying to express what I see as a unifying feature for all people regardless of religious background or lack thereof. There seems to be a natural (and commendable, in my opinion) sense in all decent human beings that we should respect and look up to those who have been on the planet longer than we have. (This is actually quite logical.) This obviously includes our parents. I think we also need to acknowledge that humanity also has a natural weakness to venerate the dishonorable just because the dishonorable hold certain venerable titles. It is this blind allegiance to the dishonorable that I'm trying to bring attention to. If we insist that title trumps morality then we will stay stuck and abused in corrupt family systems. If we dedicate ourselves to living by objective moral standards then it may require that we sever family connections. We have to employ our heads in this matter which can be a significant challenge in the emotionally charged atmosphere of familial relationships.

Thanks, Elise, for your perspective. I have enjoyed exploring the train of thought you sparked in me. I hope it is apparent that I am sympathizing with the difficulty you've had recognizing the narcissism in your mother. My point in this post is that no matter one's religious background there is a strong undercurrent which pulls all of us in the same direction...that of staying in a destructive and dangerous family situation. Those of us who pull away from destructive family members are all up against a strong, almost primal, human belief in the sacredness of the "ties that bind".


Anonymous said...

I guess this is why the N sent me an anonymous letter accusing me of elder abuse. When all else has failed, she will try to control with this trump card.

Problem for her: it is pure projection. The abuse is a one-way street that starts at her doorstep.

I believe in breaking the intergenerational cycle of abuse, not perpetuating it. Control by "respect for elders" only works on someone who believes in the system. I believe in giving respect where it is due. She deserves none.

That card is bent. It belongs in the reject pile.

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything really intelligent to say other than: "Hear, Hear!" I just didn't want to let such an insightful post pass without acknowledging it in the comments. Thanks for all of your hard work (again) in thinking this through. I have dealt with the overwhelming "Christian guilt" issue, but I hadn't considered the broader sociological issue of respect for elders that transcends religion/culture.


Anonymous said...

"Those of us who pull away from destructive family members are all up against a strong, almost primal, human belief in the sacredness of the "ties that bind"."

Which probably explains why it takes us until we are in mid-life ourselves (the 40 biblical years of suffering - just kidding - sort of) before we are able to understand what has been happening to us and do something about it.

On just about all the website for Narcissism that I have visited people are in their late thirties or forties when the light bulb goes on. Or maybe that's just that there is alot more information out there for us now.

Any thoughts?

Cathy said...

"The more we are prone to venerate the family unit above principles of right & wrong...the harder will be our escape from broken family systems". How true this is.

It seems to me that this is also done, from a different perspective, with respect broken marriages. I was married to a blatant narcissist (go figure). Those around me placed more importance on the "marriage unit". The marriage as an "institution" was held as more sacred, more important, something to be preserved at all costs, over and above principles of right and wrong, good and evil. The destruction of an individual within the unit by the evil of their partner was suborinated to the importance of the "marriage". After all, God hates divorce. Once again, misguided thinking.

Back to family units. Some other food for thought. I am beginning to recognize something in my own struggle and ambivalence with respect to disconnecting from my family. Attachment theory dictates that as a child one must remain attached to their primary caregiver at all costs. It is necessary for their psychic survival. Disconnection or disrupted attachment from the primary caregiver is like death to a small child. So the child will perform any number of mental machinations in order to stay connected to a very sick parent. They learn to call bad and evil, good. Because they need to have a good mother. They learn to twist themselves into pretzels to keep the evil narcissist happy so that they can somehow remain attached to her and remain in her good graces so they don't lose her love, which would be like death in their small world.

Unfortunately, these things get carried into adulthood. So part of the struggle is to recognize that you are no longer the helpless child that had to stay connected at all costs to your parents. You are not doing something wrong in deciding to NOT stay connected to them mow. You are not going to "die" and it is time to let go of the mental gymnastics you had to perform for survival as a child by calling evil "good".

It's time to put away childish things. And to enter into the adult world of reality. And recognize that the abundant evidence in front of you is exactly what it is . . . evil. Evil that you no longer have to remain attached to.

Anna Valerious said...


I have also noticed how it seems as if it is around age 40 that the light seems to turn on. I really don't know how to explain the mid-life realization. If I was to try and guess I would start with it having something to do with accumulating a lot of life experience by the time one reaches their 40s; having our own children which often causes us to confront again the reality of our N parents and bring in new crises; finally reaching an age in life where you can respect that you're an adult yourself and start wondering why you still feel like a child around your parent! I also have thought that it is a testament to the great patience that narcissists receive from their grown children that the day of accountability is so very long in coming. I think it takes a great deal of time and untold reams of evidence to convince us that the problem doesn't lay in ourselves and we start to finally lay blame where it belongs.

Anonymous said...

Bingo! Great reams of time & EVIDENCE to realize the problem doesn't lie in OURSELVES!!!
I FINALLY got the evidence I needed 2 days ago when I walked into the (Catholic) school office of my children's school & overheard 2 key administrators talking about me. Lies & slander perpetrated by my wicked N sister who was once a teacher there & has been on a smear campaign against me for years. I just stood there silently meeting eyes with the one facing me until she finally had to say "she's standing right behind you" to the one with her back to me.Then I stood waiting to meet HER eyes as she first froze, & then slowly turned around. I said,"You may THINK you know a lot about me, but its a pack of lies & slander".She ran away like the cowardly bully that viscious gossips are. I then turned to the other one,who was left in her office hanging out to dry, & said,
"That woman has been listening to viscious lies about me from my sister for years. And you just perpetrated it" and walked out to her sputtering. Later when I called to demand to see the principal this woman answered & tried to apologize (classic NONapology-she was only sorry she got busted). I told her we had nothing to say to each other-to have the principal call me immediately. I intend to follow up on my meeting with the principal yesterday morning by demanding a strong message be sent to these offenders, but unfortunately the original culprit is my evil N-sister. Yet that is all "suspicion" & "hearsay" This incident finally gave me PROOF!!!
Out in the open & on record. And guaranteed to get back to the N-sister that her viscious crony was not only busted but got another staff member busted too. Now I can turn my back forever & when my 13 sibling try to "repair" us--the evil is out of the dark!! Katrina

Anonymous said...

About the midlife realizations:

It's all part of being the sandwich generation. When you're being squeezed from both sides, something's got to give. And it usually does.

bonsai said...

I'm not a "sandwich" generation person (no kids, by choice). But after having taken care of my grandfather (my n-mom's father) when SHE should have done it, I've done my bit already.

I agree...40 is BIG for a lot of people, it seems. IT certainly was a watershed year for me in terms of getting real about my own life.