Sunday, August 23, 2015

For Those of Us that Struggle in our Families

For the majority of my life I have felt increasingly insecure about how broken and imperfect my family situation seemed. Then, I would feel guilty for even feeling that way because I knew so many had it so much worse than I did. My only rationale was that I somehow deserved the brokenness around me. I became depressed with the fear that I had been given less than ideal family situations because I deserved them. I felt that I must be unworthy and unlovable - a hopeless case.

I realize that we all struggle in our families because families were given to us to teach us how to become more like our Savior. And sometimes that growing is very difficult and our families bear the brunt of our growing pains. But the abuse and dishonesty and an inability to communicate effectively that I have experienced both in the family I was born into and the one I have created for myself left me feeling like I was a failure in what mattered most in life - healthy relationships. I was angry, depressed, and stuck in my pain for a long time. Sometimes, I still am.

Thankfully, I have had plenty of loving family support, ecclesiastical leaders, therapists, and a loving Savior who have guided me through that minefield of pain and self doubt. I would like to share some very illustrative stories that completely changed my perspective on what it means to suffer in our families. Ideally, families are a place of love and refuge from the storm. But because we are all human and growing, sometimes they are the storm. Sometimes we are the storm. Living in an abusive or less than ideal family situation does not mean  we brought it upon ourselves. It took me a very long time to realize that and even longer to actually believe it. These inspired accounts given by a therapist and Stake President made all the difference for me:

*Note: By and large, I have not experienced anything near the severity of these trials. But I have felt what it is to be abused emotionally and verbally, manipulated, my marriage slipping out from under me, deep anxiety for the future, unfair judgment, and plenty of pain. If you are in an abusive situation, please seek help from professionals and the Spirit. To some degree, I related best with these particular accounts.

"The first one was a case of a sister whom I'd known for years and who, in my judgment, had made some very poor life choices. She had married a handsome, charming young man who initially wasn't a member of the Church but joined the Church for her. She waited a year to marry him and then went to the temple. It was the last time he ever went to the temple. I knew he was a flake from the beginning. ...

There was great pain for this woman. A good, good woman, she kept in the Church; she kept in the kingdom; she suffered enormous pain because her husband went back to gambling and drinking and other things that were unhappy and unwholesome. But, the greater pain came when her children, having these two models before them, began to follow him. ...

As she asked me for a blessing to sustain her in what to do with this awful situation in which she found herself, my thoughts were, 'Didn't you ask for this? You married a guy who really didn't have any depth to him and raised your kids too permissively. ... ' I had all those judgments in my head. I laid my hands on her head, and the Lord told her of His love and His tender concern for her. He acknowledged that He had given her (and that she had volunteered for) a far, far harder task than He would like. (And, as He put in my mind, a harder task than I had had. ... ) She, however, had signed up for hard children, for children who had rebellious spirits but who were valuable; for a hard husband who had a rebellious spirit but who was valuable. ...

I repented. I realized I was in the presence of one of the Lord's great noble spirits, who had chosen not a safe place behind the lines pushing out the ordinance to the people in the front lines as I was doing, but somebody who chose to live out in the trenches where the Lord's work was being done, where there was risk, where you could be hurt, where you could lose, where you could be destroyed by your love. That's the way she had chosen to labor. ...

In a blessing the Lord said to her, 'When you're in my employ, the wages are from me, not from those you serve.'"

That last line changed my whole perspective about my life's purpose. I realized that I had been expecting the ideal from my family members if I chose to be patient and forgiving. I expected them to at least try just as much as I thought I was. I had been hoping and praying for things that were out of my control. I had chosen a path that traveled through the trenches. But that did not make me any less worthy of love and eternal happiness. It simply meant that I might have to accept that I would be rewarded by the Lord and not necessarily in the way I envisioned. I could change my expectations for both myself and my family members. I could love them simply because I love the Lord and I know He loves us perfectly. I knew that even if I felt as if I could not trust anyone, I could always trust Him. I was able to lay my burdens and broken dreams at His feet and let Him lead me.

"In the second case I had a woman who came to me who was an incest victim - the victim of a terrible family. ... The daughter had been abused in about every way there was to be abused - psychologically, physically, sexually. ...

She had recurring bouts of depression and very negative feelings about herself because she had been taught by the people most important in her early life what a rotten person she was. It was hard for her to overcome that self-image.  ... One day she said to me, 'You're a stake president; you explain to me the justice of it.' She said, 'I go to church, and I can hardly stand it. When I see little girls being hugged and kissed and taken to church and appropriately loved by their fathers and mothers, I just have to get up and leave. I say, Heavenly Father, what was so terrible about me that, when I was that age, I didn't get any of that? What did that little girl do in the premortal existence that I didn't so she is loved, so she is safe? ... What did I do? Can you tell me that God is just if He sends that little girl to that family and me to my family?' ...

I would not have known how to answer her in my own capacity because that is manifestly unjust. Where here or in eternity is the justice in an innocent child's suffering in that way? But the Lord inspired me to tell her, and I believe with all my heart that it applies to many in the kingdom, that she was a valiant Christlike spirit who volunteered (with, I told her, perhaps too much spiritual pride) to come to earth and suffer innocently to purify a lineage. She volunteered to absorb the poisoning of sin, anger, anguish, and violence, to take it into herself and not to pass it on; to purify a lineage so that downstream from her it ran pure and clean, full of love and the Spirit of the Lord and self-worth. I believed truly that her calling was to be a savior on Mount Zion: that is, to be Savior like, like the Savior to suffer innocently that others might not suffer" (The Uses of Adversity, Carlfred Broderick).

This final passage had me sobbing with understanding. From the time I was very young, I promised myself that I would shield my own and whatever children I could from unnecessary suffering and abuse. I was grateful that I was the oldest and also that I was at the least the third generation in a lineage of anger, pain, and abuse that was slowly but surely being healed by the Savior. I was able to spare my siblings from the worst and my own children hopefully completely, but I myself was spared the worst of the abuse by my noble predecessors who had absorbed even more and passed less of it on.

It also caused me to reflect on whether or not I was living up to this noble calling - to absorb the abuse and pain and not pass it on, not even to those who had caused the pain. I realized that with the Savior's healing and help, I could let go of the pain. I no longer had to internalize it with self doubt and self inflicted punishment, telling myself I must have deserved it. And once I was able to let go of that enormous weight - that fear and pain that had been with me almost as long as I could remember - I was able to forgive. I was able to see those who had hurt me as fellow imperfect children of God. They were only people who had volunteered for even more difficult tasks than I had and had suffered greatly in their own way to bring about something better.

With this understanding - the knowledge that I did not and could never deserve abuse from anyone in my life - I was able to replace my fear and self-doubt with the confidence that my Heavenly Father loves me infinitely, so much so, that he sent a Savior (the most innocent and undeserving of abuse) to suffer all for us so that we would not have to. And when we do suffer, we need never do it alone. I regained the confidence I so desperately needed to stand up for myself, and with that, the ability to forgive and leave the past behind.

I know that our Heavenly Father has a perfect plan that begins and ends with love. This world is unjust and unfair, but all will be made right in the end. All He asks of us is to have faith and hand it over to Him. And I am here to tell you that it is possible and so worth it.

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