Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 29, 2005
As a student of biology, I fear that genes are destiny. I feel powerless to individuate!
My parents are pretty nice people. They raised me and my brother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, provided us with food, attention and a first-rate education, and generally gave me a pretty good childhood. They might even say that everything that they did, all the jobs that they hated, all the sacrifices they made (they are immigrants) and all the trouble they went to, they did for us.
Here’s the catch. I can’t really stand to be with them, and somehow as I am aging, I can tell that I’m turning into them and I’m starting to not be able to stand myself. My father grew up in a household of eight siblings and the father was physically abusive and the parents played one child off another. My father is always referring to his mother’s favorite child (not him) or the indulged child (not him either). All eight children moved to the U.S. and all are not speaking to each other since there was a Terri Schiavo-like argument over their mother’s last year of care. My own mother grew up in a poor village where her father left the family for 11 years (!)(sending back little letters of $$) to work on seagoing vessels and she left her village to get a better education at the age of 13.
Now, when we get together for family gatherings (once or twice a year), we just stare at each other and don’t have anything to say. My parents are very judgmental people, always complaining about what slights other people are doing to them and how we aren’t living up to their standards. Every single sentence out of their mouths is a slight dig into my way of life. I find them, in a way, to be talentless. Bright enough to get a nice-paying job, but in other ways, with no redeeming qualities. They have no friends, they can’t tell nice stories at dinner, they can’t seem to get promoted at work; my dad, especially, wants my mother to cook and clean for him and he sits on the couch after getting home from work and watches TV. His mental challenge is to give the highway toll workers 100 pennies for his toll. They are depressed, sullen people.
You know, I want to be something special (doesn’t everybody?), and I feel like my parents aren’t special people and they keep saying that they have these terrible genes that make us all stubborn and have a bad temper. I keep reading self-help books that say, you are special just being you! Bah! You know, when you go to pick out a new puppy, the first thing that people tell you to do is to look at its mother and father and then you’ll get a good idea what they will be like when they grow up, and this is true! I don’t want to be biologically related to my parents! Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m nothing like my crazy mom and dad,” but I was trained in biology and I know that either these people were secretly fathered by the mailman or they are more like their parents than they choose to admit. How do I not loathe my parents? How do I not loathe myself for being like my parents?
Dear Gene Therapy,
How do you avoid being like your parents? You make choices. That’s it in a nutshell. That doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally say things they used to say, or find yourself having attitudes they used to have. But particularly on the big, life-changing issues, you take responsibility for your own life and you make careful, considered choices.
Those choices, in turn, go to work, long-term, like little machines in the background. They set in motion various habits and opportunities that over time mold you into the person you would prefer to be. You put yourself in a different environment, one more suited to who you want to be, and your environment, like a little identity machine, cranks out the recommended daily requirements of the life you want to live. If it’s the suburban lifestyle of your parents that you dread getting sucked into, then you make a major choice to live in a lively, provocative city, one that will teach you things you can’t learn in the suburbs, one that will bring out parts of your personality that you want to bring out, one that will nurture you in ways you want to be nurtured and discourage you in ways you want to be discouraged.
In that sense, a city can be like a new parent. You submit to its authority and bask in its love. It will suggest for you new opportunities and will admonish you for your old habits. Indeed, a new city can be a cruel master, and will punish you severely if you cross it. But it will also help you be the person you want to be.
As well as choosing an environment that molds you, you also can choose specific, targeted activities that result in actual long-term fundamental change — in how you generally feel, how you react to situations day-to-day and, in a very real sense, in who you are. They can range from highly specific things like quitting smoking or learning tai chi to broader things like concentrated study and mastery of a field you are drawn to, difficult and dangerous challenges such as rock climbing, travel, psychotherapy, religious studies, pilgrimage, marriage, child rearing. All the big, life-changing experiences will change you fundamentally to some degree if you remain alert as you undergo them. And if you respond to them deeply, each experience will take you closer to who you are and farther from the dreaded replica of your parents that haunts your sleep.
There are, as well, many cooked-up, concentrated experiences available, meant to transform the individual in a weekend. A good massage can sometimes work wonders. Anything is worth trying once. Some New Age hucksters may promise too much and deliver too little. But take what you can use and let the rest go. There is often a little wisdom in the craziest babblings of crackpots and charlatans and fools.
It sounds simple in words, doesn’t it? No problem. All you have to do is change your whole life. Ha ha ha.
So be prepared for monumental resistance from within! That is where the real struggle begins — in attempting to not become your parents you realize that you don’t really know where you begin and your parents end! You are indeed, in many ways, the same! It’s not just a question of future choices and molding yourself, but of conscious dismantling of heavy, well-installed machinery, bolted to the floor and clearly meant never to be tampered with or moved! So you walk where you can walk to get where you have to go; sometimes you have to go around, so you go around.
And occasionally you will have to fight for your life. In dismantling these mechanisms that have worked for you for so long, it can feel as though you’re losing your grip. At times of great challenge, you need faith; you need something to hang on to; you need support from people you trust; you need a map, a method, a solid sense of where you’re going. At times you may not have any of that. You may be desolate and alone, racked with doubt and regret that you ever started on this journey. At such a time all you may have is just a dim and fading notion that you started out somewhere and you’ll end up somewhere. That will have to be enough. Know that you’ll have periods of numbness and confusion. That’s the price of differentiating yourself.
Look at it this way: Even if you didn’t undertake this journey, you’d be numb and confused much of the time; you just wouldn’t know you were numb and confused.
Some of the things I have outlined above you may find unacceptable. You may say that something is “impractical” or “not your style.” You may think if you move to a city too far away from your family that it will bring down years of shame and heartache and just won’t be worth it. That sort of thinking, I would suggest, is why we do end up like our parents — we go pretty far but not far enough; we fail to challenge the very ingrained attitudes that we detest in our parents. So it is not easy. You may not recognize some of these ingrained attitudes as your enemy. They may make you feel safe and connected to your heritage. It is hard to tell sometimes. This resistance could go to the core of your being. For instance, the very notion of individuality and control over one’s destiny may feel foreign to you.
And there will be a price. If you move far from your family, if you choose paths that take you away from them both geographically and spiritually, you will miss the closeness you think you might have had. There will always be the life unlived, the road not taken.
So, in short, I would say that we can avoid becoming our parents because identity is fluid. Between us and biological destiny stand the power of choice, the power to change one’s environment, and the power to undertake activities that transform us in deep and lasting ways.