The holidays. They’re supposed to be a time for joy, a time for family gatherings and days of feasting on all the fattening foods people can manage to shove under your nose; begging you: “Please take one before I eat them all!”. Avoiding the break room at the office becomes a daring feat of will power as the official days off work approach.
I’m not so sure that it is truly a time for joy for every one. I would suspect for very few people, in fact. It has certainly never been the case for me. As a child it was only the presents I looked forward to and more importantly that break from the demeaning, stodgy, monotonous days of school. Until the last couple of years the holidays haven’t been too much more than a lot of eating and talking about everything but the giant pink and purple elephant in the room, a whole lot of pretending at great expense.
It’s around holidays over the past three years that I often find it difficult to explain, to co-workers and acquaintances who ask, the relationship (or rather the lack thereof) that I have with my family. I have not yet created my own family and so I cannot tell people that I will be spending the holidays with my family without being dishonest. Perhaps I shouldn’t feel that I have to explain my situation, which is that I have broken ties with my family of origin – to anyone, but when put on the spot with complex questions like “Are you done with all of your Christmas shopping?” and “Will you be going home for Christmas?” I tend to find myself at a loss of words.
I could simply say “yes” to the first one, and “no” to the second, but that tends to set me up for other “small talk” questions such as “What did you buy for your parents?” and “Awww, Why not?” At which point I can either shock them with honesty or respond with an assertive “I’d rather not talk about it.” which of course in either case the inevitable result is unease and tension between us, however brief or lasting.
Against the norm?
In a world where the vast majority consider family to be a sacred institution, where the likes of the Judeo-Christian fourth commandment is implicit in all cultures, I can empathise with the kind of shock people might experience when such a widespread cultural norm is not only questioned but defied. It is sad to so often observe such a lack of curiosity and anxiety avoidance when my actions are quickly dismissed by people as immature and attributed to poorly contrived explanations that involve being compared to a rebellious teenager.
I’ve even heard condescending responses such as:
Oh dear, my sister went through that phase, not to worry, one day when you are older and you have your own children…
The quick and dry response to anyone who challenges what is considered, much like “teenage rebellion”, to be “normal”, anarchism and atheism notwithstanding.
To the uninitiated or… curious, you might actually be asking why I have broken off the relationship with my family. In short, I never had a relationship with my family. The “break” was merely a recognition of this fact. My history and the first eighteen years of impressions were dysfunctional, toxic and abusive at best. I will not go into the details of my childhood except to say that it involved a lot of rejection, passive aggression and violence from both my mother and father, crippling religious indoctrination, as well as strongly encouraged participation in corrupt behaviour such as pyramid schemes, and quackery.
I did not enjoy spending time with my family, I did not feel happy when they called, I felt dread when the holidays approached and when their name would light up on the caller ID. Every moment spent with them I felt alone. I could never actually be who I really was or talk about my life, my preferences, my feelings or my desires. I could never be honest without being rejected, one way or another.
What I want to emphasise in this article is not necessarily my justification for not seeing my family, but rather that within that justification is a principle. My justification is – that I was exploited and abused for years by these people and that I was not happy remaining in such a highly dysfunctional and toxic relationship with them. Remaining in this kind of relationship had a strong effect on my happiness, self-esteem and my ability to create and maintain healthy relationships in general.
An acceptable reason is it not? If so, then you may want to find out what happens when we accept another person’s reasoning…
Before I continue I will start with definitions. What is a principle? In terms of philosophy, the dictionary defines it as:
A fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived.
This means that principles are general, objective truths which can be applied universally to all other instances involving the same general criteria. For example: Gravity is a law that states in principle “mass attracts mass” which applies to all matter and energy at all times, everywhere in the universe. We cannot say that my computer will be repelled away from a large mass such as a planet, while my washing machine will be attracted. Since both objects are made up of matter and energy, the principle, “mass attracts mass”, applies to both of these things. My computer contains matter and has mass and so does my washing machine.
If ever we observe such a phenomenon, such as a helium balloon floating upward, surely it will turn out that the principle has not actually been violated but rather that other principles (buoyancy) are in effect.
The basic principle we can extract from the justification of breaking with my family is: “It is unhealthy to remain in abusive, exploitative, toxic and/or dysfunctional relationships.” These principles (as with all principles) are put forward as being objective and therefore universally applicable to all people at all times in the very same situation.
In my conversations about this topic with people such as those mentioned at the beginning of this article, I find that my justification (when they are curious enough to ask) is widely accepted and understood. By accepting this justification as valid, the principle contained within must, logically, also be accepted as valid.
Things become a bit frustrating, however, when the time comes for the other person to to tell me all about their family of origin and what they will be doing during the holidays. During this breakdown of the details, what I will observe is a description of what can only be labeled as toxic, dysfunctional, abusive and/or even simply irritating or boring. This breakdown is always accompanied by body language such as eye rolling, comic vocal impressions of various family members, sighs, expressions of desire to be elsewhere followed by excuses (“that’s just the way he is”), moral arguments (“we must be the better person” and “family is important”) and assertions (that is, this behaviour is “normal” because it is a common stereotype).
When the tables are turned, naturally the very same principles they have accepted as valid, don’t apply at all to themselves. Truth instantly becomes relative and subjective. “Yes but your situation is different.” Or “You are different.” Somehow, either I am not human or they are not human.
Do feelings change reality?
When Socrates began questioning the wisdom of supposed wise men, when it was observed that the world was round, when Copernicus proposed the heliocentric model of the universe and Galileo confirmed it, when Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection, many people at these different times did not like the implications that were implicitly or explicitly put forward. Some were even executed for “corrupting and misleading the youth”, and not being as “apologetic” as they should have been.
When we accept principles as valid and objective, they do not become subjective and relative the moment we do not like the implications when applied to ourselves. The world does not become flat the moment we do not like the idea of it being round. The anxiety we experience does not change anything in objective reality. Galileo did not cause the earth to orbit the sun anymore than Socrates removed knowledge from the minds of wise men. Killing the messenger who tells us the facts of reality does not alter that reality. Either we must accept the truth and experience the emotional response to all the implications, or we must avoid the truth and resort to projecting our feelings through hateful, slanderous and ultimately violent attacks based upon bigotry and prejudice.
We can rationally accept that it is valid for a battered woman to leave her abusive husband because the principles within are: “Abusive relationships are unhealthy” and/or “violence is wrong”, then simultaneously deny that it is valid for a battered son or daughter of abusive parents to leave that relationship simply because we do not like the damning implications about our own actions, or do not want to feel the horror about our own history. It would be interesting to find out how many of these same people who accept one and deny the other are willing to support a woman who wants to leave her husband merely because she isn’t happy.
Using “principles” as excuses
What inevitably occurs, when confronted with unappealing truths, is that our own internal fog machine begins spewing a cloud of newly proposed “principles” or, myths, which serve as defenses against our undesirable emotions. We make “exceptions” to already accepted principles with replacement “principles” such as “we should rise above and be the better person” (forgiveness is a virtue), “I shouldn’t judge others” (tolerance is a virtue), and “family is important.”. There are three reasons why these newly proposed “principles” are merely myths used to excuse us from accepting the principles which are unappealing to us:
- When you try to apply these proposed moral rules universally to all parties involved, they can never be applied consistently, and thus cannot be valid principles.
- Judging others as being judgmental, or being intolerant of intolerance are both logically self-defeating contradictions.
- All you have done is convert cowardice (avoiding emotions, reality, honesty etc.) into a “virtue”.
Let’s say you are the person I am referring to. What happens when you take these newly proposed principles: “Tolerance is a virtue”, “forgiveness is a virtue” and “family is important” and apply them to your parents? How tolerant were they of you? How forgiving were they of your behaviour? Why should your parents be allowed to behave badly and act in an intolerant manner toward you, your preferences, thoughts, feelings etc.. yet you are never allowed to be equally intolerant in return? Lastly, if “family is important” then why have they never treated you as if you were important?
What would happen if you suddenly began to express your own genuine preferences with your parents? The next time you are called to attend a family gathering and you do not wish to attend, how would your family react to your sudden attempts to assert your desires? What would you be told when you tell them simply and honestly “I don’t feel like coming over.” or “I’d rather go to a movie instead”?
“Oh don’t be so selfish”
I’m quite sure you’ve heard it before. What else would you be avoiding? If I am told that I am selfish for not wanting to spend time with my family, then the principle we can extract from that statement is that “selfishness is wrong.” Implicit in such an accusation is:
- I owe them my time and energy.
- I am bad for being selfish.
If I am selfish because I prefer not to spend time with my family, then how are they not also selfish because they prefer that I spend time with them? Is it because I owe them my time and energy? Why? Did I choose to be born to these people? Did I sign any contract prior to being born, agreeing to cater to their every little desire in return for food, clothing and shelter?
If a kidnapper provides food, clothing and shelter to his victim, does that victim then owe her captor? If a slave owner provides food, clothing and shelter for his slave does that mean a slave then owes the rest of his life in servitude to the master? I think not.
Nobody likes being called a bad person. Why on earth would I want to spend time with these people merely to avoid the negative consequences of being told I am a bad person because I am “selfish”? How does this “selfish” behaviour apply to me most in this situation? If they are not selfish when getting what they want at my expense of time and energy, then how am I selfish for getting what I want when all they might experience are feelings of disappointment and anxiety? The problem with this “principle” that “selfishness is wrong” is that it cannot be applied universally or consistently and therefore cannot be called a principle, much less a moral rule.
When it was proposed in the nineteenth century that “slavery is immoral”, many people (slave owners) did not like the implications of what was being put forward. If slavery was in fact immoral then by accepting this truth the slave owners would also have to accept that they were acting immorally. Yet, implicitly, they had no problem accepting this as a valid principle when it came to white males. When the tables were turned, truth became relative. If the principle that “slavery is immoral” is so widely accepted by the modern world then what must logically follow, if you also accept this as valid (and I believe it is), is that it is not good to be a slave.
When ethics are used to enslave us
All people, naturally, want to be good. If they did not want to be good they would not make up these rules and principles that they can use to call themselves good when it suits them. If I say that you are not a good person unless you obey my commands, I am using your desire to be good, or your desire not to be bad, to enslave you. If we all accept the principle that “slavery is immoral”, then being enslaved to managing my family’s feelings of anxiety and/or disappointment by showing up when I am called (regardless of my preferences) is therefore an act of immorality on part of my family.
I think it is important to be careful, when you begin to propose new “shoulds” or “should not’s”, to examine the broader principles and ensure that these new rules can apply to all people including yourself and all parties involved.
If we can agree on the goal of building a peaceful, non-violent, voluntary world of freedom, then how can we expect to achieve this without freeing ourselves from the slavery and coercion in our personal lives? It takes great courage to experience the emotional pain that can result from applying these principles to ourselves. If it were not something we all fear, then why would everyone go to such brain pretzeling lengths to avoid it?
When we are made conscious of these things, we are presented with a closing window of opportunity that will not be open forever. This is the opportunity to take up this sword of truth. This is the opportunity for having the courage it takes to speak the truth and damn the consequences. This is your opportunity to save yourself and the world. Will you seize it, or will you let this window slide shut?