Sally Kempton writes in “Your Roots Are Showing”:
Your relatives have the power to push your buttons like no one else. But they can also illuminate your path to personal transformation.
If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your family. Ram Dass, the influential American teacher of spirituality, said that back in the 1970s. For Anne, who called me recently to confess her fear of an upcoming family Christmas, this is more than an ironic quip.
Each Christmas, fifty of her family members—siblings, and step-siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren and assorted step-children—show up en masse at her father’s ranch in Montana, each harboring a personal grievance, grudge or secret rivalry with at least one other family member. Ann’s mother can’t even say hello to Ann’s sister without making a comment about her weight. Even the yogis in the family disagree with one another’s life choices. Ann’s sister-in-law left her teacher and still blogs angrily about him. That teacher happens to be Ann’s teacher, which is just one more complication in the family stew.
Even in relatively happy families, where everyone enjoys the family jokes, cooks together, and does their best to get along, a family gathering can simmer like a samskaric stewpot, where everyone’s psychological issues bump up against each other over drinks and dinner. Memories, rivalries and disappointments are only a piece of it. More basic is the forced encounter with parts of yourself that you thought you outgrew years ago, and the equally insidious confrontation with the ideas that family members have about who you are. A family is not just a collection of individuals united by blood or marriage. It’s a system, an entity of its own. Years after you leave home, the family system tends to pull you into itself even when you’ve sworn that this time you’ll remain an island of loving detachment. So you revert to your role as the family rebel, or the good kid who takes care of everyone else. (And that’s just your family of origin! What to say about your in-laws and the roles they might have cast you into?)