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The Myth of the Normal Family

Well, last weekend, with it being too cold to do anything else, Joan decided to clean out and organize our kitchen cabinets. I was perfectly content binge-watching Downton Abbey, but could tell she wanted my help, so I went in the kitchen and whenever she’d put something on the pile to go to Goodwill, I’d say, “Oh, not that. That belonged to my aunt.” And sure enough, just as I had hoped, after about five minutes she said, “Why don’t you just let me do this.” So I did.

After a couple of hours, right around supper time, she asked if I wanted to go to Goodwill with her, which, coincidentally, is right next to MCL, which has the best fried chicken, so I said, “Sure, I’ll go.”

My entire waking life is spent trying to be in close proximity to fried chicken.

Joan said, “I want to stop by Becky’s house and see her new baby.”

Becky is a teacher at Joan’s school and they’ve become close friends.

That sounded fun. I’m always up for holding a baby. So we stopped and fussed over their baby. We were sitting in their living room and I was surreptitiously checking out their house, the way nosy people do. They had a bookcase, and I was trying to discretely read their book titles from across the room. You can tell a lot about people by the books in their bookcases.

I noticed most of their books were religious in nature, and then it occurred to me that all the pictures and sayings on their walls were also religiously-themed. It made me feel like a bad pastor, because we don’t have any religious pictures or sayings on our walls. We just have regular pictures, mostly landscapes and motorcycles. You know, fine art.

When we got out to the car, I told Joan that we were bad Christians. “Did you see all the spiritual sayings on their walls?” I asked her.

She said, “We have a saying on our kitchen wall.”

Well, that’s true, we do, but it isn’t religious. My sister got it for us. It says, “Remember, as far as everyone knows, we are a nice, normal family.”

Ah, the myth of the normal family. Is there really such a thing as a nice, normal family?

A month or so before Diane Rehm retired from her radio show, she was interviewing a family therapist who had written a book about dysfunctional families. She asked the therapist to define the term dysfunctional family.

The therapist said, “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.”

I was so relieved to hear that, because I have invested a lot of time and energy trying to make other people think my family was nice and normal. It’s a neurosis I inherited from my Grandmother Gulley, who could never admit to family failings. If I had become a bank robber, my grandmother would have told her friends I worked in the financial industry.

“Yes, we’re quite proud of him,” she would have told them. “He’s worked in some of the larger banks.”

If it’s true that dysfunctional families are those families with more than one person, and I’m saying that with my tongue only slightly in my cheek, it’s also true that some families are more dysfunctional than others, that there are degrees of dysfunction. It is also true that many of us expend a great deal of energy trying to convince others our families are uniquely exempt from the struggles and challenges of other families.  We hide our dysfunction.  We want others to think well of us. This is understandable; no one wants other to think poorly of them, after all. But when our need to be thought well of perpetuates our dysfunction, that’s not healthy.

Traditionally, the church has said we’re dysfunctional because we are born into sin, stained and tainted by sin from our birth. I utterly reject that foul doctrine. I believe we are born immature, and that our lives are a quest for maturity, for completeness and wholeness. To the degree that we remain immature, we remain dysfunctional. For instance, if I am too immature to think of others, every relationship I enter will be at risk because of my self-centeredness. My immaturity will cause dysfunction in every relationship I have. As I become mature, the dysfunction in my relationships will lessen.

We are not born into sin. We are born immature. Our lives are a quest for maturity and wholeness, and to the degree we accomplish that, we will experience satisfying and healthy relationships. If we ignore or deny our dysfunction, if we perpetuate the myth of the nice, normal family, our chances for growth and happiness are compromised. Religion, at its best, helps us move toward maturity. At its worst, it stifles our evolution, especially when it insists our human essence is something to be ashamed of, something to repent of, something to be rescued from.

To that end, I would suggest we do not need a savior, we need a teacher. I would also suggest that while the church would eventually paint Jesus as a savior, I believe Jesus understood himself as a teacher, as a rabbi, and that those around him understood him in that light as well. Not a savior to rescue them from some inherent sinful nature, but a teacher committed to his own growth and maturation and the grown and maturation of those around him.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll invite us to consider and acknowledge our own need for growth. I’ll be describing what that growth might look like, and how it will contribute to more satisfying and healthy relationships.  When I am done reflecting on this, we will be inviting Laura Jay-Ballinger, our resident mental health therapist, to share her insights on healthy relationships.  This is all to say that if you’ve been thinking of going to Florida for a few weeks, now is not the time!  Thank you, Friends, for your kind attention.