October 25, 2013

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Family feuds are not fun, but they make good TV material

Cynthia DewesFamily feuds seem to be a charming anachronism these days. The Hatfields and McCoys are part of our national history, but their territorial violence appears irrelevant now. Or, at least, people are more subtle about expressing their feelings.

Still, there’s one kind of family feud still alive and active among us, and that is the inter-family feud. It’s the kind of feud between sisters and brothers, parents and children, or branches of the same family. It can be damaging and hurtful to everyone involved.

We have nieces and a nephew involved in just such a situation. Years ago when the two oldest girls were babies, their dad developed a life-threatening illness that left him in a wheelchair. It also changed the course of his profession, which wounded him emotionally.

The dad was an extremely intelligent man and devoted to his family, but those early events hurt him in more ways than one. Somehow, as a result, his resentment focused on the second daughter. She was born during his worst time, and her infant needs added to the general stress.

While the oldest girl was his favorite child, the second was a constant reminder of his trauma. And she was probably the most like him in personality, something which also worked against their relationship. Two more girls and a boy followed, but by then the dad was established in a respected position and the family lived well.

The sensitive second daughter began to accumulate personal wrongs, some imaginary, that she felt were committed against her by her parents. In adolescence, she rebelled in hurtful ways, which only verified her dad’s dislike. Meanwhile, the oldest girl, believing her dad incapable of any wrongdoing, began to blame her sister for the whole mess.

The other children, while trying at least to stay in touch with their second sister, have cooled their relationships with her. The oldest girl has no contact whatsoever with her. Meanwhile, since we are godparents to the second daughter and love her dearly as we do her siblings, we are thrust into the feud, if only by trying to remain neutral.

My own family is certainly not perfect. We argue, complain, and even yell now and then. But overall, we don’t hold grudges or let things fester. As my oldest son once said, “If I learned one thing from being in this family, it’s that you get along,” the implication being “or else.”

Our model was my dad’s family, in which 11 children and two parents spent their long lives respecting, enjoying and loving each other. They were open to what the others thought, and expected no bad motives behind their actions. My mother’s family, while funny and interesting, were more dysfunctional. Luckily, my parents did not imitate them.

This is not written as a celebration of my enviable Goody Two Shoes, Pollyannaish, family. Rather, it’s meant as a common-sense suggestion to live as a family in the same way we live in the family of God.

That is, we should try to overcome terrible life events with faith in the ultimate Providence and love that God has for us. We can’t lay blame or build resentments to soothe our own pain, but must try to expect goodness from others as we show goodness to them.

Family feuding may be amusing in a TV show, but in real life it requires more serious attention.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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