Saturday, January 17, 2009


When first we come into the world, we do not see them as separate from us. Indeed, the only reason they exist is because we do. Their functionality is entirely dependant upon ours. Our god and goddess, Mother and Father, grant us everything we need- safety, security, love, food, someone to hold us close when we are scared and to comfort us when the night comes creeping in. Indeed, some of us believe they truly are immortal. I myself believed that parents never got sick. I had never seen my mother sick, and the first time I did, evidenced by the tissues floating around her bed and the used box of Kleenex beside her, I will never forget the horror and doubt that assailed me. Could that be she? Could it be her? And terrified, I did not know what to do. My fear knew no bounds. If Mommy could get sick, then the world had shattered. And this was not something that only happened when I was younger, 10 or so, but any time my parents suddenly became human, less than entirely capable, crying out in pain. For one who expected her parents to act as caregivers, I did not understand their ability to exist outside myself, to feel pain that was not mine, to have lives I did not know about, a past I did not understand.

There comes that moment for all of us, that break with the reality we thought we knew as we walk into one which is murkier, darker. With our parents, it is perhaps the strongest, that moment in which we suddenly step outside ourselves and realize these are people, too, people who have been shaped and who have had the forces of the world act upon them, people as weak and strong and fickle and stubborn as I, who have been hurt in much the same manner. Yet they chose, did they not, to get married anyway, and to bring me into the world, and so it becomes my duty and desire to learn as much as I can about them in my desire to understand, to delve into a world ever becoming clearer, to begin to know who they are beneath that surface- who these people whom I can almost see might be.

And it is on that journey of discovery, of understanding who one's parents are and how their past has affected them, changed them, molded them, that you also come to understand yourself. Learning about them leads to a sense of compassion, sensitivity, that you did not have before during all your fights and angry outbursts, when all you could see was the controlling figure and the one being controlled, the person protesting against your being fresh when you had no idea what they were referring to, the authorizer and authenticator. Suddenly you see a little boy behind the man's eyes, the little girl behind the woman's, and a wave of sadness and nausea overtake you and quietly, you learn to act better, or differently at least, because you are seeing the people, finally, the ones who do not quite let you know them all the way, for there must always be boundaries in a relationship like yours, but who nevertheless allow you glimpses, so that you catch what is remarkable and hide it away.

Far be it from you to ever remark upon it! Your parents will forever remain a source of contention, disgrace, and alternatively pride, but you will not give them the satisfaction of knowing it. The way you talk about them when they are not present is rarely the way you talk to them face-to-face; your anger or fury overtakes you then, at that times when you are fighting, and you say vile things, hurtful things, and later you are ashamed but won't take it back so as to save face. When you don't understand your parents, you tend to be less careful of them, and less able to see them truly. You don't understand what's making your mother act this way, or why your father won't permit you to do this simple thing that everyone else's parents allow them to do. You don't understand and you find it hurtful, and so you retaliate- because you haven't looked deep enough.

For everything there is a reason. One doesn't necessarily always know the reason; it's difficult to find, difficult to search out. But there's a reason people are the way they are, and that reason can be as divergent as drugs or genes or compassion or the lack thereof or growing up during hard times. Now, that reason may lead to different people. There's no book that explains that better than Stephen Chbosky's the perks of being a wallflower, where he says:

"But it's like when my doctor told me the story of these two brothers whose dad was a bad alcoholic. One brother grew up to be a successful carpenter who never drank. The other brother ended up being a drinker as bad as his dad was. When they asked the first brother why he didn't drink, he said that after he saw what it did to his father, he could never bring himself to even try it. When they asked the other brother, he said that he guessed he learned how to drink on his father's knee. So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we came from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them."

~the perks of being a wallflower, 211

Now, some people have the luck to be able to do that, and some people don't. But people don't just sprout up out of the ground fully-formed and act as they do without there being some kind of reason behind it, whether it's the wiring in their brains or the way they were trained up to be. The point is, once you understand the reason behind why they act the way they do, it's a lot easier to be tender towards them, because now you're on the same page. And you're no longer facing a controlling adult, but rather someone who was beaten up and bruised and hurt badly by this world, just like you're being hurt by it, and came up with some solutions and some answers and some ways to take on the world because of it. And maybe those weren't the right ways, but those were the ways he figured out, and the ones he's teaching you, and you're going to have to figure out one day whether those ways work for you, and decide to walk his path or a different long as you're tender about it.

It's the ones you love best that you hurt the most, for "each man kills the thing he loves," as Wilde said. That's possibly the saddest passage of the whole poem; it resonates often in my mind.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

Who do we hurt more than those whom we trust to forgive us for it? One wouldn't upset a potential employer at a job interview, or someone you'd just met, because that wouldn't be logical. But one's parents? One's family or friends? It's easy to hurt them, because they'll take you back anyway. And sometimes it's worth it to wonder- do I know them? Do I know this man I'm yelling at; do I understand this woman? Do I really know them? Do I know what their hopes and dreams were, whether they were able to fulfill them and what they had to give up in order to have me and take care of me? If you stop a minute and get to know these people, you'll generally feel a much stronger element of respect for them, because you'll learn about the sacrifices they made, the things they lost, the dreams that were shattered. A human's not human unless he's lost something he loved- everyone loses something. It changes as we grow. We can lose our sense of comfort, of home, objects that we cherish, people, lovers. But we all lose something, and that very loss changes us remarkably and forever. What did your parents lose? What made them the way they are?

One is not meant to be friends with one's parents. That's disrespecting the bond and the relationship that exists between you and them. There is a certain respect that is owed them, a certain sense of authority that is always theirs. But it is worth it to take the time to look into their eyes- hard eyes, sad eyes, sweet eyes, whatever kind of eyes they have- and try to listen, to really see them, to attempt to understand them. You'll never feel a blow like the blow you have that night, after you've finished, after you've finally understood, taken in and understood, what it is they've done for you and because of you. The medical school they weren't able to attend, the man your mother didn't marry, the things that broke her heart or the dreams that her friend was able to fulfill while she stood by, always the onlooker. Everyone has a story and it's a different story. They're not all the same, but everyone has their personal sadness, their personal grief, the things that made them who they are, with the ideas they advance, the way they go about marking out your life. And though you may not agree with them and hell, they may even be completely wrong, it follows that they are generally trying the best they can.

So...would you say you know your parents? Do you want to? Have you ever thought about what made them the way they are, which authors influenced them, which musicians they admired, the politics they followed, the people they would have accompanied to the ends of the earth? Who or what did they love most, and what did they want most? Were they privileged and lucky enough to get it? If not, how did the lack of it change them, making them who they are today?

There are all kinds of parents, and just like us, they don't always get everything right. But we owe it to them to take the time to try to listen and to try to act tenderly towards them- tenderly towards these people who may not have had all the same chances we've had, who may not enjoy existing in a fake world with its shallow pretenses, who may have grown up to be the people they've hated, who may still be looking for a way out, not seeing one. And next time we begin to mouth off at them, maybe we'll founder and be a little quieter, knowing what we do, and where they come from, and who they are when they're not showing off in front of their friends, or otherwise parading around, who they are in their secret moments, as their real self, when they too are sad or unhappy or wondering or confused, but can't show it for your sake- because they've got to do their best by you. It's hard to know one's parents, because they won't show you everything; it'd probably be too much for you, for one thing, and for another, they too are entitled to their own secrets- but when one does know them, even a little bit, the way you look at them will never be the same.


Uri said...


A said...

An interesting piece!
Welcome back.
Hope you had a nice winter break . Happy belated birthday!

YU student said...

I agree with your post. Thanks.

the only way i know said...

Very beautiful, Chana.
As I get older and DO try and notice my parents for who they are, I can really feel the words you write.

G said...

Only my opinion, I know, but...

The arrogance in this post, and even more in just the posting of it, is staggering.

Baruch said...

I noticed that most of your comments on this blog are weird. Why bother visiting the site?

Anonymous said...

If you don't like Chana, don't come here. This blog is only for people who like Chana, don't you dare question or criticize her. Us commenters are her to protect her, and we will shut-up anyone who follow along.

Stern student said...

ANON January 20, 2009 10:12 AM,

your comment is weird ,too

Anonymous said...

"If you don't like Chana, don't come here. This blog is only for people who like Chana, don't you dare question or criticize her. Us commenters are her to protect her, and we will shut-up anyone who follow along."

Whoa. Don't dare question or criticize a BLOG? How then is discussion to evolve? This kind of censorship attempt is nauseating and more arrogant than the post itself.

The post itself is interesting and raises some good points, but seems to take away any parental responsibility.

Aaron said...

Anon 10:51 AM,
please explain what exactly in Chana's post "seems to take away any parental responsibility." Thank you

Anonymous said...

dude your comment is like so weird

Anonymous said...

"If you don't like Chana, don't come here. This blog is only for people who like Chana, don't you dare question or criticize her. Us commenters are her to protect her, and we will shut-up anyone who follow along."
I assumed the original comment was tongue in cheek but the comments do seem to come from heavily from fans - a bit more give and take would only improve the value of the blog.
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

What seems to take away parental responsibility:
While it is important to have perspective about a parent's life and the hardships a parent has gone through, there are parents who make selfish choices, who destroy their families, who screw up their children's lives. For some--indeed many--people, it may be sufficient to view their parents' actions through forgiving, rose-colored glasses, but for children who have been abused or abandoned a little understanding may not be enough. I think the goal to simply "understand" that Chana speaks about is most appropriate for people who come from ultimately privileged backgrounds.

Ezzie said...

Wow, that escalated quickly.

capecodkwassa said...

Nice post!! I find I appreciate my parents more and more every year. Looking back, I don't see how they put up with me!!

capecodkwassa said...

I have a somewhat new Jewish blog, so everyone who is interested should take a look and post. The overall gist of its outlook is religoiusly traditional and socially progressive.

another Stern student said...

Anon 3:47 said:

" I think the goal to simply "understand" that Chana speaks about is most appropriate for people who come from ultimately privileged backgrounds".

Anon,what is it that bothers you about people who come from "ultimately privileged backgrounds"? Sounds like you have an axe to grind.

G said...

I noticed that most of your comments on this blog are weird. Why bother visiting the site?

Weird, yes, weird.

Why bother, yes, why indeed.

And yet another Stern student. said...

another Stern Student:

I think what anonymous meant (and I agree), is that this approach of "all you have to do is understand your parents" works fine for people who grew up in normal healthy homes. Someone who has been greviously hurt be a parent (and sadly, that is a great many people), won't really find anything helpful here. Honestly that kind of parent-child relationship is miles away fom what Chana is talking about, and cannot really be understood by someone who is "priviledged" in the sense, that they were raised by loving, healthy parents.