It was the morning I had to officiate at an ordination ceremony in Sanford, Florida. A colleague and friend of mine was telling me about his twenty-one-year-old daughter, and there was an obvious beam in him as he spoke of her. He said, and I quote, “She has been her father’s daughter since she was born. She’s daddy’s girl, and always will be.” As I sat there, I quickly looked away. I looked out the window, at the floor, at my hands, anywhere but at the one who was speaking. I felt like someone had hit me with a brick. I suddenly realized, in that simple statement that was not meant to offend nor smart, that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I had no frame of reference. I had no identity for the statement. It was something I couldn’t relate to, no matter how hard I tried.
It was one of those undeniable, face-to-face reality moments that you can’t pretend didn’t happen. It’s not that you feel bad, or longing, or even hurt by what was said. There’s just something about what someone said that made you realize there’s something you don’t relate to, nor understand, nor to a certain extent, ever will. It makes you feel self-conscious, self-aware, almost like you are sitting in front of those people uncovered, even though they have no idea what is going on in your mind at that moment. It doesn’t mean you long for or want what they are talking about. It’s just that you have no idea what it is.
I had only felt that way one other time in my life. When I was in junior high, the eighth graders were given a “Class Night” by the seventh graders behind them. It was a formal sendoff because eighth grade was the highest grade in our school and it meant we were officially leaving, for good. During “Class Night,” there was always a segment reserved as a “Father-Daughter” Dance. So I literally walk in the door of my classroom, minding my own business, not even there one minute when one of the girls starts: “Lee Ann! What are you going to do about the father-daughter dance on Class Night?”
Did I forget to mention it was October when she asked me this, and Class Night wasn’t until June? And the girl herself didn’t have a dad in her household, either?
I replied, “I’m going to go down to the Rent-A-Dad store on Main Street and rent one for a night.”
My reply was snarky and quick thinking on my feet, but it gave me that same self-conscious feeling, like someone else was making some sort of a statement I couldn’t relate to. I had never been to a father-daughter dance, and I never would go to one. It was a frame of reference I would never have, nor understand, no matter how many years I lived.
Late last year I saw an episode of Dr. Phil that involved a crazy, messy family situation. It consisted of a mother who was out of control and her daughters (I think there were three or four of them). One daughter in particular was in her late teens and wanted her mother to apologize for what she’d done to her and admit she had done her wrong. No matter what this girl, her sisters, or Dr. Phil said to this woman, she was not going to admit nor apologize for anything. So what Dr. Phil said to the girl in turn was most poignant. He told her that he understood that she wanted a mom who cared about her and loved her, and that she wanted a good relationship with her mom, but that wasn’t her experience. It might have been natural to want what we hear everyone else claims to have or what the “norm” should be, but no matter what she did, it wasn’t what she knew. He was also quick to tell her that no matter how much it wasn’t her experience, it was not a reflection on her. It didn’t mean she couldn’t have a great life, or become something really extraordinary. There was no reason her experience had to hold her back or mar her identity for life.
Ahhhh, clarity. In those words, Dr. Phil set me free from my own self-consciousness on these issues. Being my father’s daughter wasn’t my experience. Going to a father-daughter dance wasn’t my experience. I don’t have a ton of great memories about my sisters. We didn’t do the “normal” sister things, in part because we have a severe age gap between us, and also in part because of who they are as people. I don’t have happy memories of large family get-togethers, because by the time I was seven, I never saw or heard from two of my sisters ever again. It wasn’t because I did anything wrong. But my experience was my experience. It wasn’t typical, it wasn’t pleasant, but it also is not a reflection on me.
I hate it when people ask me about my family. It’s not something I am apt to talk about, because I don’t feel like it’s anyone’s business. I don’t like having to reveal that I am not on speaking terms with any of my siblings or my father, because people immediately assume I did something to deserve that or am not doing something right. I don’t feel like telling the entire story, yet again, in defense of myself and my family’s reality. I don’t want people’s first response to be pity, or how “sorry” they are, or prayers for family unity, because it’s not the situation I have, or am going to have. I want to live in and feel that people empathize and care about my reality, about the world I live in, and that even though my reality may not be theirs or be the picture-perfect image that makes people feel comfortable, that I am still welcome, as I am, with the situation I’ve learned to live with, reality and all. No amount of praying, hoping for change, or pushing me to do something I know I am not supposed to do is going to inspire me to pursue a false hope that things will be other than they are. It doesn’t matter who believes it or doesn’t. My situation is not typical, but no amount of false hope is going to change that.
I think this is part of why I often work with minority and disenfranchised communities through ministry. For many years, I tried as hard as I could to make myself and my ministry work as “typical” as possible. I wanted to look right and sound right, and I wanted to be received by the right people. That meant avoiding certain topics and dodging many questions about my personal politics and opinions about things. It also meant sitting through a lot of uncomfortable conversations, time and time again, as people beamed about their family life. It meant watching as people celebrated their fathers and children, husbands who doted on them, and spoke things, at times, that made me feel about as big as a thimble. It’s meant that as people talk, and often pretend, that their lives are perfect, you feel like someone is going to know that something within you is not this picture-perfect scenario they all hope for. And as everyone pretends, is it any wonder that the church is where it is today?
We talk about issues such as submission or roles in harsh, angry, legalistic terms with no consideration for domestic violence victims or rape victims and how such statements might make them feel. We prattle on and on about some bizarre and imaginary concept of family and family values and are quick to make anyone who is divorced feel like they have done the worst imaginable thing by their kids, who will never recover. We make the children of divorce feel as if there is something permanently wrong with them: they will never have successful relationships or love other people, and will be scarred for life. We make LGBTQ individuals feel as if they are damaged goods, rubbing it in when they have family members who don’t love them unconditionally and cause them to feel empty because their families aren’t around. We make single people feel like pariahs, like they are missing something so essential and meaningful in life, only to treat them as if they have no purpose.
We don’t relate to people who have a situation that’s different, nor do we make ourselves relatable. Instead we rub salt in wounds of shame and hurt, making people feel more flawed, more like they missed something essential, more like they will never be healed, and more like they can never, not in a million years, be made whole.
The longer I minister, the more I believe the Gospel is there for the “different.” Yes, the typical can receive it, too; in the end, the Gospel is there for everybody. But it takes a truly different person to see the Gospel from a freedom perspective. We can be churchy all day long and talk to people about God from a dull, dry perspective. We can even throw some Bible verses in there that we’ve memorized at heart. A typical person is always going to see God through a typical lens: through the eyes that the church has taught, good, bad, or indifferent, slightly distant, severely authoritative, a Father in concept but not in personality, and will spend their lives trying to uphold the typical image of nuclear family, perfectly dressed Sunday attire, children in tow, as if there are no problems or thoughts to their lives that challenge that image. It takes a different person to grab hold of that Gospel and find freedom from that image, the confines of society that are frequently passed off as those of God, and experience God in a manner where they come to know God as more than just an image or a role, but as a personal and integrated part of one’s life.
I’ve read the Bible’s views on family and it’s funny that I don’t see what we often typify as “family values” therein. We’ve confused Biblical viewpoints with Americana. The Bible is full of family dysfunction, right out the gate, even as far back as Adam and Eve. The Bible’s views of family aren’t perfect; they are messy, because families are messy. Even the best-looking family has reality lurking under that surface. We can admit that or we can pretend, but either way, the upholding of shiny, perfect families is hurting our witness far more than it’s helping it.
To all those who don’t have a typical situation, don’t give up. I know it feels like you are sometimes swimming upstream, in an endless vat of people who want to tell you where it’s at and sometimes what they say stings, even if they don’t mean it that way. You had an experience, and it is yours, and you need to own that for yourself, because it is your truth (as in it is truth that has become personal). There are those of us who do understand. We are conscientious of what we say, because our situation wasn’t typical, either. We’re here to be family, to be friends, to provide that spiritual comfort and insight that you need, because we know what it feels like. We’ve been there, too. And when you’re ready to receive it, know we are here.
© 2017 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.