Families: Where Torment and Transcendence Mix
Michael A. King
death of both my parents amid journeying with various friends and
colleagues through complex family dynamics has made me want to zoom out
to bigger-picture reflections. What keeps coming to me is this:
Families are where we primally and intimately experience torment and
I hasten torecognize that
torment probably isn’t how those blessed with sunnier family experience
would put it. And transcendence may not compute for those who have
known primarily ways families maim.
So let me simply report why I think of both torment and transcendence.
because I’ve seen so much of it in family layers going back
generations. And in communities, often church-related, I regularly
participate in. The torment can range across mental illness; the pain
such illness inflicts on sufferers and those who love them; suicide;
amid inability to navigate inherited shadows passing them on to others;
divorce and its trauma for those separating as well as children,
relatives, friends. I know a family in which attempts of children to
grow up lead to being literally disowned; there is torment here for
those disowned even as surely the acts of disowning flow from their own
prior wells of anguish.
I could go on—and
on—but my point isn’t to belabor the torment. I simply want to name it
plus offer the severe mercy of acknowledging that the torment is not
rectified by being Christian but accompanies us as Christians. No
example I’ve offered flows from non-Christian family life. I don’t
blame Christianity—but those of us in Christian families can empower
shadows through believing there must be something non-Christian about
them, hence we may take our church selves to church, sequester our
family hurts at home, and in so doing often deepen rather than heal
I’ve seen this dynamic in relation to
suicide and its frequent companion, depression. Many of us were formed
within an understanding that suicide was sin and depression a sign of
spiritual failure. Suicide has been viewed as so grievous we can even
tell of suicidal loved ones whose bodies congregations wouldn’t allow
in cemetaries. Seeing association with depression or suicide as
shameful has made us reluctant to talk about such matters, to make them
part of our church lives or faith journeys, to trust that rather than
God’s judgment added to the depressive’s or the suicide’s torment,
grace even here, and maybe especially here, can sorrowfully and
maybe that takes us to the cusp of transcendence. Because when families
are able, imperfectly though truly, to confront their torments, they
can become zones of amazing grace.
Not cheap grace. Any family who
has walked through the worst of the worst knows grace is costly, bought
by tears, sleepless nights of reliving nightmares, choices to grow even
when one’s family soil seems too shallow to offer nurture, turning to
mentors and therapists and friends and sometimes our own family members
with readiness to keep loving even when it hurts like we imagine hell
itself to hurt.
Recently a friend I’m in touch with only on Facebook,
but with whom I share roots going back to our growing up together as
children of missionaries, posted that a giant of our missionary youths
had entered hospice care. This stirred us to share memories.
friend remarked of the dying missionary and his wife that they "were
probably the first people I met—as a young child—that were very very
much in love and full of creative, imaginative energy. I'll never
forget them running across a field, hand in hand. I was very young and
there is no photograph of that moment, but it is engraved in my
Chills. Tears. That is a picture
of transcendence. Family can carry us beyond our worst to miracles
larger than we achieve in isolation. Hand in hand across a field. So
classic a film-like image as to be almost a cliché but in the best
sense of cliché—though we risk cheapening it by repetition, the reason
we’re thus tempted is that it’s so primally and powerfully true.
think of the day a dying mother, amid a family’s shadows, embraced a
child. And in that embrace said to one who was long an adult yet also a
child tremulous still, "I love you as you are." Transcendence.
I could go on. Because could we with ink the ocean fill, we wouldn’t
exhaust the love, of God or for each other, that allows us to turn
scripts of even family torment into narratives of transcendence.
A. King, Telford, Pennsylvania and Harrisonburg, Virginia, is Dean,
Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House
LLC. This column was first published in The Mennonite (Oct. 2011).