Holidays in the Family Complex
It is true that there are moments in many families when we genuinely appreciate those rare occasions to gather, to share memories and thanksgiving, to acknowledge our blessings or to grieve our losses, to delight in the presence of new family members, and to bask in the comfort of delicious food, drink and the familiarity of some old things that -- thankfully -- never seem to change. For other families, the gatherings may be described as combat zones in which a truce has been declared but everyone must move around as if on the eggshells of old painful memories, resentments, and/or unfulfilled needs and hopes.
For other gatherings, there is no pretense of a truce; it is a time for open warfare, a time for exposing raw nerves, for targeting the vulnerable spots each of us knows so well in those who have lived in close proximity to us. And for still other families, there is a dutiful, deadening participation in a ritual prescribed by tradition, culture, and the media in which an illusion of happiness and love hangs in grey tones over the attempts at festivity.
These gatherings we enter with eager anticipation, deep dread, or some of each. What we generally do not bring to the table, however, is consciousness. I mean the deep consciousness that provides us the perspective to have a holiday rather than to let the holiday have us. In this latter case, there is likely to be exhaustion, overwhelm, disappointment, anger, guilt, or sadness.
For the truth is that we do not go to a family gathering so much as we live our unconscious lives in a family complex that we never leave!
I am speaking here about "family complex," in the psychological sense. Just as we may refer to a house or structure of connected buildings as a "complex" (such as a residential complex, an apartment complex, an athletic complex, or an office complex), so we may also refer to a psychological state of mind as a complex. Not infrequently, psychological complexes appear in our dreams as houses or buildings of some type.
A psychological complex is a psychic reality that comes over us in the form of a mood, an attitude, a feeling-tone in which, if I give it thought, I realize
"I am not myself," or "something has come over me," "something got into me," "I am beside myself," and so on. Furthermore, if we looked "inside" a complex, we would see old beliefs that are not true. These ways of feeling and thinking come from experiences in our past -- quite likely when we were young children -- experiences in which we formed unhealthy opinions about ourselves, about others, about the world, about life and what to expect, especially about our family and our place in it.
The important thing to remember is that these complexes formed in early childhood continue to live within us and follow us around. Wherever we go, they go with us. It may be that quite often these old states of mind rest on the bottom of our personal unconscious until something comes along to "stir the waters" of our mind, and then -- whoosh! -- the old state of mind pops up. It takes us over. It may even "possess" us for a few minutes, hours, days, or even longer. Then it seems for all the world that "this is the way things are."
But they are not! True, something has taken place to "trigger" the mood or false belief, but actually I am projecting upon a present situation the feelings, ideas, and images from long ago similar to the way in which a movie projector projects upon a screen an old movie of people and places that do not exist in the outer world.
Think with me now about what this means for our holiday gatherings with family. In the deeper and psychological sense, there are two families, aren't there? One family lives in a building on a specific street in a defined town with a particular street number. This family exists on the outside.
But there is another family inside. This is my family complex. Note, however, I am not the same person today as the "me" in the complex, the "me" that was present when those elements of the complex coalesced to form the psychic structure of that particular state of mind. Therefore, the "I" that visits a family gathering is not the "me" who lives in the family complex. "I" may have different values, different perceptions of the world, more mature and healthier ways of relating to others. In any case, I can "see" family in a new way and take care of myself without being taken over with old feelings of helplessness, anger, inadequacy, or fear. The old "me" of the complex attempts to come up again, but I now recognize "I" am not that "me."
The parade of family life passes by. From the vantage point of consciousness, we observe all this with amusement, delight, gratitude, a caring detachment, and a reminder of time's gifts for learning, growing, changing, and ripening.
It also helps to know that at the end of the day, we can go home and sleep in our own beds free of those ancient morbid entanglements -- mostly!
Happy Holidays, all!