We saw in my previous post how James Alison argues that there is no true human “paternity”, and that as a consequence we have to “live and act as ones who only have siblings” – including the “intergenerational” siblings who are our parents and children.
One of the implications Alison draws from this is that it frees us to forgive our parents for the hurt they’ve caused us:
Any profound damage or hurt which we may well have received at the hands of the guardians of our infancy and childhood are particular instances of the package of bad fraternity which precedes those guardians, and which they, just like us, have not overcome fully enough. Nothing more. (Faith Beyond Resentment, p.79)
But as someone asked me, where does this leave those who would characterise their parents as not merely flawed, but abusive: psychologically, physically or sexually? I have no easy answer to that – but as I said in reply, it’s not a matter of shrugging one’s shoulders, of pretending the hurt and damage never happened, but of changing the matrix within which one understands what one’s parents did: not as wielders of a sacred paternal or maternal authority (whatever they might have thought, and continue to think), but as brothers and sisters imprisoned in the same dynamic of violence that they inflict on those around them. Where one goes from there is not something on which I feel qualified to speak.
(Alison himself acknowledges that his own commitment to “rational and courteous discourse” runs the risk of being experienced as a form of bullying by those who are not yet able to join him in letting go of their anger; as an expression of “a hidden and unpitying voice of cultural paternity (part military, part English boarding-school, part Conservative party)” that barks “grow up, and stop feeling sorry for yourself!” – p.83)
However, what about those of us whose family relationships, while far from perfect, are equally far removed from anything “abusive”? I have very little to complain about regarding my parents, yet I found Alison’s presentation transforming my perception of them, and of my relationship with them, in a way that almost brought me to tears in the very public place in which I was reading the book.
It also affects how I view my own parenting of our children. I’ve been gradually unlearning the role of “father as unquestionable authority figure”, a role I’d never been able to inhabit particularly successfully – feeling at times like King Arthur confronting the collectivist commune in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Alison’s argument reinforces that of people like Alfie Kohn or Dorothy Martyn that parenthood is not about the assertion of a conditional authority – of tit for tat, reward and punishment – but about showing unconditional love that focuses on what the loved one needs. Of course, as Alison points out, the “intergenerational fraternity” we have with our children is one that needs to recognise their need for “fraternal treatment appropriate to their age and strength”: this isn’t about pretending that our children are adults or that we are their “chums”.
Alison’s perspective also finds an answering echo in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where his guidance to husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves is all set within the context of a mutual love and submission between all Christians: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” For Paul, these particular relationships are all expressions in different contexts of the same fraternal love.
I’m sure this is an area of thinking that will work its way through different areas of my life. I’d be interested to know what thoughts other people have in ways in which Alison’s insight can be applied (or, for that matter, challenged).