This New Year’s Eve, a holiday with no particular meaning for me, I had dinner with Jon and four friends from New York City. It turned out to be a remarkable experience. The subject of family came up, as it often does during the holidays.
Each of them told us how they had broken away from the conventions and expectations of their families many years earlier. They all chose to answer callings their families did not understand or approve of. For years they were estranged from them. But eventually they found ways to reconnect without giving up their lives.
Jon and I, who have also chosen to break away from the expectations and obligations of our families, were surprised. I’m 51 years old, I didn’t even know until six years ago that I didn’t have to have dinner with my family every Sunday night of my life. Or that I didn’t have to share every holiday with them, every ritual, every tradition every year.
What our friends understood and did, is something important that I’m just beginning to learn.
And it is still painful and frightening and difficult sometimes. For many years I believed that if I disappointed my family and broke away to live my own life, I would end up alone and abandoned. I still feel that way sometimes.
But I am figuring out how to do it.
Hearing their stories, I felt connected to them in a way I’ve never felt connected to anyone else before. They lived through something I’m still going through and came out on the other side. And it turned out well for them. It is possible. They survived.
I’ve come to see the family I grew up in as a system. There are tons of unspoken rules, how and when to visit each other, things that can and can’t be spoken about, holiday rituals, birthday rituals, food rituals. Women behave one way, men another and children another. The script is well known. And I guess this is fine if you want to go along with it all. If it works for you.
But it didn’t work for me.
For most of my life I pretended to myself and everyone else that it did. But I always imagined another life, a way out.
In my mind the way out always came from someplace outside of myself. I would think that if I found a religion that didn’t celebrate Christmas that would be an excuse not to have to go. Or if I became involved with an art movement that monopolized my time I could dedicate myself to that, another good excuse.
But that would just be leaving one system for another. What I really wanted was my freedom.
And to get that I’d have to take responsibility for my life and my decisions. There was no guru or god to follow. I had to look inside myself. But I got help too. I continue to find people who know and understand me and what I’m trying to do. So I have support, but I’m still often filled with doubts and trying to let go of obligation, guilt, anger and fear.
But there came a point a couple of years ago where there was no turning back. No matter how deep the guilt and fear, the idea of going back was even worse than what I was feeling. And along with all that, my life started to become what I’d always dreamed it could be.
I am fulfilled in a way I’d never experienced before. In a way I couldn’t even imagine. And I’m just beginning to be more comfortable with my relationship with my family too. It’s about being satisfied without compromising so much that I lose my sense of self.
I think my new friends have helped me to see there comes a point where the inner turmoil that goes along with leaving family and making your own life, dissipates. And it’s comforting to meet other people who have been on the same path and come through it whole and happy. Maybe that’s why we met and are becoming friends now.
Because, after all these years, I too am getting closer to that place where I truly believe I have the right to live my own life, not the one expected of me.