At what age do you stop blaming others for your own choices and behavior? At what age do you start recognizing the intangible, but important gifts you received from your elders? Sure, sometimes those gifts were disguised, were hidden under tissue paper in shopping bags filled with everyday necessities like soap and deoderant. As you excitedly pulled out and threw aside the plain white tissue, perhaps you hoped for a brightly wrapped, pretty gift underneath. Maybe you wished there were a frilly blouse, some lipstick, or a new record album (I am dating myself, for sure). Your gifts may even have been disguised as structures or rules you broke or pushed against all the time, and hated.
I remember the care packages my mother used to send me at college. She was such a practical soul, not often prone to expressing her innermost feelings when she was younger, though she got better and better at it as she aged. My friends got homemade cookies, pretty sweaters, makeup, pocket money, and other goodies in their packages. I got letters with advice and reminders not to abandon my religion, not to be “too wild with boys”, sanitary napkins, (not my favorite gift) boxes of tissues, jars of Vicks Vapor Rub for chest colds, and occasionally a small trinket like a belt, or socks. I was often disappointed and sometimes puzzled. There were times when I felt deprived. I didn’t think of the struggles my parents were undergoing at a time when my father’s company for which he had worked for 41 years, went out of business. I didn’t let myself think too often about the financial sacrifices they had to make to send me to an expensive college, way above their means, even with my scholarships and financial aid. I didn’t think about the possibility that I was letting them down when I decided that the only school I would initially consider wasn’t right and changed my mind multiple times.
I didn’t think about how my parents let me make some big choices that were odd and alien to them, and that often worried them. Yet they gave me the gift of autonomy, and the gift of being allowed to fail at times without (too many) judgments, and they never rejected me, even when they disapproved of my actions.
I certainly wasn’t a model kid, and if I wanted to, could have given lessons on how not to appreciate parents when you’re a young person, but I did grow up. Going through some difficult and even devastating life events made me understand and appreciate the love, the support and the wisdom I received from my parents and grandparents. The thing is, many of us wait until we and our parents and grandparents are old enough to be so set and stuck in our habits and ways of behaving, that it’s very difficult for us to break out of our learned behavior and to feel and express our appreciation. Our loved ones may even be dead before we begin to see the amazing gifts they gave us, and how they influenced us.
I wish this weren’t so, but I know it is for a lot of people. I would like to tell this to my adult kids, as I age and it is clear that I am a mere mortal with a finite life. They aren’t likely to hear it though, till they are ready and willing.
Recently, a little person I know and dearly love, stuck a bunch of glue-backed pretend colored gemstones in a corner of my living room antique wood floor. They had fallen off, or had been removed from a hand mirror she had painted and decorated with a kit I had bought for her. They did come off the floor, but I overhead her mother telling someone that it was my fault because I had given her the kit. I let it go when I heard that, and didn’t respond. I won’t pretend it didn’t astonish me just a bit.
It did make me wonder anew, (I have pondered this often) what the “magic age”, or stage of life is when young people stop automatically finding fault with their parents, and begin to work on making changes within themselves. Then too, when do they start remembering the wise things, the encouraging things, the complimentary things parents said to them that buoyed their spirits and made them feel, even briefly. that they could tackle anything? Why does it seem, that they need to remember the mistakes, the foibles, the gifts they hated? Why does she remember with disdain, the keyboard that you gave as a birthday gift because you thought music was a genuine passion? What about the expensive sneakers you thought were a total waste of money, but you saved for because he wanted them so badly, or the karate lessons he had to have that you couldn’t easily afford, yet knew meant so much to him?
There is no magic age, of course, when we begin to appreciate and understand what our elders did for us. We are all different and mature at different rates, physiologically, mentally and socially and emotionally. We have learned in recent times that the executive function area of the brain doesn’t fully develop until a much later age than we had previously realized. Then, too, there is now some scientific evidence that is coming to light on how our neuro-anatomy can even be permanently changed or affected prenatally by drug or alcohol use, certain kinds of experiences, and genetic input.
We may all live on the same planet, but we all exist, to some degree, in our private universes that are shaped by a variety of factors. Most of us tend to put our own biases and experiences into our opinions and perceptions of other people and events. I think that is our first instinct. It’s just that it is pretty hard to truly understand others through lenses completely colored by our narrow experiences. In order to get along with others who act, and who think differently than we do, (which is pretty much everybody else in the world) we have to step outside of ourselves and expand our private universes.
So, I try hard to do this. Somehow it is easier to do with friends, and even with strangers in the supermarket who chat while we are in line, and say things about politics and current events that make our skin crawl. I try to listen, though, to figure out where they are coming from, when I disagree. I try to respect their points of view whenever I can. I also do it with clients, knowing that a coach must be open to how others think and feel, and not put them in boxes. It is our job to help them break free of their boxes. It just feels harder to do with my own kids when there often isn’t much reciprocity on the part of some of them.
As a daughter whose parents and siblings (both a lot older and parental figures in certain ways) are gone, I remember and appreciate so many things about them all now. As a parent, I spend a lot of time pondering and wondering when my kids will begin to remember and to appreciate in a similar way, or if they ever will. I hope they will, and that it won’t be after I am not here. I hope they won’t have to undergo as many of the very trying things I have endured in order to reach that place of understanding.