If you’re a mom then I’m certain you know the experience of telling your child to do something and getting no response, and then telling your child to do it again and getting no response, and then telling your child once again and getting no response, and then becoming frustrated and possibly raising your voice, and then being criticized by the entire family for being crazy and constantly repeating yourself.
Or perhaps you know the experience of trying to organize a vacation (that later everyone will enjoy), and battling to get everyone’s schedules lined up so as to be able to buy tickets or make reservations that require advance planning, and then being told that you are a control freak who can’t relax.
I have lived both of these experiences (and countless similar ones) more times than I care to remember.
I travel a lot with my family in the summer months. It’s a time filled with joy, laughter, silliness, frustration, irritation, despair and everything else in the tapestry of human experience. As beautiful as the time is, every year a part of me is a little bit surprised that we all return home together, in the same plane or car, with no one having departed the trip early, and with everyone still speaking to each other, kindly for the most part, and all still committed to making this grand experiment we call family work.
While the examples I give in the opening here are lighthearted and meant to amuse, the truth is, families offer the most satisfying, profound, and nourishing elements of the human experience and also some of the most challenging and painful.
This summer I’ve been thinking a lot about family and specifically, about what makes a family work, what increases the experience of love and joy and decreases suffering and frustration. What is it okay to ask of each other as members of the same tribe, this small group of people with whom we are choosing to journey through life? And perhaps most importantly, what decisions do we want to make and intentions do we want to set, as a family, about how we are going to relate to and be with one another?
And so I asked myself, What is the one practice that we could/can implement as a family that would radically improve our experience of being together? Can we set intentions and expectations that come from the highest part of ourselves, and actually try and meet them?
Here’s what I came up with: What if, as a family, we made a deal with each other that no matter what happens (within a healthy context) we won’t throw each other under the bus? That is, regardless of the current situation or what another person is doing or saying, whether we like it or not, we will stay steadfastly on each other’s sides? When someone is doing something we don’t like, rather than the habitual reaction of blaming and criticizing, and succumbing to our (and the family’s) story about the other, what if we were to agree to pause and consciously insert empathy where previously there was only judgment and attack? What if we were to try and imagine what the other’s deeper intentions were in that moment? What if we were to consider what they might be struggling with that’s coming out in this particular form? What if we agreed to not rush to judge or negatively label each other, simply because the behavior at that moment is not pleasing? Instead of blaming those closest to us for the behaviors they’re exhibiting, what if we took a moment or two to ask ourselves what the deeper longing is under their behavior, the longing that’s trying to express itself through this moment. And, most radically, if we can help this person we care about to receive what they actually need?
What would it look like to be on the other’s side instead of against them in this moment?
We are conditioned and habituated to respond to another’s words and behaviors based on our opinion of those words and behaviors, whether we agree with them and they support our own ideas about the world and ourselves. We make up all sorts of narratives and interpretations about the other based on our opinions. But our thoughts and opinions about the other are not the same thing as the other, and not the same thing as the truth of that other.
To live in an environment of empathy in a family (or any relationship) is to make a commitment to trying to understand the other person through their eyes, what they’re living inside themselves–not through our ideas or narratives about them. In order to love another human being fully, family or otherwise, we have to get our own ego out of the way and stop defending our version of reality (and through it, ourselves). We must be willing to try and know the world through the other’s experience, to consider their deeper intentions, fears, vulnerabilities and longings, and in so doing, to refrain from judgment and feeding our stories about them. The challenge that we can hold ourselves accountable to in our loving relationships is to care about and for the other’s experience, no matter how different from our own.
You could say that our real job as family is to know our loved ones’ inner experience and to hold that knowing in the most sacred of embraces inside our own heart. That means that we assume the responsibility of doing what we can to lessen their suffering, and to help them harvest their deepest longings. Fundamentally, our responsibility to each other as family is to not be yet another force that our loved ones have to work against in order to get what they really need.
Our tendency as human beings is to defend our separate selves, which includes our thoughts, our versions of reality and our personal identity, a kind of giant yet fragile “I” ball. And yet, paradoxically, when we join another human being, in trying to know their truth, we often discover that the “I” we were defending, who had all these ideas about the other and what should be happening, the “I” we thought we needed to survive, simply drops away without much ado. And at that moment we experience ourselves as that loving presence that welcomes all, unconditionally. Without the “I” in the way, we get to feel the full force of love as a living entity.
Every time we respond to another’s behavior with kindness, trying to put ourselves in their shoes rather than blaming, judging, or creating more stories about them, it’s like we take a step into the divine—into bliss. The choice to look out through another’s eyes and heart fills our own heart with love.
Setting an intention within your family or any relationship to not throw each other under the bus is a profound event in the lifespan of a family or relationship. Try out the “Taking each other’s side” or “No throwing under the bus” challenge with those you love. Put a sign up on your fridge or a picture of a bus with a stop sign through it. No matter what’s happening in the moment, no matter what the contents of the situation are, take a moment to stop, pause, and interrupt the habit. See the situation as if looking out through the other’s heart. Live this difficult moment through the other’s most vulnerable place, through their pain, fear or weakness, through the child in them. Know that, just like you, they are trying to create happiness, to find peace and feel okay—for themselves and possibly even for you.
One post note: this practice applies to healthy family dynamics only. It is not to be used in abusive or dysfunctionally destructive contexts. This practice is not an opportunity to excuse abusive behavior of any kind. Abusive behavior should not be tolerated in any context.