The following post has nothing to do with hummus, and it certainly isn’t “extra easy” for me to talk about. I’ll share the recipe for this hummus at the bottom of the post, as usual, so feel free to skip the rest and scroll down if you’re looking for it. If, however, you read on and have any insight to share, please do. Writing from a dark place, I could use the perspective right now.
(Edit: I am SO sorry about the timing of this post. I was writing it from a musty hotel room over the weekend and it honestly didn’t even occur to me that it was Father’s Day until the post went live. I love my daddy to bits and I hope to write him a proper post of appreciation later this week 🙂 until then, these are some immediate thoughts that I hope won’t be a damper. But I’d still love to hear your thoughts ASAP!)
In recent years, I have learned the hard way that trust is not something that stands on a solid foundation built from words, assurances, contrition, or even years of trust-building. Instead, it teeters at the edge of a narrow, misshapen precipice, whose sharp point inexplicably–perhaps even miraculously–holds up the imbalanced weight that it bears, so that it seems always on the verge of toppling when the breeze of Doubt blows by–as Doubt will, on some sad occasions with more pertinacity than others.
With parents in particular, this precipice is a tricky one to travel, and one always has the feeling that a misstep will not only cause the entire structure of trust to crumble, but to cast one into a dark void of purposelessness and intense self-hatred that cannot be occasioned by anyone else. Those of us who are lucky enough to have loving parents know that we are born into a system of trust–that we begin, essentially, possessing one or more other beings’ trust without having earned a shred of it, unless you count the act of being genetically (or adoptively) related to someone “earning.” With every subsequent human encounter in our lives, we work hard to foster and maintain that trust–but a parent-child relationship is, for better or for worse, one that begins with a blind willingness to believe in someone we have only just come to know.
It’s not strange, then, that we feel so intensely about our family units: at least for myself, I rejoice with particular vivacity when my family triumphs; I laugh with particular openness when my family goofs off; I embrace with particular strength when my family requires my support; and I cry with particularly intensity and loss when my family feels disappointed in me. Often, as a graduate student and blogger, I think that so much of my self-worth is tied to what I do in the classroom or as a researcher or as a social media expert or a dozen small things I could tick off on a list–but I think it’s also true to say that a step of mistrust with my family has fifty times the explosive power of any professional (or even most social) obstacles that I might encounter in my daily life.
As a hugely self-critical individual, I often doubt (without prompting–trust me, I don’t need it) whether I’m worthy of my family’s affection and trust. It’s a question I ask myself when I have a particularly terse phone conversation with my dad at the end of a long day, not because I’m uninterested but because I’m emotionally spent; it’s the question I ask myself when I scan through an email from my mom and then hurry off to finish another project, knowing that I haven’t responded and knowing that her request is just as important as this project, but lacking the emotional or mental capacity to “deal with it right now.” So by the time that searing, untempered lash of criticism–specifically of a parent’s Doubt–finally accumulates and storms in my direction, oftentimes I simply blow away with it, hanging (as I already am) on the edge of that precipice.
Deep down, I know “rationally” that a parent’s love–if present from naissance–is both unconditional and eternal. Again, I make this statement knowing that I am one of the lucky ones–that not everyone has the privilege of claiming this fact. That being said, love and trust have always felt like different categories to me. It reassures me when I hear my mom say that she “loves me, no matter what”–but what does it mean to have someone’s love, without having earned and kept their trust? If trust is the oxygen on which the fire of love thrives and burns, then can love really exist in a relationship without trust?
I am unworthy of my parents’ love. I hate to say it in that way, because the statement makes me both sound and feel like a sort of religiously self-deprecating text (though I say it as someone who has nothing but the deepest respect for religion, and for each religion’s specific beliefs about the importance of humility). What’s particularly difficult about this feeling of unworthiness, however, is the realization that your parents may in fact feel the same way about your worth. To know that your parent’s trust in you has been gradually whittled away–sometimes by your own unintentional actions, sometimes by outside circumstances that make them feel your actions all the more keenly–is a painful process, possibly one of the most painful feelings I have ever experienced. From a completely selfish perspective, the question then becomes: “How do you think I feel when–instead of trying to understand my struggle to become a better person–you readily confirm all my insecurities about my self-worth and trustworthiness?”
From (what I hope is) a less self-centered perspective, however, the question that keeps me crying and keeps me from sleeping at night is: “How can I help you believe in me so that you don’t lose faith in the idea of happiness? In all of the relationships in your life?”
Whether it’s family or otherwise, there is nothing more crushing than knowing that you are the reason that someone you love has lost faith in that happiness.
When so much hinges on your ability to uphold a particular standard of trustworthiness and happiness, people often lean on you without knowing that they are doing so–and, just as easily, the same people often do more damage with their words or perception of you than they might be cognizant of doing. To give you an example, I have always been terrible about asking for help in advance when it comes to planning my trips home, not because I’m malicious or reluctant to go home (we both know I’m neither of these things), but because I feel like it’s my responsibility to handle it. Of course, having responsibilities and carrying them out are two different things, and my inability to effectively juggle multiple pressures at once is often perceived as a lack of care on my part–something that requires an attitude adjustment. This couldn’t be further from the truth, of course, but when the same mistake gets repeated three, four, five times, it becomes hard to convince someone that you’re trying to be better at asking for help or at least communicating, even when you are.
Some mistakes are hurtful and unforgivable; others, a matter of course. The difference between them lies, I think, in how we think about our interactions with others.
There’s this great quote that I keep as a screensaver on my phone these days: “Apologizing doesn’t always mean you’re wrong and the other person is right. It means you value your relationship more than your ego.” Granted, the quote is grammatically incorrect (for clarity, it should read: “you value your relationship more than you value your ego”)–but it reminds me why I’m okay with absorbing damage when it comes to preserving relationships, even if the habit itself often feels or appears self-destructive (I write all about that very real problem in this post). I realize it’s not always the healthiest or ideal way to deal with conflict–M has reminded me very gently that standing up for myself is an important skill to learn–but that’s the thing about people like us, who really aren’t concerned with “being right” all the time. I won’t let myself be stepped all over if I don’t love the person in question–but when it is someone I love, I suddenly realize that we have one shot and one life at keeping the entire foundation of trust from crumbling down on us. And if that means acknowledging my faults and genuinely wanting to earn the trust that came for free to begin with, then is there really a right and a wrong?
Perhaps I am biased. Coming from a family where I’ve always felt a keen pressure to perform to the best of my ability–to make my parents proud because it’s a huge part of what they have worked toward for their whole lives, to strengthen our bonds when other parts of (and relationships in) their lives prove shakeable–I am acutely aware that my sense of self-worth is fragile in their hands. (I talk more broadly about the difficulty of loving yourself here.) When people tell me that I need to learn to stand up for myself–not to prove to anyone that I’m right, but to protect my mental and emotional well-being–I always find myself retreating a little. Again, I can’t say whether this is right or wrong. I only know that it’s the only way I can sleep at night–more miserable as an individual, perhaps, but infinitely happier knowing that I’ve protected someone’s faith in relationships and in the happiness that life has to offer. When you are the only spark of hope left in someone’s life–a life, moreover, devoted to raising you and caring for you intensely–what right do we have to pull away from that responsibility, no matter how heavy it may sometimes feel?
I’ve been ugly crying for the past three hours, both as a result of reading an email and writing this post. While I may feel differently about the whole situation once the storm passes (and hopefully, it will pass), I doubt whether the self-doubt on this score will ever change at the most fundamental level. I have written my honest thoughts here because I know all of you reading this are parents, daughters, sons, grandparents, and something to someone out there: how do you deal with this responsibility of maintaining trust when you feel incapable of doing so, but are still struggling to do your best? To what extent do you feel it, and from what perspective? What thoughts and experiences do you have concerning trust in your lives?
As a concluding note, I watched Inside-Out this week and loved it so much. Everything that Riley and Joy (two of the main characters) go through resonated so strongly with me, because one of the burdens they share is that of feeling like they need to provide happiness and joy to everyone in their lives, to maintain that facade of perfection but also feeling it so deeply when they are incapable of doing so. I’d definitely recommend seeing the film (which is also just adorable and funny and whimsical and cry-worth) if you haven’t already put it on your calendar.
From a wayward wanderer seeking wiser guidance,