Circumcising Our Hearts: Becoming Available for Growth in Relating to Parents and They, and We, Age
One consequence of expanded lifespans is extended years of relating to parents in midlife and beyond. While hundreds of volumes have been written about the demands and difficulties of caring for aging parents, relatively little attention has been paid to the developmental opportunities and challenges of the bond between aging parents and children outside of that dimension. Is it possible that these relationships might develop, grow, deepen, even heal over time? What would it take to consciously approach the work of growing up in relationship to aging parents?
How are we to become available for growth in relationships with parents as we all grow older? The Torah offers a wonderful image of what might be possible. In envisioning a life in covenant with God, the book of Deuteronomy promises: “God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants that you may love [your God] with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.”[i] The image here is that the hardened matter covering our hearts will be removed, so that we will have access to all of the love and tenderness within them. As we approach our most primal connections, those with our mothers and fathers, there is often a great need to break through to the heart. Growth and healing are possible, but we need to make ourselves ready.
The Jewish spiritual discipline of Mussar offers a methodology for circumcising our hearts. Over hundreds of years, rabbis and students have endeavored to refine the soul through conscious development of key traits or virtues, called middot. The practice of Mussar involves reflecting on one’s actions and striving to attain holiness in relation to the Middot. We will investigate one key middah as a focus for the effort of opening ourselves to growth in relationship to our parents: the trait of Emet/truth.
Only through truth can a person cleave to God. —Maayan haChochmah Beshallah
Teach yourself to say “I don’t know,” lest you be caught in falsehood.—BT Berachot 4a
Emet, truth, is the very ground on which a mature life is built. The middah of truth is concerned with our ability to see and acknowledge reality. Practicing emetmeans letting go of illusions and distorted thinking, meeting the world as it actually is. This is hard work, as we are prone to develop and act on our assumptions the world around us. We don’t often stop to test the veracity of those assumptions.
In the case of our parents, we might think that we “get” these people. After all, we’ve known them all our lives! Yet, in some profound ways, we humans are mysteries to one another, perhaps especially those who are closest to us. We form impressions of our parents based on our memories of them in our childhoods. Yet, we may have glimpsed only some aspects of the whole people that our parents were, while much remained hidden from us. Moreover, even though we tend to hold on to a fixed concept of who these people are, they have likely changed over time.
Nina had a difficult relationship with her mother throughout her adult life. She had moved far away from the community where she grew up, but her hurt at her mother’s criticism and distance remained with her. As her mother got older, though, Nina realized that it made sense to invite her mother to come to live with her. Nina describes the two years her mother was with her as “the best time in my life.” She decided, she says, to get to know her mother, on her own terms. She says, “I got to see her how she saw herself, how she was in the world outside of our relationship. I saw her strengths, and to see those qualities in myself. I got to truly love her as I never had been able to before.”
Nina met the emet of her mother’s life, and it transformed their relationship. What made it possible for Nina to open herself to her mother’s truth? She brought curiosity and compassion to her new encounter with her mother. This approach allowed her to appreciate her mother’s life as she had not before. When we meet our parents with curiosity, we can come to a deeper understanding of what they have undergone—the suffering, the struggles, as well as the triumphs. We can learn about how they became the way they are, especially about their lives before we came along. Looking at the truth with compassion allows us to see that our parents are flawed, human beings. As journalist Virginia Morris puts it, we come to see each one as “human, vulnerable and limited, a person who did the best he could by you and who is still doing the best he can.”[ii]
Facing our parents as real people helps us to grow up, to let go of grievances, and to relate as best we can in the here-and-now. Vivian Greenberg writes: “Children…who see their parents as imperfect, vulnerable human beings can forgive them, discover ways to encourage intimacy with them, and live their own lives free of crippling guilt.”[iii] Accepting the past is not easy. One of the reasons that people hold on to anger and grievance is the deep-seated fantasy that it might yet be possible to get what they never had. When we face emet, we recognize that we cannot change whatever was difficult in the past between us and our parents. In realizing this, we may feel a profound sense of loss.
There are things to be gained by grieving those losses and moving on, however. Taking responsibility for our own lives is essential for us in order to finally grow up, for, as Vivian Greenberg warns, “…if we cannot take responsibility for our own lives, despite gray hair, wrinkles, and perhaps a midlife paunch, we remain always at war with those powerful giants, our parents.”[iv]
If we let go of unreasonable hopes about our parents, according to Virginia Morris, we might “actually enjoy what is, rather than constantly feeling cheated by what isn’t.”[v] Like Nina, we might come to appreciate our parents as we were not able to before. We can look for shared ground, and savor the time we have. If it happens that our parents’ difficult traits remain challenging, we will gain peace by surrendering the quest to change them. We relate to them as adults, with as much openness as we can muster. With softened hearts, we can grow more compassionate, and more grounded, even as we are called to care for our parents toward the end of their lives.
[i] Deuteronomy 30:6, my translation.
[ii] Virginia Morris. How to Care for Your Aging Parents. NY: Workman Press, 1996. (page #?)
[iii] Greenberg, Op. Cit., 60.
[iv] Greenberg, Op. Cit., 54.
[v] Morris, Op. Cit., 21.