Thanksgiving Thought: Don't Wear Out Your Welcome
As my parents age and slow down considerably, I have found myself thinking, more and more, about stuff they have said, over the years, that got stuck in my head. And, as I was laying in bed, early this morning, long before I needed to be awake for my weekly workout (yes, now I just workout once/week, for roughly 4.5 hours, so that I don't have to go to the gym at all, except that one day each week), one of my mom's maxims leaped into my otherwise generally empty head.
It's one I've thought of before, numerous times, over the decades. Yet, it's one I found myself wondering, this morning, if she even deliberately meant to teach us, or if it just spilled out, at times. (In other words, did she have intent for this to become some grand truth embedded in the foundation of my life values, or was it a throw-away, off-handed thing that I just heard enough times that my impressionable mind formed into gospel? And that question alone begs the even larger issue: as a parent, be deliberate about what is coming out of your piehole, because you may mean it as little more than a throw-away comment, which you happen to state repeatedly, but junior may take it as Grand Life Wisdom, thus bending him or her in some direction that you really had no intent for him to go.)
Anyway, back on point, mom used to say, "Don't wear out your welcome." Of course, at 48, I now tuck that quite perfectly into the Swedish-Minnesota-Lutheran piety in which I long stewed that believes there are no greater crimes against humanity than A) Immodesty, and B) Imposing on anyone for anything, ever, for any reason whatsoever.
"Oh hi, Sven. Thanks for stopping by. Can I make you a cup of coffee?"
"No. Thanks, though."
"Are you sure, it's really no trouble."
-"So kind of you, but no thank you. I don't want to impose."
"Oh Sven, it's nothing. I was just putting on a fresh pot."
-"Oh, you're too kind, but no I don't want to trouble you."
"Sven, it's not a trouble, at all. I'd love to make you a cup."
-"Well, okay, if it'll make you feel better."
There is in the Swedish-Minnesotan psyche an unyielding fear of doing anything that in any way might disturb or disrupt someone else. And to be so selfish as to take or ask from another is unthinkable. So, naturally taking this concept to utterly illogical extremes (and quite divergent, I am sure, from anything remotely resembling its original intent), I've spent my entire life tap-dancing through conversations, not wanting to do anything that might even remotely seem like imposing my will on another person. (This, of course, would explain why I became a pastor and spiritual counselor....so that I could impose my will onto others with impunity, even telling them God wants them to do what I'm saying.) And, I think, for the most part, it has been a blessing that I've done so. Having grown up with five older siblings, there was never a shortage of people telling me what to do. So, of course, the last thing I've wanted is to make someone else feel the way I felt, in that regard.
Further, I've been adamant with myself in my adult decades, to generally give more time in conversation to the other person, as well as give more questions than statements -- that is, in asking questions, I try to offer the other person more of the spotlight in our conversation; where speaking in statements is a taking of the spotlight. In effect, I am most comfortable when the flow of energy is moving toward the other person from me, rather than from that person to me.
I've spent 48 years walking through life with this utter neurosis tumbling around inside my head, a dread fear of stepping on any toes, whatsoever. That thought is nothing short of laughable to those who know me, as I am regularly pushing and challenging people, and am rather tickled by doing so. But my days and nights are spent striving to be at least in the ballpark as gracious in spirit as both of my parents are, even as I gently needle people into new ways of considering something.
In my parents and a few siblings, this fear of wearing out one's welcome in any way, whatsoever, morphed into a gentle, even sublime, graciousness of spirit -- a treading lightly -- that I treasure as one of life's two highest virtues (the other being grand courage). It is a trait I now actively seek out in people I desire to be close to.
Yet, as I lay in my recently dog-free bed (the mini-animals now relegated to the 'barn' -- a foamy former cat house [not THAT kind of cat house] -- just two feet from my side of the bed, so that we could sleep without being awakened every 45 minutes from a shifting animal and actually wake up refreshed in the morning), this early morning, I found myself feeling grateful not for this incessant fear of tarrying too long in someone else's physical and conversational space, but for having parents who taught me what they believed, both in their times of deliberate parenting and in their throw-away moments, not because I believe every last morsel that dripped from their mouths was deeply compelling and 'bedrock for life' sort of thing (though I've seen my consciousness slip more and more into this as they have been in their eighties and in slow movement toward spirit, away from form), but because it gave me something to ping against.
(Yes, btw, that was one very long, multi-claused sentence. Thank you for your patience as I waddled through it.)
It gave me something to hit against. It gave me hard rock to sling my sledgehammer against -- to shape the muscles of my mind and spirit, even as I beat myself against it and wrestled with it, over the years.
It's not that I'm thankful for the mantra -- "Don't wear out your welcome, Sven", per se. Nor is it that I'm thankful for any of their other gems of wisdom, per se. I am, but that's not the point. I'm thankful for good mental and spiritual meat to chew on, over the years. I'm grateful for parents who gave me good sh-t to tangle with. For it's the fight that produces character. It's the failures. It's the not living up to their expectations, or even my own expectations, whether in the realm of giving more energy than I take, or in the realm of parenting, or what have you.
It's the fight, the tangling, with their values, both large and small, that has turned me into who I am and who I continue to morph into. And, if I'm really honest, the gift they gave was not the expectation that I would live their wisdom, live their truths, and be like them. (Granted, it's hard not to want to be like them, and hard to admit you're not always like them, when they're really such genuinely decent and gregarious people.) Nah, the real gift I received from them, which was really implicit in all they taught me and the way they raised me (and I concede my siblings might have had a very different experience, of which I'm not aware) was actually not along the lines of a wise saying, but a question.
Oddly, and seemingly out of left field.....
...implicit in all they taught me,
all they modeled for us six, and
all they spent their years toiling at in ministry to God and people,
was the simple question,
"Sven, is it possible that your values are different from our values?"
The really frickin' odd thing about my parents, at least in their raising of me, was NOT that they expected me to do what I was told, follow their advice, and act in a way that best represented them or would make them proud..... but that they actually almost expected precisely the opposite.
(Btw, yes, I'm aware this really has nothing to do with the specific notion of wearing out one's welcome. But I was using that smaller truism as a doorway into this larger point.)
I mean, who the heck does that? Who raises their children with the expectation, even the encouragement to be whoever the heck they want to be. I mean, we all say it ("You can be whoever you want to be in life."), but how many parents really mean it? Too often, parenting is a vanity exercise -- the child exists to become an extension of the parent, a living embodiment of their teachings and values. And the child that doesn't become what mommy (and/or daddy) wants is felt by the parent to be a disappointment, or, worse, is told that he/she is a disappointment.
Who raises a child to 'not be me', and not in some ironical way of "Oh, don't do what I did" but in a "You need to go be you and stop lurking around in the safety of being like us" way? What parent gives to the child the best they have with the very clear expectation that the child will take that best as tools in the toolbelt, rather than fences that must be lived inside?
It's not just that I was given hollow words of "Be whoever you want to be", only to have my real wants curtailed later with a "Are you sure you really want to do that?" Or, at a bit of a higher level, it's not that I was legitimately given the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be. I was, and am, actually expected to be whoever the hell I gotta be....in order to accomplish whatever the hell I was put on this earth to do.
Dad used to say, "Everyone in the sixties said 'Do your own thing. Be free. Be different' but they were all doing the same 'different': sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll." (He, of course, understood that was a phase they each needed to go through. But what he was really getting at is that it's not enough to just be different.) The present-day equivalent would be every kid expressing their difference from societal expectations of 'be successful, fit in, work hard', but doing so by needing to self-identify with some psychological malady, just like seemingly every other kid in America, while shopping at Free People, getting a tattoo, rolling a joint, questioning their sexuality or gender fluidity, and dying their hair the same colors as every other different kid in America, all the while posting it on Instagram. Again, kids need to go through phases; I get it. But, my point is that the goal isn't to be different, but to find your true originality, that which is written on your soul, that only you can know, that no parent can see inside and articulate for you.
The task is not to look outside you and around you for that which you can rebel against;
the goal and rigor is to look inside you to find that which you are not.
It is to examine, over years.
Then it is to stand with courage and say,
"Though I am certainly my parents, I am not my parents.
This is who I am. Now it is time to live it."
I know it wasn't always comfortable for them. In fact, I'm certain that at times I flat out embarrassed them, such as when my first book, Spiritual But Not Religious, came out. Such a title and book are commonplace today. But it was not only cutting-edge 16 years ago, it was just short of apostasy to that same Swedish-Minnesota-Lutheran piety of my then 72 year-old parents who had gratefully given their entire lives to serving the church. And if that wasn't enough to cause a few sleepless nights, surely my last book, just a few years ago, was -- I Steal Wives: A serial adulterer reveals the REAL reasons more and more 'happily married' women are cheating. A parent doesn't have to be any sort of living saint or clergyman to be found squirming at the news of that title affixed to their adult-child's work and life.
Yet, the expectation persisted: Sven, you have to have the courage to be who you are, and that demands the rigor of discerning how you are NOT like us. You have to find and follow YOUR path, even when it may look like utter failure or a misguided direction from our path.
What I find myself grateful for, this Thanksgiving, is not just the freedom to be different but the expectation to be so. But just as importantly, I am thankful for the expectation that I had to hammer out my life's values on my own. I'm grateful that my parents didn't wear out their welcome inside my head and inside my life, telling me what I should become and do and the choices I should make, but instead implicitly threw me into the pit and told me, "We've given you the tools, now you need to figure out who the hell you are. And you need to find and teach yourself new tools to help you do so. Only then will you be wise enough and strong enough to do what you've been put on this earth to do, whatever that may be."
What I'm grateful for is parents who didn't need me to coddle their own frail egos by becoming dittos of them, in any way whatsoever. What I'm grateful for is parents who didn't live unfulfilled lives, who then expected me to fulfill their dreams of med school, business success, or producing well-dressed, brag-worthy children of my own. What I'm grateful for is parents who lived their own damn lives, who believed in what they were doing, who gave their lives to giving back to humanity, AND who were very deliberate in their parenting (actually thinking about parenting, rather than simply doing what their parents had done).....AND who expected me to be a lion -- to find the lion within myself by having the deliberateness and guts to examine who they were and then discern who I am not....and eventually who I am.
What I'm grateful for is not just the freedom to be different, but the expectation to be myself. And I am only now in adulthood aware of how difficult it is for a parent to not wear out their welcome in a child's life, particularly in the teen-to-twenties time, but particularly to not wear out their welcome in a child's head. If there's anything I've learned from decades as a spiritual counselor, it's that the soul becomes infected when the parent is too long or too greatly inside the head of the son or daughter, even when the son or daughter has become an adult; actually, especially when the son or daughter has become an adult in their thirties or forties.
- Where are you wearing out your welcome?
- Who is wearing out their welcome in your head and soul?
- Are you being who you're supposed to be, just trying to be different, or actually being who the heck you were put on this earth to be?
- Do you have the strength of character to allow your children to not be you, to even embarrass you, or, perhaps worst of all, to live values inconsistent with who you really are?
- Are you capable of showing love (not just feeling it, but showing it) to your child, even when the person's values are not your own? Are you capable of showing love to your parent, even when the person's values are not your own? Are you capable of showing love in life, to anyone, even when the person's values are not your own?
- Whose mind do you need to step out of?
-- Sven Erlandson, MDiv, Is The Author Of Five Books, Including 'Badass Jesus: The Serious Athlete And A Life Of Noble Purpose' And 'I Steal Wives: A Serial Adulterer Reveals The REAL Reasons More And More Happily Married Women Are Cheating.' He Has Been Called The Father Of The Spiritual But Not Religious Movement, After His Seminal Book 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Came Out 15 Years Ago, Long Before The Phrase Became Part Of Common Parlance And Even Longer Before The Movement Hit Critical Mass. He Is Former Military, Clergy, And NCAA Head Coach For Strength And Conditioning; And Has A Global Counseling/Consulting Practice with offices In NYC, NJ, And Stamford, CT: BadassCounseling.Com