“Be brave,” my father would say.
He died thirteen years ago; however his words reverberate beyond death. Lots of messages from the past echo in us: we all carry the spoken and unspoken adages and scripts of our parents. Internalized within us are mantras not of our own making. And the mantras create our personalized family “mythology”. Some of these words we need to live by.
Our parents, our families, if we are fortunate, teach us how to be safe (“Don't put your finger in the light socket.”); how to get along with others (“Share that toy with your brother.”); how to be respectful (“Say ‘please’, say ‘thank you’.”). And some of these scripted mantras passed on from generation to generation probably arose out of necessity. Can you imagine a six-year-old bundled in blankets in the middle of winter on a journey across the ocean in 1895, emigrating from Italy or Eastern Europe to America, being told not to be brave? I imagine my ancestors having to be very brave and not cry as they left the familiar and its poverty to forge new life in the New World where both the landscape and the language were foreign. Not the time for tears; indeed the time to “be brave”.
However, what was necessary in certain circumstances, becomes a constriction of feeling in others. Another, later era, six-year-old, crying at the death of her puppy in an American town, doesn't need the “be brave” admonition as much as she needs permission to feel her sadness.
Many years ago, during a series of miscarriages followed by a time of infertility, I cried in church on Mother’s Day, when roses were presented to all the women in honor of their “motherhood”. My father happened to be present. He looked at me, my tears streaming, and said, “Be Brave.”
Not being a child any longer, I spoke out. “Why, Dad, so you won't feel my sadness, and be hurt too?” So disarmed, so taken aback, he sputtered, “Well, yes!”
Often, beyond when it is necessary for survival or safety, family messages retain their power to stop authentic feeling. For example, we don't want our child to hurt. (Or we don't want our child to be angry, because we ourselves get afraid of anger, and so on.)
Feelings are neither good or bad—they arise, they are, they need to be acknowledged, accepted. What goes awry with our feeling is not finding healthy expression of them. (One feeling we often have difficulty with is anger. Anger can be a symptom of our experience of an injustice. It can be a warning to us about a situation in which we feel distress. Acting violently against self or others is the unhealthy expression of that feeling.)
When we have awareness of our inner messages/mantras from our families, we have a choice of action. Do those words fit in this situation, or are they constricting our feeling, our aliveness?
Sometimes we do need to be brave. On July 7, 1996, I remember whispering in my father’s ear as he lay dying, “Okay, Dad, now’s the time to be brave.” Despite his almost comatose state, he nodded his head, “Yes.”