Mind Matters — Family Mythology: Past to Present

Who knows when I first heard the story of my father’s newspaper business burning to the ground in a small town in New Jersey in 1943? I was not born until 1945. Yet, I do know that as a very young child, before I was able to read, I became fascinated by a book of pictures of antique fire trucks and imagined myself putting out any fire that might threaten my family. The Phoenix of financial wherewithal did not arise from the ashes to re-create another newspaper: my father became a proofreader for the Philadelphia Inquirer by night and an advertising and layout editor by day for another, local, paper. Nevertheless, the legend of his publishing venture remained a constant undercurrent in our lives: a wistful “what could have been and was no longer.”

What is the psychological point here? That what has occurred in a family’s past remains part of its present, sometimes explicitly, most times implicitly.

My family’s mythology, a la the fire, was/is that one can attain a dream, lose it—but still live. My magical thinking response as a child, however, was that I would have ridden in on a shiny firetruck and saved the day.

Ignorance of the many ways family mythology gets played out is not bliss! If we do not become conscious and aware of our family history, we can never really mature and move beyond a smaller definition of ourselves. What we may consider our “comfort” zone is really our “constricted” zone.

You might ask yourself, How does your family mythology define you? What were the rules from your family of origin, that, although never printed out and stuck by a magnet to the refrigerator, are imprinted in your brain?

What about feelings, for example? Did your family explode with anger or do the opposite—prohibit any display of anger such that you were told never to feel such emotion?

What message did your family maintain about space? Were there boundaries such that each person’s privacy was respected or were your parents intrusive and overbearing? Was there too much isolation? Or too much smothering?

What were the family rules about respect? Was there respect of personal boundaries within the family as well as outside the home? Was your body respected both in word and action? Or were you teased, made fun of, or touched inappropriately?

What were the family rules about work and play? Was there a work and study ethic balanced with play and fun activities?

What were the family rules about money? Time? Sexuality? Religion? Secrets? Neighbors? Trust? Food? Death? Life?

How a family of origin approaches these and other themes has a profound effect on the developing child’s view of the world. Maturity occurs when we can recognize what we learned from our past may need to change in the present in order to have a larger future. So, consider—is your comfort zone your constricted zone?