One of my favorites scriptures is Malachi 4:6
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
I don’t even know what this means in the actual Bible. But here is what it means to me:
To achieve true happiness we must be reconciled with both our parents and our children. By the phrase ‘to be reconciled’ I mean that both parents and children need to look upon the other with true pride, and feel as if the parents have passed on a valuable legacy that the children are carrying with honor.
To understand why this isn’t easy, I present the following model of human psychological development:
- Initially, a child develops a sense of identity in the context of a world controlled by their parents. A child’s identity is initially ‘fused’ with the parents in that it is hard to discern where the parents attitudes end and the child’s attitudes begin.
- A teenager is flooded with hormones that cause them to seek out new ideas and assert their individual identity. One consequence of this is that they feel a strong need to reject things associated with their parents. A teenager’s identity is defined by a conflict between the desire to retain a constant identity, and a need to reject the identity of their parents.
- When a person has their own children, the conflict with their parents recedes into the background and they focus on creating a world for the next generation.
Basically, people go through a stage where they reject their parents, and in many cases they are never fully reconciled. Thus, the parents feel as if their children aren’t really carrying out their legacy. Similarly, children harbor resentment because their parents don’t accept who they are.
The other day a friend mentioned that the moment their parents were most proud of them was when they received a mission call (an invitation to serve as a Mormon missionary). The gospel of Jesus Christ represented the most treasured aspect of their parents’ identity. So the moment they accepted, understood, and shared this gospel with others gave their parents an unparalleled source of pride. Unfortunately, this person subsequently decided that Mormonism was inconsistent with their identity, and left the church.
Eventually, an uneasy truce developed that depended on the parties respecting a certain boundary. The parents accepted the child was not going to be Mormon, and became proud of the child in many other ways.They still treasured the gospel, perhaps more than anything else, but they were not allowed to project their hopes onto their child. The child knew the parents still loved them, but they also knew that on some level their parents would always be disappointed.
If you are not Mormon, you may be tempted to think that the correct solution to this problem is for the parents to just accept the child without conditions. If you think that, I would argue it is because there is something you don’t really understand: the power of purpose.
I was raised Mormon. I served a mission. I paid 10% of my income as tithing. And I always struggled with doubts. But the thing that kept me faithful was the belief in eternal life. It gave me a sense of meaning. When I chose to leave the church, I recognized that doing so would leave a huge void. And it did. I went from understanding that life had a greater purpose, and from having words to describe that purpose, to a state of agnosticism. Maybe life has purpose, maybe not. If it does I don’t really know what it is.
For someone who understands that that this life has purpose, who can name that purpose and who knows how to live according to that purpose, the idea that your children will live a life without it is a great tragedy. To suggest otherwise represents a lack of understanding. In other words, the children really are missing something important.
Now, the concept of eternal life (and specifically, the Mormon concept of eternal life) isn’t the only thing that can provide people with a deep sense of purpose. But it works, and it is powerful. If you haven’t ever felt it, take my word for it and let’s move back to the issue of conflict between parents and children.
So let’s assume the parents have found expression for a great sense of purpose in their life. The child rejects this purpose (especially the parents’ particular expression of it) and either a) doesn’t really seem to have any purpose or b) adopts some alternative expression of purpose that seems naive to the parents.
What happens then? Do we accept the state of affairs described above where the parents are prevented from projecting the fullness of their pride onto the child? Maybe this imperfect state of affairs is inevitable. Children must reject their parents, and once they experience the world of ideas beyond they can never really come back into the fold. To me, this is Malachi’s curse.
As someone who was raised with a traditional view of Mormonism, I understand the paradox. There really is something that is lost when you reject the purpose of your childhood. Yet there are also some aspects of my childhood beliefs that I can never return to.
Still, I reject the curse. I choose to turn my heart to my parents (and to the religion of my parents). I also ask them to turn to me. There is a great chasm, but even if it can never be fully filled in, at the very least we can look across and see each other reaching out.
So what does this mean in practice?
- For the child. At some point you must stop rejecting your parents. Instead, put your energy toward understanding them. That thing they want for you? It really is important. Stop forcing them to suppress their hopes as a prerequisite to having a relationship. For all your wisdom, they know something you don’t. Make it your policy to accept that and find a way to carry on their legacy in a way that makes sense to them.
- For the parents. Stop rejecting your child’s search for purpose. It is genuine, and in the end it leads to the same place. Stop expecting their expression to look exactly like yours. When they rejected your way of life and went out into the world, they learned things you never knew or understood (even if they seem naive). Their experience makes their journey of reconciliation a little harder, but they are still on that journey.
Maybe there is an uncross-able chasm between parents and children. Still, if both parties turn and accept the responsibility for identifying and passing on the most important legacy, there is a real possibility that the parents will be able to look upon their children with infinite pride, and the children will be able to accept that and carry it on to the next generation. Raising these issues might be painful for both sides, but ignoring them will only deepen the scars.