Some years ago I bought a turquoise Toyota Paseo (pictured). This was not a very common car, but suddenly they were everywhere and my friends and family thought they saw me in all corners of the city. It took my sister a few weeks to discover she was daily tooting and waving to a complete stranger, a neighbour in an identical car.
The strange way we come across something we think is new and then see it again and again is called automatic perception (or perceptual vigilance, or even the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon).
Recently my automatic perception has been aroused in the area of how family shapes us in ways that go deeply beyond conscious awareness – or as Peter Scazzero (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality) quips: “Almost everything I had learned about life had come from my original family”.
Whether I have been reading about formation, worship, multi-cultural issues, leadership, ministry resilience, or conflict, the same message keeps popping up: for good or ill I am profoundly shaped by my family of origin.
The shaping can be in almost anything at all: what and how we celebrate, or react in situations of conflict; our attitude to education, free time, or housekeeping; our ideals of parenting, life-style, or anything that tells us how we think the world is supposed to be.
Families don’t always shape us positively. Sometimes it is neutral and sometimes we are shaped in unhelpful and dysfunctional ways.
As a child of parents who grew up in the great depression of the 1930s I know something of those material attitudes that have shaped me, but suspect it is much deeper than I have yet plumbed. At the same time, I grew up in a home where budgeting and wise financial planning were also well modelled. I notice that as I talk with people who did not have that shaping in their upbringing.
Recently my friend Mary told me that financial difficulties in the theological college where she teaches means that she won’t have support in her teaching program. Then she picked up on my earlier comment about my automatic perception around how we are formed by our families and said: “… I am recognising that the strategies and resources that are getting me through the challenges I am facing are largely derived from the gift of having my particular pair of good parents.”
How she was shaped by her family still impacts on her ability to navigate a stressful situation, in a very positive way. Mary knew nothing of Christianity from her family, that came as she went to university. Yet the decades of Christian shaping since then, and Mary is a deeply reflective theological thinker, are still influenced by her family of origin.
Additionally, as I become aware of a pattern of response that has become deeply ingrained in my behavioural repertoire, similar instances keep coming to my awareness: automatic perception again.
For instance watching the news was an integral part of dinner time when I grew up, including my father’s comments on politics, race, economics and sport. Some time ago I became aware of my dad’s voice in my own internal commentary on the news, and now frequently stop and consider whether in fact I agree (with myself) from a contemporary theological angle. In this way I suspect I have developed ‘vigilance perception’ where I am not only aware, but censor that message and change it.
Awareness of family of origin issues is important for us in the church, in the ways that we relate to each other, but also due to the internal stories that we import regarding religion, faith, and the Church.
Important cultural and context changes mean we may now think very differently about issues of gender, sexuality and social justice than the culture that shaped our parents, and so us. ‘The way things should be in the church’ may also form part of our inherited understanding of ecclesial issues, and be one strand in the many as we struggle to redefine ourselves as a church in the 21st century.
The patterns that were part of our parents’ and grandparents’ lives still make an impact on us: but they aren’t the last word in who and how we are. There are many reasons for the decisions we make and the ways we behave. But accepting that we are inheritors of more than genes might help us find ways to graciously move into fresh expressions of our personal and corporate life, as we are also remade into the family of Christ.
And that turquoise Paseo? Let’s just say that my parents’ pattern of careful driving didn’t entirely shape me.