(or How the Ethicist Got It Wrong)
For as long as we’ve subscribed to the New York Times, I’ve always enjoyed reading the Ethicist column on Saturday mornings. Perhaps, I now realize, I didn’t enjoy the actual column as much as I enjoyed the insight of then-Ethicist Chuck Klosterman. Since I first started reading, my beloved column has undergone a transformation, first becoming a short-lived podcast and now in the hands of Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at N.Y.U.
This past Saturday, when I finally had a chance to sit down and peruse the day’s edition, I first turned to the column in the magazine, as I usually do. Sometimes it’s the only column I get to read, uninterrupted. The first letter was from “Name Withheld,” a gay man, who asked “How do I explain to my Evangelical Relatives why I avoid family functions?” I delved into the Ethicist’s response with enthusiasm, thinking that perhaps this was my answer: I could simply rip out this column, letter and answer in all, and send it to my parents. I was hopeful that the Ethicist would be able to explain exactly why I felt it so hard to attend family functions, and why it was not selfish, but rather self-preserving, that I distance myself from them and their toxicity.
But the ethicist’s response left me baffled and confused. While Kwame rightly acknowledged that “the part of their behavior that’s most morally worrisome, as you recount it, isn’t their hypocrisy, it’s their heartlessness,” he ends this letter with “The heart of the matter is that you can maintain relationships with those who conscientiously disagree with you, even if they are living in ways you disapprove of. That would be my message to them. But also to you.”
So there goes my idea to send this on to my parents. As it is, they already think that this is all my fault and that they’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.
I at least took some solace in the seemingly more-grounded comments:
- “We do not have to invite toxic people into our lives just because they are family.” @ Julia H., Chapel Hill, NC
- “It is unfair to expect that the writer should continue to hang around this abusive family waiting for their apologies, explanations or corrected understandings… the columnist seems to see the solution to the situation in the hands of the writer. I believe the columnist could not be more wrong.” @Lew Alessio, Lewiston, Maine
- “As a dear friend once asked me, ‘Just how far out of your way do you intend to go?’ You have probably turned the other cheek many, many times. I eventually came to realize that I have only one other cheek.” @Kennon, Startzville, Texas
- “What a false parallel it is to counsel tolerance to the perpetrators of bigotry and the victim equally.” @skv, NYC
- “To be shunned by a family for something you have no control over is the worst type of abuse there is.” @Hilly, NYC
- “Blood isn’t thicker than water. It’s just harder to wash out.” @toxic shakti, Pittsburgh
While one person found the response “wise,” I was surprised that such advice could be issued in 2016, from a self-identified gay man none-the-less.
Perhaps Kwame, like most people, has never experienced the heartbreaking injury of being cut-off, or of having to cut-off, from a toxic and destructive family of origin.
Many people commented, rightly so, that weddings and funerals and family reunions are optional, not obligations. You can choose to attend these functions.
But, as is often the case, I find that I choose not to attend such functions. Or really my family of origin makes it so intolerable for me to be near them, that the choice is made for me.
The reality is that people whom I love and who support me will inevitably get married and even die, and I would like to be part of those occasions. A dear, supportive aunt passed away last year and I didn’t go to the funeral because I didn’t feel strong enough to encounter my parents. I was in a particularly vulnerable state at the time, and I felt awful that I couldn’t pay my respects in person, or be there to support my cousin.
My cousin understood. I think.
Then I skipped a summer camp reunion, again to avoid my mother (who didn’t even go to camp). It was particularly awkward to explain to lifelong friends that I couldn’t join in the fun because my mother, who had no business being there, would be in attendance.
Some friends understood. Some didn’t.
I have declined invitations to friends’ weddings, because, as is often the case, my parents are also friends with the bride’s or groom’s parents. And if my parents were going, then I was not.
I don’t know if anyone even noticed the connection.
And most recently, I’ve had to decline a family trip to Disney World this summer, because I could not, in good faith or consciousness, join in colluding with my family’s inability to accept the cold hard truth. Where better to go and pretend that we are just one big happy family and that everything is alright than the ultimate fantasyland.
I don’t decline these invitations lightheartedly. I think long and hard about what I am able to tolerate, and what I will be asking my wife and children to tolerate too. I weigh up what I might gain or lose in going to these functions. It’s not as easy and clear-cut as either Kwame or the commenters would like to assume.
Regardless of my decision, I feel an impact at my core. If I go, I have to steel myself for the inevitable encounters with people who simply do not understand me and with whom I have very little in common. If I don’t go, I feel I lose a little bit of myself, another part sacrificed.
In the early years of my post-coming out, friends encouraged me to “just give it time.” But it’s now been 13 years. How much time do I have to give it?
Which leads me to an ever-daunting question that permeates much of my life: Do I stay or do I go? Do I stay just a little bit connected? Or do I walk away altogether? And then where does that leave me?
I realize that no olive branch is being extended on either side. I’m too hurt to initiate any reparation and to be honest, I don’t trust any gesture, should it be made, from my parents. My parents believe, I think, that they have done nothing wrong, and that I am the one who has rejected them.
I agree that you can maintain relationships with people who disagree with you. I can continue to be friends with conservative, Catholic, republicans. But this goes far beyond disagreement.
It is heartless and heartbreaking.
Kwame’s response reminds me of just how few people really understand what it is like to be rejected just for being who you are. His advice is neither helpful to those who find themselves ostracized, nor to those families who cast off one of their own.
I promise this blog won’t just be about my traumatic coming out process… This just seemed like a timely follow-on to my last post. And, whether I like it or not, this was a critical juncture in my life – B.C.O. and A.C.O. respectively. I also suspect that this rupture is still at play in many of my current relationships despite my best, albeit futile, attempts to keep the destruction buried.
I’ve been stewing on these thoughts for nearly a week, and one reason I am writing this blog is to have a place to set these thoughts down so it’s not all just rattling around in my head. I already see that it can be hard to do, further complicated by being a full-time working mom of two young children. There isn’t much time for this kind of downloading and processing, but it’s becoming mandatory. My psyche is requiring this, so I will plow ahead.