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Returning the Blessing
In all my writing about blessing I have assumed that parents bless children, not the other way round. I have thought the blessing went from elder to younger, powerful to weak, rich to poor, wise to foolish, etc. And so it does, but then comes a time when children come into power or good fortune while parents retire and grow old. So the scales are tipped the other way. The offspring surpasses the parent in more ways than strength. It may include more prestige, more wisdom, more money, and more power.
In all of this I am not saying the son or daughter get to the place they no longer need the parental blessing, but I am adding that parents get to the place they need to be affirmed by their children. This is the way children bless their parents. Much of the greatness and attraction of Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom is the story of a young man blessing an old man. While this is a student blessing his old professor, it is powerfully charged as a father-son relationship.
I knew a clergyman who was called by his father to the father's sick bed. The father asked the other siblings to give him time with his minister son. The son went in, not knowing what this was all about. He shared his puzzlement with a group of friends. I was in that group when he put the question of what we thought the father meant by this. He had gone into the sick room and waited to see what his father wanted. Nothing happened, only silence. It was a long, long period of silence. At that point, I asked the question of whether this farmer father with a 4th grade education didn't look up to this preacher son with a Ph.D. in hope that a blessing might be forthcoming. With this, the minister's eyes filled with tears. "Of course that was what he wanted," he said with great grief because he had missed the message and now his father was dead.
Before anyone thinks my response was a clever one, I must confess that the same thing happened between me and my farmer father. I also got the message too late and I paid heavily with grief at my own stupidity. You see, I could not get it into my head that this man, my father, who had always been my model of strength and stamina, could be so weak as to need me. I could not come into his sick room except as a child, hoping that I could still be his little boy. So I entered that space in denial that in my father's eyes I was a pretty big fellow. My denial kept me from seeing his need while I held onto the past, not allowing reality to come into focus. I suppose this is a part of why MY grief in the aftermath was devastating. Harvey Cox, in Just As I Am, revealed the same story with his dying father.
Parents Seeking the Blessing of Young Children
It seems to be a natural thing for parents to want their children to be special. We all want our children to be like the ones in Lake Woebegone -- above average. Yet, we have all seen parents take this thing to excess. It veritably becomes a form of child worship. When this happens children become devastated. Søren Kierkegaard tells how his father selected him, Søren, as the one to whom he would confess his sins and failures. He did this at the age of forty, and young Søren said that he himself became an old man at the age of eight, his age when his father laid this burden on him. This kind of burden, that of his father's sin, left young Kierkegaard depressed most of his life. He said the emotionally starved adult has the habit of "eating the fresh green shoots of young hearts."
There are many situations when exceptional children give the parents their focus for life. This happens when a child prodigy appears on the scene. I knew a family with six children in which the second child of the siblings was a girl with exceptional beauty. Her uniqueness appeared before she was 2 years old. In this situation the mother and father gave almost total attention to this child who brought the whole family into constant attention from the news media. I think one might say these parents delighted in being caught up in the daughter's glory, but such specialness given to the one child threw the family system into chaos. It nearly always does.
Again, parents sometimes put it on the children to grow up and do something to justify the parents for raising them. That is in a real sense an expectation put upon a child to be the one to bring blessing to the parents. It is not an uncommon thing.
It all sends my head spinning when I take this thought into the area of stem cell research. This touches on the edge of the young being used to heal, cure, bless the older ones. Are these the "fresh green shoots of young hearts" reduced to the cellular level?
I conclude these thoughts with a warning against child worship. When this need of the adult to be sustained by the child is too great you have a reversal of how the life process works in nature. The elder ones are to sustain the younger ones. It is true of the birds and the beasts as well as the fishes and the folks.
When Parents Most Need Their Children's Blessing
It is well established that in nature, the parent-offspring bond is broken early and remains so for the life span of the species concerned. This is not so in the human world. The bond is seldom completely severed. However in the early stages the bond is strong favoring a grip from the parent, holding strong until the human offspring seeks liberation. When Jesus said, "Call no man your father upon earth" (Matt. 23:9), I believe he intended the parent child attachment should shift so that adult children would come to an adult-to-adult relationship with parents; neither being dependent on the other.
However, the drift of the life cycle turns things around. Jesus found himself in quite a different role from his first dealing with his mother at the wedding feast in Cana saying, to his mother who intruded heavily on their relationship, "O woman, what have you to do with me...?" (John 2:4), to John 19:26 at the crucifixion. We see him taking up responsibility for his mother. Since he could no longer bless and support her in the remainder of her earthly journey, he turned her over to the apostle John, saying to her, "Woman behold your son," indicating that John would be her primary caretaker from here on out. The scripture says that John took her home that day and cared for her, supposedly for the rest of her life.
The implication here is that in later life things shift so that parents become increasingly dependent on their children. Of course, this is not always the case, but where need in the elderly manifests itself children are expected to come forward and take up the slack.
The way blessing is managed in early life comes back to influence how siblings share the responsibility of parent care. To that end I want to share a couple of examples.
I had a dear friend whose mother came to that time when the doctor declared she should no longer live alone. He said her two sons would have to decide about her living with one of them. So the two of them went into the mother's hospital room in New Orleans to work it out. I was there and waited outside. It was easy for me to predict how it would turn out. The situation with the sons went like this: the one who had been my friend for more than twenty-five years was the younger. I had seen partiality displayed by the mother from the beginning. To listen to the mother you would think she had only one son, and that was the elder of the two. My friend struggled all his life to become important to her; he never could get there in her affection. The older son had her blessing from birth.
When you take into account the situation of these sons, everything would argue for the elder one to take the mother. He lived in a veritable mansion on the east coast (on the beach). He had servants and surplus space. On the other hand my friend lived in a small two-bedroom house on the west coast and lived on a teacher's salary while his brother was retired out of the Air Force on General's pay along with a civilian job as a consultant to an aircraft manufacturer.
They took a long time in that room and my friend's need to get his mother's blessing prevailed over all other considerations. Of course, I knew she wanted to go with the older son with all the space and amenities he had to offer, along with her special affection, but the decision that came out of that room was for her to go west. Later, when I visited in the home there in California, that mother was only interested in conversations that related to her son in Virginia and all the news about his children. Of course she had pictures available.
I saw a similar situation with a seventy-two year old woman who went to the nursing home every day to visit her mother. In those visits she would write the checks, answer the letters, make the needed phone calls, and all the little things that helped her mother be more comfortable. The pain that came in all this was that the mother was never quite satisfied. This daughter said, "This is the story of my mother. I could never do a single thing that would get her approval. I did too much, too little, too soon, or too late, but nothing was ever just right." I asked if there were other siblings to share this burden. There was a sister three years younger who lived nearby. "Does your sister go every day like you do?" I asked. Her reply, "My sister goes about once a month, if that much, but Mother makes excuses for her that she is just too busy to do these things." It was finally stated that for the mother the sister could do no wrong, while in her own experience she (the elder sister) could do nothing right. With exasperation in her voice, she lamented, "That's the way it is, and the way it has always been." My next question to her was, "Does it always have to keep on being this way?"
She pondered over this during a seemingly long period of silence and said, "No, I am going to change." I asked her if she was going to cut back or stop her visits, or what. She replied, "No, I'm going to keep on doing just what I'm doing, but I'm not going to do all these things in hope she will give me a good word of approval. She's not going to approve of me, so that's the way it is. I'm not going to expect it any more. I am a good person and I don't have to wait on my mother's word to make it so." So, instead of working for a blessing here, she could supply a blessing. I have said many times that you can never earn a blessing. If it is not a gift, it is nothing.
There are situations where children seem not to be able to cut loose enough to live their own lives. I honestly believe this was the situation of the disciple who told Jesus he wanted first to go and bury his father. (Matt. 8:21) You recall that Jesus refused, saying, "Let the dead bury their dead." I don't think it was a matter of going to his father's funeral as much as it was a request to take care of the father until he died. We have all observed situations where a son or a daughter do not go on with their lives until they bury a parent whose needs are great. Sometimes we praise such loyalty. Yet there are many such situations that leave the child in an even greater crisis of emptiness or dependence.
I hope this calls your attention to the fact that the unblessed child is more often available to support an aging parent. They still need blessing and are willing to work for it. However the need of the parent should speak to us, the children -- blessed or unblessed, to do what we can to supply tenderness to elderly and infirmed parents.
Our time and our presence does more than our money and our gifts. Being with is more important than doing for.
In slowing down to be with aging parents, the real blessing comes in letting them know that you appreciate some of the things they did in earlier times. Keep in mind that, for the most part, people do the best they are able, not the best they know. It is safe to assume that this was true (or nearly so) for our parents in that early journey of their learning how to do their parenting. It is time to be forgiving about mistakes they made.
Another factor that could put resistance in blessing the elderly is the fact that we often associate blessing with parting. Emotionally it could feel like we are setting up things for the parents' departure. Yet the opposite could come into play: the feeling that we may be urging things toward the end time.
We can be more natural, more tender, more caring if we are able to accept the mortality of our parents. That goes with coming to terms with our own mortality. I have discovered that there are a lot of people who need to keep their parents alive so they don't have to reckon with their own death, or at least they can hold to the hope that death is a generation away as long as their parents are still alive. It is as if the death of our parents blows our cover.
This bonding of child to parent can create a problem when such a strong bond leaves the parent without full freedom to live his or her life and die his or her death. This is well illustrated in D.H. Lawrence's own life depicted in the novel, Sons and Lovers. The son that was bonded to the mother became furious when the mother could no longer join the son in strenuous exercises and do playful things like young people do.
Perhaps a part of children blessing parents comes in walking with them toward the sunset as a kind of practice run for the walk we all take.
Myron Madden, Ph.D., is former Professor of Psychiatry at the Louisianna State University Medical School and Director of Pastoral Care at the Southern Baptist Hospital in New Orleans. He is the author of the books The Power To Bless, Raise the Dead, Claim Your Heritage, and Blessing: Giving the Gift of Power, and co-author of For Grandparents: Wonders and Worries and The Time of Your Life. Madden continues to be a sought after consultant for Clinical Pastoral Education, pastoral counseling supervision, and church and denominational staff issues. He is a frequent and popular speaker in churches and in medical centers addressing family, marriage, and health issues.
Copyright © 2002, Wayne E. Oates Institute. All rights reserved.