Getting the Siblings to Talk

Each Monday and Friday I host an hour coffee from 3-4 PM (PDT).  You are welcome to attend any of these coffees by clicking on this link: MONDAY AND FRIDAY COFFEES.

In those bi-weekly coffees, we have participants from places like Florida, Alabama, and Washington State.  After a short check in where we share our roses and roots (see an earlier blog entry), we talk about the hot topics of the day in ways that are reminiscent of the TV show “The View”.

Last Monday we had a conversation about Critical Race Theory (CRT).  And in the context of that conversation, I came up with analogy for explaining why we have such a hard time talking about CRT.  I thought I would share the analogy with you as well.  You can take those pieces of the analogy that are helpful to you, and leave the rest.

In many ways, the dynamics in our country are like that of a family that has 3 adult children.

The first child was the family’s golden child and was treated with nothing but love and respect by their parents.  Consequently, the child has nothing but good things to say about their parents.

The second child – several years younger than the first child – was abused by one of the parents.  The second child has carried the weight of that abuse for years – and has negative feelings toward the parent who abused the as well as the other parent who failed to intervene and protect them.

The third child was close in age to the second child.  Because of the closeness in age, the second child disclosed much of their abuse to the third child.  The abusive parent came to regret their treatment of the second child – and had a more positive relationship with the third child.  As a result, the third child can see both sides of the parent – the parts that were loving and nurturing as well as the part that was capable of being abusive.

Now let’s say you got the three siblings together for a family event, and they started to reminisce about their childhoods.  The first child might say, “We had such a happy childhood.  I couldn’t have asked for better parents.  We were so blessed to have such an amazing family!”

The second child might interrupt and say, “I don’t know what family you are talking about – but my childhood was hell.  My parents were awful – and they scarred me beyond belief.  It’s a miracle lived to talk about it!”

The first child might then interrupt and say, “That’s just like you.  No one is ever good enough.  You can’t appreciate all that they did for you!”

The second child might then stand up and scream, “All that they did for me?  All they did was break my body, mind, and soul!”

As things escalate, the third child might chime in and say, “Let’s calm down and talk this through.  I can see that each of you has very strong and very different experiences of our parents – but I don’t want those feelings to destroy OUR relationships as siblings.”

Let me stop here, and point something about that family dynamic.

The dynamic involved in that scenario reminds me of the dynamics that arise when we talk about Critical Race Theory – and any other conversation where the topic of systemic injustice is brought up.

There are a group of individuals who – like the first child – have had mostly positive experiences of the country (i.e., the family led by the parents).  Because of their lifetime of positive experiences, they are quick to defend the status quo and insist that there was nothing wrong with our family/country.

There are those in marginalized communities whose experience mirrors that of the second child.  They have experienced tremendous pain and suffering based upon their family’s/country’s treatment of them.  It is hard for them to join the first group in celebrating the family/country.  It is absolutely crucial that others see “the other side” of the story that was often hidden from the world.

The third group are those who have an experience with the other two perspectives.  In our country/family, this group is often comprised of white, middle-class, heterosexuals.  While they have personally benefited from the status quo, they have found ways to connect with those in the second group.  They clearly understand that not everyone had it as good as they did growing up.  They will often try to get both groups to engage with one another and appreciate where “the other side” is coming from.  They want to acknowledge both the good things about our country that can be built upon as well as the horrors embedded within the status quo that desperately need to be addressed.

This analogy can be helpful in that it can help us understand the challenges that accompany difficult conversations about our country.  Both those who are the first child/group and the second child/group come to the conversation through the lens of their personal experience.

It’s important to say that those in the first group typically have never had to veer from their perspective – as the world is oriented to see the country from their perspective.  While those in the second group are much more aware that another perspective exists (that of the first child), their pain causes them to try to give voice to their pain in an attempt to fill out the rest of the story.  The third child/group represents those who have had both sets of experiences.  Like the first child, they have personally experienced the good things.  And because of their close connection to the second child/group, they personally feel the pain of the abusive past.

The challenge in holding a conversation is getting each group to acknowledge the experience of the others.  So often attempted conversations between the first and second child get to a place of frustration and exasperation because each party feels completely unheard.  And when that happens, they push harder and talk louder to make sure THEIR perspective is heard.

Once you get into this cycle, the attempts to bring the country together seem hopeless.

If we can find ways of listening to one another’s experience – and acknowledge at the outset of the conversation that a more complete version of reality is one that includes the experience and perspectives of ALL the parties, hope can return.

To return to the analogy of the three children and their parents, the siblings might one day reach a point where they can say, “Our parents were complex people.  At times they showed some of us love and care.  At times they showed some of us violence and neglect.  Each one of us carries our own personal experience with the parts of our family they revealed to us.  As we move forward, we will strengthen the family by working to create safe space where individuals can share their personal experience AND listen to the experience of others.  We will use these stories to build upon those positive things we have experienced and rectify those negative things that caused us pain and suffering.  Of course, this work won’t be easy – for each of us will hear things from others that don’t reflect our experience.  We will hold on to the hope that in the process of sharing – and receiving – each other’s stories, we will experience healing in our relationships: both with our parents, with one another, and with ourselves.  If we hold together, we can come out the other side as a stronger, healthier family for each and every member of the family!”

Some may hear my analogy and assume that I am suggesting each of us is cast in the role of just ONE of the three children.  That may be the case for some.  For many of us, however, we have experienced what it’s like to be more than one of the children.  As a white, middle-class man, I certainly know what it’s like to be in the position of the first child.    As a gay man, I also know what it’s like to experience the suffering and pain of the second child.  And because I have experienced both the positive and negative aspects of the status quo, I have spent much of my life in the position of the third child – trying to get the dominant and marginalized cultures to talk with one another and acknowledge the differences.

While some think it will be impossible to bring healing and wholeness to the family, I don’t.  If we can demonstrate our genuine love for our siblings – and exhibit a willingness to LISTEN to those siblings whose experience is different from our own – then we can strengthen the family and make it better than it has ever been.

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 55-year-old who currently lives in Los Angeles, CA but will soon be moving to New Jersey. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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4 Responses to Getting the Siblings to Talk

  1. Sorry if this is a duplicate comment. I shared this on my church’s Racial Justice FB page. It’s a great explanation. If you rather I didn’t, please let me know. Thanks.

  2. I think I see where you’re coming from with this, but my concern is for the safety of the second child. Asking them to make themselves open to receiving the story of the first child can, if the first child insists that nothing bad happened, be its own form of additional abuse, as is asking them to shoulder the sole burden of educating the first child about what happened in the family. Sometimes it’s better if the third child works with the first one first to get them to a point where they are emotionally prepared to receive the second child’s story, and let the second child, whose story has been less heard all along, go first.

    Teaching our nation’s history accurately—which is a very different thing from CRT anyway—is one way that third child can prepare the way, so to speak. If the first child isn’t prepared to hear it from the third, then they’re definitely not ready to hear it from the second and it’s dangerous for the second to be put in that position.

  3. Stevie says:

    I was amazed at how you took that three word suggestion and turned it in to this thought provoking discussion. I urge those who read this to join us for coffee hour. It is a good thing.

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