Poor preacher’s child

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield book cover on andreareadsamerica.com

“From Swan’s observations, there seemed to be a conspiracy among church members to keep the preacher and his family from knowing them too well. Playing cards were hidden when they came to visit. Liquor was stuck back in the pantry.” – Jenny Wingfield

It never occurred to me how lonely and isolating it might be to be the family, and especially the child, of a preacher. The preacher may not get lonesome – he has God – but his daughters? His sons? I doubt they feel the connectedness to God that their father does. They want on-the-earth friends to explore with, to play tag with, to whisper in the forest with. They want real friends who will be real with them.

“Swan yearned to get close to somebody. Really close. Soul deep.” – Jenny Wingfield

I can attest, based on my own altered behavior when I’m around wholesome church-going folk, that I would stop cussing, I’d abstain from my gin, I’d become positively angelic if I were hosting a preacher in my home. I would change not out of fear of getting in trouble with God – my higher power supports cards and earthiness and good times – but because I make assumptions. I assume the preacher and I could never really be close: I am naughty, he is nice; I err, he does right; my language, my lifestyle, my beliefs would offend him; he would judge me; he would want to change me. Better to just pretend that I am other than who I truly am rather than create a situation ripe for discomfort, that would create awkwardness, that, God forbid, might inspire a lecture or a sermon.

I have a recovering alcoholic in my life. As my friend recovers, I too am recovering through the Al-Anon program. I am learning what sorts of my behaviors did not serve either of us, and one of those behaviors was to insulate my friend (and myself) from conflict. I pretended his drinking wasn’t as bad as it was, I avoided calling him out on his blame-games, I dispensed advice when he needed to own his life and make decisions himself.

I practice similar deflection behavior with my husband. Rather than accept a party invitation, I might decline on our family’s behalf thinking my husband will probably be tired that night and he won’t want to go, even though, Wow, I think it would be fun. This exasperates my husband.

“Why did you say no if you wanted to go?” he asks.

“Well, I thought you’d be tired. I didn’t think you’d be up for it.”

“Just ask me,” he says. “I’ll tell you if I don’t want to go, but give me a chance to make that choice myself.”

Over time, and as this behavior pattern pops up again through Al-Anon, I’ve come to realize these deflection tactics are disrespectful and, frankly, insulting. My stepping in robs my friend of a chance to learn from his mistakes. By insulating my friend from the consequences of his addictive behaviors, by stripping my husband of the opportunity to make his own choices, and by acting angelic in the presence of a preacher or a church-goer, I’m saying to these people, I am assuming, “You can’t handle this, so I’m going to handle it for you.”

And we all know what they say about assuming.

When you ASSUME you make an ASS out of U and ME.

All of my assumptions could be wrong. How do I know my husband won’t want to go to the party? How do I know the preacher or my church-going friends will be scandalized, will mind alcohol, will want to convert me? Maybe my realness would be a welcome change: maybe my church-going friend likes to swear, maybe the preacher likes gin, maybe we could disagree about the nature of God and still be friends (gasp!).

Though I began to recognize the disrespect of my behavior through Al-Anon, it was only when came across Swan’s 11 year-old observation that people hide their true selves from a preacher’s family that I realized the isolation these protective behaviors cause. Denying a situation’s gravity, avoiding a discussion, and faking a persona shield our vulnerabilities and protect our raw edges, but such insulation, by definition, denies opportunities for connection, for true closeness with another person:

1538, “make into an island,” from L. insulatus (see insular). Sense of “cause a person or thing to be detached from surroundings” is from 1785.

Insulation puts us on opposite sides of an invisible wall built of fears and vices. It is terrible to think of the loneliness a preacher’s child might face because nobody wants to reveal their true selves: the bad words they use, the forbidden music they listen to, the whiskey flask in the cupboard. Folks who say to their kids, as I have to mine, “Be good around these children, watch your language. Their family might be offended.” It is impossible to be close with someone who retreats out of fear of judgement, who hides things in the name of protection, who does not reveal their vulnerabilities and vices.

By insulating, we end up hurting the very people we are trying to protect, alienating the people we would like to be close to, and disrespecting the people we claim to admire. I see this now, thanks to my husband, to Al-Anon, and to 11 year-old Swan Lake. I don’t want to hurt, or isolate, or insult. It horrifies me that my well-intentioned behavior could have such damaging consequences. After years of deflecting, it is not easy for me to change, but I am trying.

And we all know what they say about trying.

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda