A few days ago, while preparing for a much-needed night on the town, I received a distress call from a young woman who holds a very special place in my heart. It soon became apparent that she was troubled — overwhelmed, frustrated, battle-fatigued and in emotional anguish because of an ominous cloud of anger that has taken residence in her home and refuses to leave.
Following many hours of conversation, I concluded that the enemy her nuclear family faces is a spiritual force — one that tags along like a familiar but uninvited “guest” in our lives, wreaking havoc from parent to progeny. Said another way, her family has become embroiled in a fight with a “generational curse” that, unless first confronted and eventually broken, will continue to manifest itself — capable of destroying the hearts, souls, minds while derailing dreams and the future of anyone who dares to stand in its ignoble way.
Gleaning from past experiences, I warned her to remain alert and aware so as not to be easily conned by an unexpected calming of the storm into forgetting her own story and family history. While generational curses and their multiple manifestations may go into hiding like a recessive gene — perhaps remaining out of sight for several generations — they’re still close by. I warned her not to confuse “temporary containment” as evidence that somehow, miraculously, the enemy had been conquered.
One of my favorite American novelists, William Faulkner, reflecting on the impact our ancestors have our lives, concluded that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Still, as agents of free will, we can choose to follow other paths. We are not forced to repeat the past. But making such a departure tends to come easier if we are provided with alternative and more positive models, modes and examples of human interaction than those that shaped our forefathers, often leading to unfortunate and tragic outcomes.
On the pages of my family’s history book, there were more than a few chronicled episodes of men berating their companions — women they’d married or even with whom they were merely “shacking” — who had been spiritually diminished. In time, words tinged with anger or fists of fury had worn them out and beaten them down.
Victory for the self-appointed “man of the house” — a role and title many of the men to whom I looked up and wanted to be like one day held on to with such fervor — also meant defeat for others. It was not so in my home. As I would first observe and later understand as well as celebrate, my parents had made a promise to one another — an exception to the rule given our family dynamics.
Neither of them insisted upon being in charge. They’d seemed more committed to and comfortable as co-pilots. Still, in all ways that mattered to me, Daddy was always “the man of the house” — he just wore his cloak of responsibility differently from most other men in our clan.
Thus, in my formative years I learned life skills which rarely resembled the kind that were forced upon most of the youth in my family. My older sister and I had the good fortune to grow in a home where yelling and cursing at those we professed to love was unacceptable, no matter how hard we might want or attempt to justify and rationalize it.
It seemed that I was getting through to my troubled, late-night caller. But I sensed that she needed to encounter others whose thoughts, words and deeds echoed and confirmed my own. And so, before ending our conversation, I asked her to indulge me just a little longer, directing her to listen to the voices of others who have taken “the road less traveled,” providing insights that have given me solace.
Author Mark Wolynn, in “It Didn’t Start With You,” employs boldness and compassion in his examination of how inherited family trauma shapes who we are, offering strategies that have aided others in their quest to end malevolent, dysfunctional, cyclical patterns that have afflicted families from one generation to the next. His scholarship and reflections have been instrumental in providing me a way to articulate what I believe.
Hip-hop artist and poet J. Ivy, in his illuminating memoir, “Dear Father,” removes the bandages from wounds that had never fully healed, choosing the only option available if he was to ever confront and conquer the pain he had carried since childhood after being abandoned by his father and left to fend for himself on the tough streets of Chicago’s Southside. He found the courage to deal with his emotional baggage, transforming his pain into power and breaking the cycle that had, for years, kept him paralyzed.
In a conversation with Bishop T.D. Jakes in the early years of my career, he helped me understand the significance of paying attention to our inner compass which, if we’re willing to follow, directs us toward the fulfillment of our highest purpose — our unique destiny.
Destiny, also the title for one of his prophetic musings, serves as a fruitful guide when we find ourselves at those disturbing crossroads of life. Destiny equips us with a new arsenal of weapons if we’re willing to take hold of them and put down the tools we used in the past. Jakes asserts that by following our “divine purpose,” we can more easily clear our path of distractions and disruptions when we had veered off course. We can get “unstuck.”
In the third chapter of the book of James, Christians learn that “the tongue is a fire . . . an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” We discover the power that just a few select words can wield — whether for good or for bad.
As for blaming the world for our own failures or shortcomings, it might be prudent to consider that when pointing a finger at others, three fingers are also pointing back.
Continuing along the path that my parents forged, I have refused to allow our family’s generational curse to take a foothold in my life or the lives of my children and grandchildren — not without a fight. I have, for the most part, gained the upper hand when temptation invited me scream and shout under the false premise of being more effective or assertive in our communication.
In the years during I would date, fall in love and eventually ask that one woman destined to become the mother of my children, I remember our vow to address one another in tones which reflected mutual respect, even when anger and rage came knocking at the door.
Of course, there were those moments when pride, selfishness or downright stupidity prevailed, clouding our minds, declarations and decisions. Yet, even when entangled in storms of our own creation, we held fast to the belief that a democracy for two was far better than a home ruled by a pants-wearing dictator. And so, we allowed a garden to take shape in which we have all been allowed to flourish — cultivating the soil, removing the weeds and celebrating the unique spirits that dwell within and give credence to our very existence.
When I was a little boy, my mother often admonished me for harboring feelings of resentment, holding onto anger like a child unwilling to part with his favorite toy and having an unhealthy yearning to “get even” with those who had caused me pain or sorrow.
Even in death, I hear my mother whispering in my ears and calming my soul in times of trouble, using a phrase short in length but bearing immeasurable strength and wisdom.
“Love is an action word.”