Differentiation With a Side of Turkey

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Spending time with family always makes me introspective. We had a fantastic Thanksgiving. We stayed with my dad and had dinner with my husband’s family. I had several conversations that got me thinking about a concept that I first heard discussed in the Facebook marriage group I participate in. “Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of defining self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either greater intimacy or potential separation.” In the most simple terms, differentiation is becoming comfortable with people being different than yourself, especially people that are close to you. It is human nature, a survival mechanism really, to want to be similar to your community.

People have varying tolerances for differentiation, and I have apparently lucked out in this category. I sat with my husband and his brothers on Thanksgiving and had a conversation about this. My husband is one of the most religious people in his family. He has siblings that range the full spectrum all the way to atheists that have left-leaning politics. My brother-in-law said that when he first brought his now ex-wife to a family function, she was amazed that we could all sit in a room and get along peacefully without making a scene. This is, I suppose, unique in such a diverse crowd. (And, maybe why she’s the ex-wife. Ha!)

We almost didn’t go to Thanksgiving this year. There is a lot of junk floating around in our family right now, and I was worried that there would be drama at our gathering that we really didn’t want to be in the middle of. (It doesn’t involve us directly.) There wasn’t. It was fine. Nobody aired the dirty laundry publicly, and we had a nice meal and visit. Because the truth is, you don’t have to be just like someone to love them or respect them or just associate with them generally. You can even have hard feelings and not make a scene about it.

My dad is what you might call a “true believing Mormon,” though his path there was a bit, ahem, unconventional. He only has one child out of his dozen that is active in the church. I know that this makes him a bit sad because he posted about it on Facebook after we went home. This is the most I have ever heard him say about it. (I’m going to struggle with wording this because I have such deep feelings for my dad.) What he did say was how much he enjoys my visits because my kids are well behaved, and I never bring drama. He is one of the best men I know. He would literally give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. Case in point – We had a bit of a transportation conflict during our weekend. My daughter and my husband needed to bug out early to work, but the rest of us wanted to stay. The problem was that we had only brought two vehicles, and the one I was bringing home only seated five people, and seven of us wanted to stay. While we were discussing how we might be able to make it work so that my two middle sons wouldn’t have to leave early, my dad offered to drive home with us. We live 3 hours away. He literally spent his Saturday driving home my sons so that they could spend a few more days with their grandparents. Goodness, I love that man.

I have heard dozens of stories as I’ve navigated this year that are less happy than my own. People who share about how afraid they are talk to their family about renegotiating their relationship with religion. People who are uninvited to family events, shamed, talked about in less than flattering ways, lose lifelong friends and just generally are pretty devastated with the inability of others to differentiate. This not only hurts my heart but makes me realize how unbelievably lucky I am in this department.

I spent a bit of time talking to my aunt (step-mom? aunty-mom? My aunt – as in my mother’s sister – it’s complicated – is my dad’s current wife.) this weekend about what I’ve experienced this year and how I feel about life and religion. I think she was surprised about my strong reactions to some things. However, when it comes down to the brass tacks of it, I’m still her daughter. She loves me and she understands that I’ve been through a lot and, more than anything, she and my dad just want to offer me love and support. They are not inherently dogmatic people, and they live their religion quietly and in a way that works for them. I wish this was true in all Mormon (Jehovah’s Witness, Catholic…) families. I wish that I didn’t know so many people who struggle to differentiate, who take it so personally when someone experiences a shift. I wish that there was a cultural narrative that allowed for someone to step up and say, “Hey, I love you and I value our relationship, but this thing, this part over here, just doesn’t work for me right now.” I wish there was a standard reply that said, “Oh. Okay. Thanks for the information. We’re still family/friends, so don’t worry about it. You’re always welcome here.”

In the end, the truth is that we aren’t really all the same. People in the same family, the same church, the same community are incredibly different, and people change over time as they move through life. Even when we don’t feel at liberty to express our differences of opinion or belief, they are there – the sameness is an assumption. We are all unique. Our experiences are unique. We have unique histories and needs. The truth is that I haven’t changed all that much and certainly not overnight. What has happened is that I’ve found the freedom to say things out loud that many people don’t have. I imagine that is one the draws of this blog.

I’m lucky that I have friends and family who are good at respecting boundaries and offering support in my unorthodox situation. I’m glad that I’ve learned about differentiation this year. I’m even more glad that I didn’t have to learn about it the hard way. One of the kindest, most Christian things that any believer can do is offer this gift to the people in your life. I like to think that it’s what Jesus would do.

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My Ride-or-Die, Zombie-Apocalypse Team

backlit-dawn-dusk-862848.jpgIt’s halfway through November, and I’m seeing all my friends post on Facebook with their daily gratitudes. Frankly, I’m bad at this kind of thing. Not because I’m ungrateful but because it would require 30 days of unaccountable consistency. The fact that I have published this blog like clockwork, twice a week, with nothing behind it but a wing and a prayer is a bit of a miracle. I am a get-it-done type of person if I’ve made a promise or someone is counting on me. If it’s just me, meh, I’d probably rather be doing anything else or will suddenly be missing my motivation. I get that this is a rather stupid mental game I play, but it mostly works for me. Shrug.

Still, today was a grateful day, so I would be remiss not to throw my hat in the ring in at least a minor way. This year, to put it mildly, has been transformative for me. As it comes to an end, we’re getting back to a place of stability, though this looks so very different than it did before January 2018. I’m grateful for the quiet and peace again. But, I’m most grateful for what I’ve learned. I posted this on my Facebook page in April when we were pretty much in the thick of things with our church and our decision to take a stand against abuse.

“When you go through something difficult, you inevitably learn about yourself. But, you also learn an awful lot about other people – what their values are, what their priorities are, what their agendas are. I have experienced a juxtaposition of warriors and weakness, servanthood and self-service, integrity and ignorance. Eye opening doesn’t even begin to describe it, but if you pressed me on who I would want on my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse, you better believe I know.”

Today, I got a surprise visit from two of my very most favorite people in the whole world. I’ve been good friends with my one girlfriend for at least five years. We’ve lived in the same community since she moved here, and she is one of the most fun, selfless, upbeat and accepting people I know. My other friend is a newer connection, though we’ve been acquaintances for years. These two women make up the core of my truest tribe: women who have walked through fire with me this year. They are the ones (along with my mom – a very new addition to this list. Love you, Mom!) who have seen me fall apart, cry and wonder if I had it in me to fight the battle I was taking on. They are the ones that assured that I did – that I was brave and strong and capable. They’ve embraced my mess and loved me straight through it. They’ve shared their stories and listened to mine, found resources for me, and showed up on my doorstep at a moment’s notice. I have shared with them my deepest fears about the struggles in my marriage, and they have heard the rawest truth about my current relationship with faith. I would imagine that looking in from the outside, it might seem that I have changed a lot, but these women just see me.

I’m a bit of a homebody, and the fact that my one girlfriend is pushing like gangbusters to finish her house means we haven’t done a girl’s night for a long time (it just wouldn’t be the same without her.) Adjusting to how things have changed is challenging. I feel isolated sometimes. While the truth is that everyone is probably busy living their own lives and they don’t really care, I wonder what people think of me. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost a lot in the way of easy belonging and the ability to just blend in and be a part of the, uh, collective? (Ha.) The truth is that the superficial has merely quietly faded away, leaving me with just the relationships that mean the very most to me.

I’m convinced that I have the very best friends in the whole wide world, and I mean more than these two. The silver lining of this year for me has been connection. I have met so many amazing people and had the opportunity to offer support and be supported by a deep, meaningful tribe. The beauty of this is almost overwhelming when I stop and think about it like I did today. So, I might not be able to sustain a full 30 days, but I would be remiss not to give a shout out to one of the things in my life that I am the very most grateful for – my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse. I hope you know who you are, and I love you all so incredibly much!