It's good to talk

Breaking free from dysfunctional cultural and family taboos

Adapted from the daily meditation page of the National Association for Christian Recovery (NACR), for Sunday 22 March 2009.

Change is not easy. It is a fierce battle. It can be difficult and discouraging.

Change often requires us to challenge the perspectives and rules which have sustained our cultural and family systems for generations. The apostle Peter writing to the early Church talked about 'the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers' (1 Peter 1:19). For a Jew to say that, given their much cherished cultural and religious heritage, is astounding!

Yet the change that had been made in him, and in those to whom he was writing, was indeed astonishing. Such is the power for change that the God-man, Jesus, exerted—and still exerts today—even though Peter had only lived with Jesus for three years.

The 'empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers' is something many experience at the level of family life. If your family life was (or is) dysfunctional then some major changes are necessary if you're to break free from the dysfunctional cycle set up by your parents and their parents and their parents before them.

For example, in a family committed to the 'don't talk about serious issues' rule, saying even a simple sentence about something beyond the mundane may require overcoming huge emotional barriers, and distracting avoidance behaviours, which have been refined over hundreds of years. Talking honestly to a parent or sibling may be breaking family rules that have lasted for generations.

The same applies to families in which the expression of deep emotion—any deep emotion—is taboo. Be it anger, or love, or hate, or sexual feelings, or joy, or even laughter—whatever the emotions—in those families they have to be repressed or else serious trouble results.

The effect of that kind of emotional repression and manipulative avoidance behaviour is to create individuals who feel as if they are only half alive. Like 'living corpses' they see others expressing their emotions and saying what's on their hearts, and feel as if they're on another planet.

"Why can't I be like that? Why can't I laugh, and kick about for no apparent reason, and just have fun? Why can't I say what I really want to say when I really want to say it? Why do I feel so tongue tied at the very moment the tongue desperately wants and needs to speak?"

Life for the repressed tongue tied person can be a living hell. Many days life may not seem worth living at all. Deep inside their spiritual and psychological shell—or straight jacket—is a real person with far-reaching personal thoughts and imperative personal feelings; thoughts and feelings which are yearning ... aching ... screaming ... to get out!

What holds them there? Why can't they break out of their shell—bust out of their prison—do a Harry Houdini and escape from their self-imposed straight jacket?

Precisely because that straight jacket is not self-imposed. Tongue tied is the correct phrase. Their tongue has been tied by forces beyond their control. Their emotions have been imprisoned and the jailer sits there still like a grotesque goblin ready to pounce upon any sign of genuine emotional expression.

"Though shalt not!" is written high above the prison gate in large letters—on the inside. Any thoughts of escape are immediately quenched as soon as those words are spied. And beyond the gate is a mirage consisting of layer upon layer of barbed wire making the very idea of escape seem both impossible and futile.

What's the answer? Well, like any good sermon it's threefold:
(a) The demonic warder has to be bound and his influence in the (soon to be ex-) prisoner's life has to be seen for what it is;
(b) The warder's messages of false piety and self-imposed unrealistic restraint have to be shown up as the lies that they are;
(c) The prison gates have to be unlocked by someone who has the authority and power—and love—to do so.

Who has that kind of authority, power and love? Who has the clarity of vision and insight to re-write the false rule book the prisoner has been living by? Who can bind the evil warder in chains which will never be released—never, ever, ever!

Like the apostle Paul we can proclaim with great joy at the top of our voices ..."Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

The Good News is that if we are in Christ we have been redeemed from the 'empty way of life handed down by our forefathers'. Jesus redeemed us so that we can be free from this kind of bondage. We can learn to talk honestly. We can learn to experience our emotions. We can learn to trust genuinely. We can engage in life. We can love and be loved.

We live in a battle between the empty way of life passed down to us and the new life that has been provided for us. Living in solidarity with our new life in Christ is a daily struggle, but as we practice this way of life we break the vicious cycle of family dysfunction.

Lord, it isn't just me that I am trying to change.
I am up against generations of dysfunction.
An empty way of life has dominated my family for a long time.
It has been passed down to me.
No wonder it seems so hard to change.
I need your help, Lord.
Help me to find hope in your understanding of my struggle.
Help me to find hope in your gift of redemption.

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