This blog is dedicated to those with broken families, those seeking refuge and understanding to find peace in the midst of their homes.
(For Arabic translation click here.)
This is probably my most personal blog I will write – and may ever write – but I feel it is overdue time to speak about what Copts (among many other cultures as well) avoid speaking about: broken families.
This is written from personal experiences and my perspective – coming from a mixed background and seeing many broken families hide behind what may seem a ‘perfect’ family portrait.
“Her parents are divorced?!” they asked. “No, no, we can’t accept her, we can’t accept her family, she may turn out the same.”
I’ve heard this statement and ideology on numerous of occasions from families (often Eastern families) who view children of divorcee parents’ as un-relational beings, unaware of knowing what a ‘real’ family is, incapable of maintaining their own family because they may be more prone to divorce, just like their parents. Children are judged because of their parents’ decision, as if we existed when they made the decision of “I do” and were also there when they said “I don’t.”
In such cases, these children often are viewed as inept and valued less than a child who may be born of parents having never divorced (even if that family has a number of other family issues); these divorced families are judged by their communities – often viewing them as outcasts of cultural and societal normalities – not making the cut of what they think is the ‘perfect’ family.
I’m a child of divorced parents, and I’ve rarely felt or been treated discrepantly growing up until recently; and likewise until recently, I’ve heard more and more stories from alike families who have been wounded by such judgements from their communities. Often if not always, these families are judged based on their communities’ cultural presuppositions, leaving the gospel out. Yet ironically, those who judge such divorced families falsely pretend that in ‘outcasting’ such families, they are merely abiding by the gospel, holding the gospel responsible for their own judgement and not their lack of self-awareness and lack of love and compassion. I will explain further below.
I’ve grown up in what I consider a multi-cultural household: my father Egyptian in origin, and my mother Armenian. Mom was born in Iran to parents who experienced and suffered through the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century (her mother was Armenian from Russia and fled from the tyranny of Stalin; and her father, being an eye-witness of the Armenian massacre (having his own sister die as a Christian in the genocide) fled from Van, Armenia (modern day Turkey). Dad left Egypt in his early 20s, travelled quite a bit of the world (maybe this is where I get my travel bug from) and settled in America. Mom left Iran before the revolution in 1980 and migrated to California. They met, married, and my sister and I came along and were born in Los Angeles a few years later.
We didn’t grow up in the church. We barely had any regular Eastern/Egyptian exposure in the house – no satellite TV or Arabic music (only foreign music we had was dad’s Italian and French favourite singers), and no – didn’t grow up eating Egyptian dishes. We never had Arabic in the house (to my Egyptian family’s dismay) – my dad even discouraged my sister from wanting to be a doctor (oh the taboo.) English was spoken and mom spoke Armenian to my sister and I. Dad knows about 5 languages, mom is fluent in 4, and my sister and I grew up bilingual.
I started going to church in my teens and I was the ‘odd’ one out because of my family background- but never felt it. My friends who I’ve grown up with (and am so grateful for them to this day making me feel welcome there as a young teen) never treated me differently and many of their parents treated me as one of their own; I was accepted and integrated quite quickly into the church group.
Years have gone by and I have become more exposed and integrated into the Coptic culture and community. Being in my 20s – having lived in 3 different states and 3 countries on my own, I’ve come across more people and their personal encounters about their experiences with Coptic culture – sometimes negative ones, especially when speaking about family/parent expectations and the importance of the ‘image’ of one’s family.
Interestingly (and probably unsurprisingly) Coptic culture is notorious about being concerned with prestige – whether the family is of a certain socio-economic status, if the parents are not divorced, (“must come from a good family” whatever ‘good’ means), if they are a certain calibre of medics, or or or…
I’ve come across the above ‘serious’ concerns when viewing other families, but not the strong concern and need to discuss broken families – the families that force their children in a certain career path, or families that have parent-children relationships as mere dictatorship, or parents who treat their sons and daughters ‘differently’ or give the boys more privileges than the girls (clear gender inequality), or husband and wife that live under the same roof but bear an unhealthy relationship for years but show themselves as the “perfect’ Coptic family.
Often we portray our family to the world as the iconic family (of course the common notion holds that we can never discuss our ‘dirty’ laundry to the world) – but even inside issues are never discussed or met, whether they be emotional, psychological, spiritual… some families seem fine because the parent’s aren’t divorced on paper, but in actuality they are divorced in intimacy, trust, respect, forgiveness… Some marriages are far from what God ordained and purposed for marriage – where envy, jealousy, mistrust, anger, violence, abuse, disrespect, lack of communication is present, let alone not praying together and edifying each other.
Such issues of unseen brokenness all relate to the concern of image and not facing reality. The person who your parents want you to marry – the ‘ideal’ Coptic deacon who is a medic or ‘good church girl’ who does law or pharmacy or some medical profession – does not change the character of the person whether he or she is living a godly life – nor does it make him or her more suitable just because of their outward typical Coptic-tick boxes. Or the family that is well-known in the church and knows certain clergy or bishops doesn’t make the family perfect, or the family that has that status, career and house… and so on…
So, then, how should families be measured or viewed? Do our cultural ideologies stand in conflict with the reality of the gospel?
Often times, I believe, yes.
Every culture has its own ideology about family life, and each family has their own ideology about life – and these conflicting cultural ideologies with the gospel isn’t as black and white as we may think.
The problem lies how we measure or view family life.
And the first problem stems from not looking to our own family issues as a means of remedying such conflicts. Our family problems (if we admit there are even problems) are often times held behind closed doors, swept under the carpet. These problems, often deeply rooted, are not seen as being broken. Yes, broken.
We’re all broken people, a broken humanity, fractured by the affects of sin.
We may be blinded by our family’s ideologies that go against the truth of the gospel and what God expects and desires for a family of God. Thus, we must reflect and see what wounds our family have made for ourselves and what wounds have not healed and are still occurring within our family bond.
Below are some excerpts I have taken from one of the most valuable books I have read (and everyone I think should read in light of knowing God’s grace and work in our lives)- “Emotional Healthy Spirituality” by Pete Scazzero.
Most of the brokenness in each family deals with not dealing with emotions – in a healthy, spiritual way. (For indeed it isn’t possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature).
Some signs that family issues exist but are usually not addressed:
- Pressure is created for family members to think, feel, and act the same (or not to feel): “Don’t be sad…” “Stop being angry..!”
- Severe crossing of personal boundaries, injuring the dignity and humanity of another. “You are useless….” “You always do…/don’t do…” “You have to be…”
- Low or poor emotional connection between family members: “We’re not talking about this.. I made my decision…” “I’m too busy for this…deal with it yourself…”
- Emotional manipulation. “How could you do that to me…?” “You don’t know how you feel…”
- Family members cut off contact/conflicts not resolved. “I’ll never forgive my brother/sister/mother/father…”
Such ideologies and behaviours are often carried out in how we deal with other people in our lives – whether they are friends, colleagues, or how we are in our relationships… unless we face such realities, seek conflict/resolution within the family, and pursue healing for our unhealthy behaviour, these familial habits most likely will remain in us and in our children.
It’s easy to wound and destroy each other and sometimes so difficult to build each other up.
But, how must we resolve?
Self-reflection. “Going back to go forward” as Scazzero labels it. We need to go back to the wounds and conflicts of our past within our family (and present wounds) in order to move forward towards grace, healing, resolution, and healthy relationships.
Some questions to ask ourselves:
- How do our parents/siblings comfort each other when a family member experiences distress (when someone cries, is angry, experiences hurt, sadness, shame, embarrassment)?
- Do our parents/siblings validate each other’s feelings? Does each person listen, respond with comfort and insightful support, or attack with frustration and anger, forcing that person in emotional distress to ‘act’ or ‘be’ a certain way?
- Do any of our family members make us feel unsafe? (emotionally, physically, psychologically)? (This can apply to us also making others feel unsafe)
- The way our family deals with emotions – how do I deal with emotions and other people’s emotions in my life now? Do I disregard people’s feelings, ignore my own, am I emotionally inept to express how I feel? Am I afraid of showing vulnerability to those closest to me?
Families rarely address and cultivate emotional healthiness among each other, and it’s our responsibility then to start asking such questions, reflect prayerfully, and begin to mend these relationships.
We must take our brokenness to wholeness and healing to the hands of the Healer himself, Christ, who was broken to heal us, who was wounded to give us life.
Some clear ‘symptoms’ of brokenness include:
Healthy emotional ‘symptoms’:
Do some of these broken feelings permeate the way I behave? If my family shuts me down emotionally, do I shut down emotionally to others close to me? If my family avoids conflict/confrontations or has unresolved family-relations, do I carry on with that behaviour in my relations with other people? How does my family view money, success, spirituality – and how do I view those things? What does God expect of me?
We need to learn that each of us are broken but there is infinite room for healing. We need to go from having brokenness to healthy relationships, primarily with our family.
Firstly, one has to see what kind of brokenness exists – and begin to confront such issues in a healthy way to the member where the conflict resides. Often times conflict lies within ourselves of past wounds and from people who hurt us, and I would recommend to find healing from within and discuss with the other members what needs to be resolved and how to find a resolution. (Christian counselling is recommended)
Secondly, expressing one’s feelings in a constructive way. Expectations need to be clarified in a healthy way (no mind reading), constructive discussions need to take place. Each member needs to express their personal values, hope for a resolution, and how they see to execute that goal. If a person hurt or belittled you, this needs to be confronted and addressed healthily with respect. If you expect understanding and value for your perspectives on life, this needs to be expressed verbally.
Each person is also responsible for his/her actions, words and how they address such issues. Holding back on how you feel will not help heal the situation or pretending to feel a different way does not allow a healthy and open relationship to permeate – it just leaves the wall of self-protection and self-defence to remain standing between each person.
If there seems to be no resolution to the issue or feelings are not being validated and misunderstanding constantly prevails, a positive resolution is to find acceptance from within and seek constantly healing in prayer. If the family is willing, seek family counselling. An external source may help contribute practical solutions and different perspectives we or our families may fail to see.
However, some situations and people we may come across or even live with may not be willing to see or validate one’s perspective and value as a human being – and at that point, it is best to detach from one’s expectation from the other person and learn to moderate the relationship as healthily as possible without force (force may cause more conflict rather than a resolution that we may desire in the first place).
This of course is easier said than done, and this process takes time in prayer, patience, forgiveness, and having love prevail – for indeed here in those experiences we truly face how “love suffers long, is patient…” (1 Cor 13) Such gospel commandments are made most real when it is most difficult to follow – it’s not theoretical or a list of love-quotes we display on our walls… such commands we must learn to practice daily and I believe the Creator gives us the will and spirit to fulfil such ways of living – if we are willing and prayerful.
Sometimes, especially with family issues, parts of the “old self” has to die – our anger, resentment, bitterness, unforgiving-ness, frustration, and Christ will resurrect and give life to those parts that should not reside within us. This is the mystery of ‘dying’ daily and resurrecting daily as St. Paul often speaks of.
My views on life (money, relationships, success)… need to be re-evaluated in light of the gospel. Is success based on my importance of image, socio-economic status, pride? Or is it based on my responsibility to cultivate faithfulness in whatever I do (work, studies, ministry) in the law of the Lord (“whatever you do, do it heartily to the Lord..” Col 3:23)? Is money solely for me and do I abuse it, or do I see it as God’s provision and use it wisely? Do I have unhealthy relationships based on my emptiness, image, parents expectations, or do I cultivate relationships according to the Spirit of self-lessness and love and according to God’s revelation and will for my life?
Not all family views are bad, nor are all good. And the more we know about our families, the more we know about ourselves—and the more freedom we have to make decisions how we want to live. We can say, ‘This is what I want to keep. This is what I do not want to hold on to in my life.’ – all must be re-evaluated in light of God’s truth.
Self- reflection, self-reflection, self-reflection.
I must believe that Christ will and can heal all situations, if we reveal and know our wounds (what we don’t reveal won’t be healed). I must realise and acknowledge I am a child of God – worthy of honor, respect, value and love.
Even if I am a child of divorced parents, or have a broken family with married parents, healing needs to take place and the cultivation of emotional healthy spirituality within the household has to permeate. Such practices and reflections are essential in creating a healthy and holistic family atmosphere, and in turn, these transform the way we value ourselves and treat each other.
Some situations (for divorced children) you may encounter that may make you feel belittled, devalued, judged – but such encounters go against the truth of the gospel that is based on acceptance, value, love and compassion. So it is best to present such hurtful situations in a prayerful way and realise God’s intentions are always of acceptance, respect, and love. And seek healing and support from those who know and respect you, regardless of your family background.
I’ve seen many children from divorced parents be rejected by the parents of their partner because simply their parents are divorced. I’ve seen children be rejected by their partner’s families because they haven’t reached a certain socio-economic status or career path worthy of their daughter/son’s hand. Some of these parents even ask around about those types of children to other families or clergy. So the gospel has turned to “stay at your fathers house and cleave to your parents” because sometimes children will hold on to their parents unhealthy views of certain people and their families that are based on cultural expectations, rather than a reflection of who they are as a person; it’s a failure of following an emotional healthy spirituality of God’s view on people.
It’s not your job to please others about your family, but it’s your job to cultivate and maintain peace and unity within your family, as much as this is possible. (cf Rom 12:18)
We don’t choose our families. I am not ashamed of my family (nor should I be) but am grateful for all the lessons, the challenges, and the good times and positive aspects of my family. If we reflect, we will see both the pros and cons of our families, and we must know how to discern each of these in light of Christ’s message for us – separating them from negative cultural influences and how we need to destroy some unhealthy behaviours and emotional habits (the “old self” as said earlier).
After healing – we realise there is much grace, knowledge and understanding. We become more compassionate towards those who have also been broken and those who are in need of healing. Thus, I personally am grateful for my mixed-renegade-Coptic-Armenian family – for in them, I have been allowed to be who I am today – to have studied what I have until today (having moved to two different countries, they allowed me to make my own decisions and trusted my choices – even as ‘taboo’ it is for a Coptic girl to study abroad, let alone study theology).
If we reflect, we seek healing and reconciliation with ourselves and with our families and will in turn effect the rest of how we live our life in accordance to what and how God has intended us to live – in an emotional healthy spiritual way.
With heart-felt prayers,
The Coptic and Armenian pilgrim, Donna
“I have seen his ways, and will heal him; I will also lead him, and restore comforts to him and to his mourners” (Isaiah 57:18)