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“Who so loves, Believes the impossible” — Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Addicts ignore the elephant in the living room. It is obvious to everyone that dad, mom, brother, or sister is acting out in addiction. Yet, nobody confronts the issue. Everyone pretends that there will be a better day. Nobody admits that addictive behavior is running rampant. You drink the Kool-Aid of denial and project that the family is good and everything is going just great.
Families with untreated substance addictions are not the only ones who ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There are families who project being very religious while ignoring that dad is a serial philanderer. There are couples who project the image of harmony and happiness in public but who privately barely speak to each other. Is it hypocritical? Sure! Yet, over time those who ignore the obvious gradually learn to believe the improbable is real. There really isn’t a dead dog in the living room!
Businesses and institutions also ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There is a certain type of game that is played. Once I worked as one of the ministers at a large dynamic church. It was promoted as the largest of its kind. The lead minister avowed and reported that several thousand people attended his church each Sunday. It was questioned so he asked that I organize a count of worship goers for six weeks. After the allotted time, I reported that there were 1000 fewer people attending the worship service than he boasted. He was very angry and insisted that his estimate was correct and my count was wrong. So we pretended that 1000 people were there that were not. Eventually, the infrastructure of embracing the improbable implodes and reality deflates perception like a deflated balloon. When you ignore the obvious it will eventually become devastating.
Everyone is tempted to embrace the improbable. We don’t want to face the obvious when the reality is disappointing.
Historically, many did not want to think of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King as philanderers but they were. Many wanted to ignore that steroids in baseball were a problem, but they were. I wanted to believe that Lance Armstrong was an unbelievable athlete who did not cheat, but he did. What is obvious, and that which is improbable, bump up against each other throughout life. How do you sort or sift what is real in your life?
1. Don’t play games. Face what is real in your personal life. There are payoffs for people who play games. The games that I reference are not “Ha-ha” games. They are games that you keep you safe in a dysfunctional family. Every family creates rules and gives messages about what is OK and what is not. Family is the cocoon in which children learn to interact with the outside world. When a family is unhealthy, a child will not know the difference between what is hurtful or not. The sphere of their family world is all they know. Unhealthy families become rigid so their rules and regulations become gospel and make it difficult for new information from the outside to penetrate the protective sphere of family influence. So if dad gets drunk on Fridays and screams at everyone or slaps mother because she said something he didn’t like, it is easy for a child in that environment to interpret that all families live like this and that walking on eggshells around dad, with fear and anxiety, is a normal part of everyday living. It takes time and deliberate action to demythologize your parents and the family rules that dominated you. You must first recognize how unhealthy family rules and messages impact you in a negative way. Without this deliberate action, your tendency will be to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. The process is unnerving and likely will trigger guilt for questioning the fundamental beliefs that your parents taught, depending upon how dysfunctional your family of origin is. If you learned that you are not to question the authority of your parents, then be prepared to struggle with guilt. You may need the help of a therapist to detach from the guilt and the rules of your family. They are powerful.
2. Once detached, train in observing your behavior around authority figures and the culture you engage at work and other organizations. It is normal to want to please those you work for or with. When things don’t go your way, pay attention to how you respond. Notice when you become triggered and overreactive. Pay attention to what goes on emotionally underneath the surface about the issue that triggers you. If you have a patterned history of struggling with authority figures, it is a signal that you have unresolved family-of-origin issues to address. Maybe your struggle is that you tend to go along to get along. It might mean that you won’t address a principle that you believe in for fear of rejection. On the other hand, you might find yourself quibbling and irritated without knowing why. What you think is a personality conflict might be an issue of unresolved family-of-origin work with your parents. If you don’t address these issues you will repeat ignoring the obvious and embracing the improbable. You must pay attention to your behavior and the games you play as well as the rules of the games other people play. When you learn to detach from both, you will respond from a position of strength and not weakness.
3. Embracing the obvious opens the potential for the impossible. Nothing changes until it becomes real. When you identify the elephant in the living room, you can do something about it. You can separate destructive behavior from the person. You stop playing a game and identify the destructive behavior for what it is. You transform behavior that is experienced as nonproductive to being a curse and destructive into a blessing of resolution and relational connection. This is the essence of what love is about. It is not ignoring what is hurtful but it is leaning into the obvious. Seeing the obvious with mature compassion and love is the way to responsibly create a different world. Love teaches you what is beneath the surface. It helps to see what is hidden to the eye but known to the heart. When you embrace the obvious you can allow the wisdom of love to work its magic in transforming relational dynamics in family, work, and the culture at large. Breaking through denial and facing the dead dog in the living room is necessary to heal unhealthy relationships. This form of love is the dynamic that transforms the impossible within you and creates possible healthy relationships with those whom you engage.