Home Is Where the Hurt Is

Running Away from What I Was Afraid of Becoming Delivered Me into Its Grasp

Ian Olson / 12.22.20

The holiday season means many things, all of them swirling together into an unstable compound of images and memories that makes me wistful and sad and ebullient in confusing, overlapping intervals. 

For me, the approach of winter always brings to mind the collision of happy Christmases from my childhood (in which I was no doubt oblivious to a great deal of context) and an unideal present (which feels like a chapter out of a different book altogether). I can remember what it was like to anticipate spending Christmas break at my grandparents’ home with my cousins, the wood stove blazing in the basement to keep us warm as we played, the cookies in endless supply upstairs, fresh out of the oven, the presents under the tree — all the things that fill out what Christmas means here on the plane of a young human learning how to inhabit this world and its time.

Not that everything was happy and healthy, but I could only be so aware of those things then. Over time, though, that awareness grew, as I learned to connect terminology to the things I was experiencing and witnessing: addiction, codependency, denial. And as I began to recognize the pervasiveness of these things in our shared life and in myself, it felt like the onset of an ice age freezing all possibilities apart from its own frigid inevitability. 

So now when “Home For the Holidays” comes on the radio, I feel a flash of sentimental warmth in my sternum followed soon afterwards by a knot in my stomach. Family gatherings aren’t as happy and bright as I remember them, due, no doubt, to my own growth in being a jerk, but also because I had outgrown the lenses through which I viewed the past when it was the present. And the awareness of that differential hurts. I don’t pretend at all that this is unique to me: It’s just true.

Two years ago, in need of a collective disentanglement from the recent past, I moved my family back to the town my wife and I grew up in. Prior to that, I used to feel weird whenever I went back for birthdays and Thanksgiving and Christmas, as if the terrain was haunted by a parallel universe where everything I’d done and had done to me was still being carried out. 

In high school I hadn’t bought into the migratory urge of many of my peers to “escape” where we grew up, but as time went on, and I was less and less able to rationalize the hurt and the sense of being driftwood in an ocean current, that’s exactly what I sought after. It came to a head one winter when I had a Luke-in-the-cave-on-Dagobah moment and recognized the opponent I was fighting bore my face inside his helmet. So eventually I did get out, but it really didn’t help very much because my present and my future were still determined by what I was escaping. Every move I made, I was eyeing my left, my right, and my blindspot, trying to ensure I wasn’t accidentally stepping into the same thing I was trying to leave behind.

So of course I did. Distance didn’t defeat my codependency and passivity, and running away full tilt from what I was afraid of becoming delivered me right into its grasp. What shapes us never leaves us, and left unconfronted, its truth unacknowledged, it will take the helm of our lives.

Going back felt like a concession that all those things had beat me. That after all my trash talk, I’d gone and fallen face-first on the court. That all those things needed to do was give me enough space to think I was clear, and then I’d burn all my fuel attempting to escape the event horizon.

Maybe there was some truth to that. And maybe I needed to see how all we ever do is try to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt. All of us are trying to cope with something enormous and frightening at the heart of our lives, and some of us do so better and some, worse.

So here I am, back full circle where happy golden days of yore periodically have to share a table with the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge and just ignore the ramblings of Cousin Eddie who’s helping himself to the dessert already. But I’ve been surviving without dunking my head in the bathtub and screaming at the top of my lungs. Or at least I’m doing that less and less. 

But it’s not because I’ve discovered how to pretend all these things aren’t real or went Defcon 1 and bellowed loud enough to put everyone in their place. Grace met me at my lowest point and showed another way to navigate the mess of life. I can’t pit grace against therapy and Al-Anon: I have to recognize it as the embrace of a suffering Savior who himself was born to an imperfect family. One he chose to be born to. Grace permits us to call a thing what it is but also frees us from the need to remake everything the way it ought to be overnight.

I’ve had to stop trying to force solutions. I think I am most miserable not when I am aware of how things are imperfect but when I recognize how I can’t — regardless of how hard I try and how many knots I tie with my innards — control these people. I cannot make them choose differently or alter their expectations of me. 

What I can do is hold my own course when I have done the work and am doing what I think is right for me, my wife, and our kids. I can stop viewing the behavior of people I really shouldn’t expect otherwise from as indicative of my inevitable future or as a judgment on my inability to change them. These things just are, and if they’re going to change, it’s up to someone vastly more powerful than me, someone whose love makes the objects of their love loveable. 

In counseling and in sermons, a better word has redescribed everything: I didn’t create these problems and won’t be held accountable for their ongoing existence. I can admit how powerless I really am to control these forces which disrupt what could, perhaps, have been a normal family. Whatever that is. I can admit these things and roll away the burden of my fear that that admission will be used against me as evidence of how I’m unworthy or deserve all of it. That is the light that has allowed me to name the darkness in my life without believing that all is darkness.

As painful and as exhausting as these things are, the fact remains that I am not who I am apart from them. The same web of precipitates which combine and ramify to make life painful and disappointing is also the matrix out of which the possibility of me arises. This doesn’t magically make these things easy to live with, but it forces me to acknowledge that there is no “me” without these forces I sometimes imagine never existing. But if that were ever so, then I am dissolved in the solvent of that revisionist history as well. 

Home may not be what I would choose to construct given the customization options of a demigod, but the awareness of that falling short doesn’t have to eviscerate me the way it has. It’s as if the dissatisfaction hits my scrupulosity and registers as disappointment that I didn’t choose differently. But I didn’t choose: I was just born, knitted together with the ligaments of many imperfect people. 

Here I am. Potentially as flawed as I ever was, but not as terrified as I used to be; not a model of empathy, but at least more empathetic than my fear allowed me to be. There’s no perfect family to flee to, no city I can move to that will magically make me not an idiot — I am always me, and will be wherever I go. Home is where the hurt is, and only in going back and naming the ways we never really left it can we regain access to some of the goodness that has felt impenetrably locked up. 

I’m looking forward to this Christmas. It’s nice, for once, to not have the way ahead defined by what’s behind. And that’s making me hear “Winter Wonderland” a little differently, too. “To face unafraid / The plans that we’ve made” feels like an invitation to something rather than a jeer that I will never be unafraid. And if the hopes and fears of all the years really do meet in the child born at Christmas, then maybe some impossibilities are possible after all.