Bad Relatives Make Good Teachers

thegrindstone.comI recently had an opportunity to see “King Lear” at Boscobel’s Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. As I took in a breathtaking sunset over the cliffs beyond the river – and brother turned against brother; sister murdered sister; and children and their father acted rashly, abusively and cruelly to each other – I considered the fact that Shakespeare’s play is as significant now as it was in his day. From the cases we read about in the news to the injustices we suffer at the hands of our own so-called relatives, it’s appropriate to consider the truism, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” The saying, of course, implies an unspoken wish that we could choose our relatives. But I have to wonder, maybe it’s a good thing that we can’t.

Before you call me as crazy as King Lear, consider this: From the aunt who consistently takes advantage of you to the parent who intentionally attacks your self-esteem, don’t these refractory relatives present us with opportunities to learn, grow and adapt? Opportunities that better prepare us for the world “out there?” After all, a “friend” accused of these same injustices could simply be discarded for our own sanity’s sake. And if immediate dismissal in all relationships in our lives was possible that might be perfectly worthwhile. But the truth is, we can’t simply eject people we live or work with from our lives. We have to learn real coping skills to get along, to survive.

When we deal with difficult people, we are presented with opportunities to learn patience, diplomacy, compromise, inventiveness, resourcefulness, resilience and self-reliance. At their worst, problematic relationships can also teach us when it’s appropriate to sever ties. And even that has value. Walking away from a neglectful or abusive relative after a period of self-examination has the potential to develop in us, an exceptional strength and determination, and to expose a sense of self-worth that we never knew was possible. In short, difficult people teach us to be better people ourselves.

No, you can’t choose your relatives, but that may very well be a good thing. Like anything in life, it’s all about perception. I may not choose to invite my rude, impetuous father out for a cup of coffee, but there may still be value in him sitting at my dinner table.

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