Family is the raw stone out of which we were sculpted. Michelangelo said the secret of sculpting his masterpiece, David, was simply to remove everything that wasn’t David. The beauty of David was inside the stone all along, but had to be brought out by the strikes of Michelangelo’s chisel.
We too start out unformed, completely indistinguishable from our environment. Then, as we interact with family members, the chiseling begins, and the extraneous pieces start falling away. Our true self begins to reveal its curves and corners as we emerge from the raw matrix of family relationships. In large part, we discovered ourselves only through the difficult interactions that told us who we were not.
We may have reinvented ourselves outside the family, but going home grounds us in the beginnings of who we were before we had the choice to be whatever we wanted. Going home for the holidays can remind us of how challenging those beginnings may have been. But if we hadn’t had someone to resist and resent along the way, would we ever have uncovered our true individuality? We may wish we had been treated with more care, but the creation of a strong and sensitive soul often seems to require the rather brutal business of conflict with a loved one.
When we go home for the holidays, we are returning to the sculptor’s atelier. Here is where we found our form. All the miseries of childhood were the processes by which large chunks of marble were carved away to reveal our roughened shape, while the joys of childhood were the experiences by which we were lovingly polished into a unique expression of humanity. We couldn’t have become who we are today without the stress of being hammered and sanded by an abundance of friction. If we were lucky, by the time we got out of the family to start our own life, we emerged as solid as David, so toughened by the creative work that we were ready to take on Goliaths.
Returning to family can be stressful because we are reminded of our struggles to grow up. Without our differences—like the strikes of iron against marble—we might have remained so much a part of the family that we would not have had our own lives. Perhaps you know of a family member that has happened to: the stone was accepted as it was, and thus remained unformed and uncreated. There just wasn’t enough resistance from the parent to bring the real individual into being.
Returning home also gives us the reassurance of tradition. No matter what we have accomplished in our lives, it’s nice to have some things remain the same. For good or bad, familiarity has its comforts. When we return to family, we are returning to our source, the quarry from which we were hewn.
Maybe it would drive us crazy to live there again, but the sensation of reentering the family during the holidays can be a relief to the child in us. Back we go into the marble mountain, and we are once more an anonymous bit of the whole, no longer separate or special. Some part of us seems to welcome this swallowing up, this smudging of the lines that define us as separate individuals. Returning to family can offer a giving-in to gravity after the long struggle to stand on our own, like the baby tired of standing who plops its bottom back on the floor with satisfaction.
Family holidays can be a welcome chance to emotionally regress after the long push forward of adult life. We could embrace this as a desirable process. Instead of the unending drive to make something of ourselves, within the family we can just let go and blame them for our frustrations. It’s a delicious indulgence after making it on our own for so long. We can go home and react inside like children again. Within our original family, we are freed from our role as adults, and we get to sample the old resentments and hurt feelings that fired our desire to self-create in the first place.
So what should our feeling be when we return to the family workshop where we were formed?
Let’s imagine how David and Michelangelo handled it. I wonder what David had to say to Michelangelo once he was fully finished and brought into this world. Might he have said to his creator, “Did it have to be so painful?” Perhaps he would say: “Surely there was another way to get me out of that stone without so much conflict and pounding?”
Or would he let all that go, standing there gleaming from all the friction, a beautifully burnished magnificence that had withstood the swing of his maker’s mallet. Maybe he would just say, “Thank you. It was worth it all just to be here.”
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.