I left my hometown of New York City in the summer of 1986 and drove across the country to Seattle. Escaping from or escaping to …  I’m not sure. Perhaps a bit of both.

In my youth, the unwavering values my parents instilled in me and my siblings served as my life guide and conscience. Twinges of guilt niggled me if I even felt myself digressing from my parents’ teachings! But as I matured, my approach to life began to diverge from theirs. My involvement in social justice organizations gave me a new perspective and informed my views and political inclinations.  As my newfound ideals met with disapproval and disappointment, I floundered and struggled and knew it was time to go away for a bit and figure myself out.

A year after arriving in Seattle I got married and began a family. We bought a little house on Queen Anne Hill and faced head on the challenges of raising children in economically challenging times. Our income was not enough for me to stay home with the children and the political climate did not favor those in our economic bracket. The time we were living in and the world I was raising my daughters in furthered my swing away from the conservative principles in which I was raised.

However, if I am to be completely honest, I was as guilty of rejection as I was hurt by it. I rejected my parents’ conservative ideals, taking personally the effect they had on my family and my life They also took my change in views personally. They were hurt. I was hurt. And while our tie to one another was not broken, it was definitely frayed. 

Over the years, we worked — hard — to keep that bond from severing altogether. Regular phone calls, shared family stories, photos and visits helped Both sides sought balance, attempting to maintain connection despite differences. But both sides continued to hold fast to their principles with white knuckles. Both sides demanded to be heard and acknowledged.

As I traveled home three years ago for my mother’s 88th birthday, I pondered how to approach the visit. A reflection by Pema Chödrön I read on the plane caused a light to blink on in my brain. The gist is:

  • I cannot expect to be heard if I don’t listen.
  • I cannot ask for tolerance and understanding if I refuse to offer it as well.
  • I cannot expect respect if I don’t give the same in return.
  • I must practice that which I long for, stop judging and stop wishing for things to be other than what they are.

During that visit, rather than argue when I disagreed, I listened. Rather than take the bait when it was dangled in front of me, I changed the subject. I did not try to prove myself, to make my point, to try and convince or sway my family to my way of thinking. And I found that their approval was not important to me any longer. I felt, finally, free.

If we can unconditionally love our children as they move into adulthood and beyond, sometimes making choices that we don’t understand or agree with, why can’t we do the same with our parents? If we can continue friendships with people whose political beliefs and lifestyles diverge from our own, why can’t we do the same with our siblings? By applying similar principles to interactions with my aging mother and my siblings, I was able to bridge the distance and focus on the positive aspects of our relationship.

What we learn from the painful lessons of family strife, we can apply to our daily interactions. And, similarly, what we learn from our capacity for tolerance when it comes to children and friends, we can use in dealings with our birth family. Judgment and active disapproval accomplish nothing. Instead we must find a way to practice loving kindness, to be parents to one another – all of us. To love unconditionally and to simply cherish the time we share.

IRENE PANKE HOPKINS (irenehopkins.com) is a freelance writer and essayist.