Family Conflict: Selective Manipulation of the Past

Stan Goldberg, PhD

As violence continues in the Mideast, people who are attacked ignore the past—only the present is important to them, as it is within some families. Those who are doing the attacking take a 180 degree turn on history and use the past to justify their present brutality.

The World

You can close their eyes and touch a map of the world and find both attackers and the attacked in almost every country: Sunnis vs. Shiites, Jews vs. Palestinians, Afghans vs. Taliban, the Syrian government vs. the Free Syrian Army, and ISIS vs. the world.

The States

Here in the States, this selective use of history is glorified by politicians who are shocked the President would issue executive orders on immigration after patiently waiting six years for them to act.

The Family

And on a more intimate level, we see it within families plagued by conflicts separating siblings from each other and parents from children. Often, nobody can remember what precipitated the war.

In my counseling I hear, “But nothing can justify what he did,” as if a cruel behavior is immaculately conceived. How often do you hear someone describe a relative’s behavior as “unforgivable?”

In the wonderful 1990 movie, Avalon, every year for 20+ years a family gathers for Thanksgiving. And every year, they wait for a perpetually late uncle to come before carving the turkey. In a poignant scene, after waiting an hour they carve the cold turkey without him. He arrives and is stunned. “Unforgivable” he says, and leaves.

Understanding vs. Forgiveness

While the word “unforgivable” may be appropriate for many of the behaviors we judge, it often prevents understanding why it occurred. And sets up the future for replicating the past when new “unforgivable” events happen. Think about your family. Is there anything you believe someone did that is unforgivable? If you withhold judgment, you’ll discover it’s history. Although you may not be able to forgive, you might begin understanding why it occurred.

In 1905, the philosopher and poet George Santayana wrote, “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.” Remember his prophetic words when you are about to condemn someone for cutting the turkey without you.

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