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Saturday, November 21, 2009


Written by: Rick Staggenborg, MD on Oct 28, 2009 6:07 AM PDT

This chapter is dedicated to my loving, just and wise father.

Studying family history is not just fun, but teaches us much about ourselves. As a family therapist, I have learned that none of us function entirely independent of our families. Married couples clearly affect each other, and the introduction of children complicates the system of the family to change the family “dance” in incredibly and often beautiful ways. 

However, if the parents in such a family originate in dysfunctional families, the parts each family member plays may become a grotesque parody of what may have been much richer lives, had someone seen the problems brought to the family by the parents and intervened. Learning new parts to play in the family dance frees us to be all that we can be. The alternative is to accept the roles cast for us by our parents, particularly those of us with authoritative parents, leaving us to function as no more than meat puppets.

It is the adolescent tendency to rebel against parental expectations that guarantees that we continue to evolve, both as individuals and a society. Even the children of very permissive parents tend to rebel against this frightening absence of boundaries. A surprising number end up in the military, along with children of authoritarian parents. 

Children of permissive parents are often not free of acting independently of parental expectations because their actions are dictated by their need to rebel against the lack of structure in their lives. The actions of the children of authoritarians are even more  dictated by dysfunctional parental beliefs because they have often never challenged those beliefs. These are the young men and women in the military who have not freed themselves from the yoke of submitting to the dictates of parents who teach them to jump when the President says so. 

Our children thus become  cannon fodder for an uncaring government and the Puppetmmasters who control our  Congress.  They should be protected by the Senate, which is supposed to be a check on Presidential ambition and power. Instead, Congress has abdicated its responsibility for the sake of Party unanimity and political power, marching off to war at the command of the international corporate terrorists who profit from war at the cost of our children's blood. This lockstep mentality is currently as evident in the historically fractionated Democratic Party leadership as it has always been in the Republican Party.

The effect of parenting style on the development of their children means that studying the lives of our ancestors can provide a treasure trove of information about ourselves, and the study of the descendants of famous people, whose lives are well documented, can yield much insight into our current leaders. 

A case in point is the Bush family, which has clearly followed in the footsteps of George W’s grandfather, who was convicted of aiding the Nazis by violating restrictions on trade imposed by Roosevelt. I have not studied the life of George H.W. enough to conclude with authority the roots of W’s pathology, but his conduct throughout his life suggests that his father was overly permissive in general, perhaps in response to the shame he had for his own father, and the common attitude that “I will never be like him.” 

Despite what may have been a permissive child rearing style in general, he is likely to have been authoritarian in respect to instilling a belief in young W that the economic aristocracy has the inherent right and the privilege of determining the fate of ordinary Americans. He certainly acted with authoritarian arrogance as the  alleged "leader" of the "free world."

W is known to have been a lazy student with little sense of personal responsibility and he appears to have rebelled against his father by becoming the model authoritarian, despite his evident utter inability to reason independently, as required of the true leader. This was clearly recognized by the kingmakers who choose who to throw money at for expensive propaganda campaigns on behalf of their chosen corporate tools.

In contrast to the the Bush family saga, in a healthy family parents balance external restraints on their children’s behavior with increasing autonomy as the child matures and becomes aware of the extent of the personal responsibilities of an adult. The loving and wise parent instills their values by example, not through punishment for deviation from their expectations. Such was with my family. 

I was raised by a third-Generation German-American who was raised in turn by an embittered, violent man. My grandfather mellowed in later years because of the enduring love of my father and the eventual recognition of his lack of authority over his very strong son. My grandfather was raised by a vicious disciplinarian whose father presumably was raised by German parents who never understood the traditional German value of love and respect for the autonomy of the individual. 

Many Germans forgot this as well when the Allied powers took advantage of Germany’s weakness after their defeat in WWI. The Treaty of Versailles punished them collectively for allowing their society to have become authoritarian and submitting to the Imperialistic designs of their leaders. These were men who had become arrogant in the success of their recently unified nation. and asserted their claim to a  larger piece of the international corporate pie.

The German people and society had been made intelligent by the eternal war between the principalities which formerly comprised what is now known as Germany. As I have explained, in a previous essay in this book,  warfare breeds intelligence because soldiers live or die by their wits when pitted against each other in mortal combat.

Of course, these are just speculations. No one  can know everything, as time does not allow for the study of everything during the short time we are allotted to study the wonder of the world into which each of us is born. I can only hope that I have the wisdom of my mother and father, a wisdom born of their suffering and perseverance. I believe that by their example they taught me to see what is important to understand. As we are born without certain knowledge of our purpose on Earth, we must have faith in the wisdom and benevolent intentions of our parents and their parents.  As importantly, we must forgive them their human failures if we are to move on together in the task of creating always a new world, one that is more fit for our children to inherit than the one into which we were born.

In the immortal words of Harry Chapin:

A child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way
but there were planes to catch, and bills to pay.
He learned to walk while I was away
and he was talking 'fore I knew it and as he grew
he'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, dad.
You know I'm gonna be like you."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

My son turned ten just the other day.
He said, "Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play.
Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "Not today,
I got a lot to do." He said, "That's ok"
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed.
Said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah.
You know I'm gonna be like him."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
but we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Well, he came from college just the other day,
so much like a man I just had to say,
"Son, I'm proud of you. Can you sit for a while?"
He shook his head, and he said with a smile,
"What I'd really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys.
See you later. Can I have them please?"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
but we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

I've long since retired and my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind."
He said, "I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kid's got the flu,
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad.
It's been sure nice talking to you."
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me,
my boy was just like me.

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Rick Staggenborg, MD
Coos Bay, OR

1 comment:

  1. I wrote this in part to honor my father as I wrote the following essay to honor my mother. It contains ideas relevant to ending war, including the centrality of forgiving the most egregious errors of our current and former authority figures as well as our fellow citizens.

    Democracy depends on having faith that humans are essentially good. Otherwise, they cannot govern themselves and end up ceding their sovereignty to those who cannot separate their own interests from those of the People they have sworn to serve.

    The other major theme is derived from the family therapy model. To focus on assigning blame is to distract from and interfere with solving the problems that the family is trying to address. Therefore, forgiveness is part of the process of healing the family.

    If we love one another out of a sense of our duty to each other and to humanity as a whole, we become the moral people that most of us claim we strive to be.

    It is not a coincidence that I chose Cat's Cradle as the mnemonic for remembering this essay. It is the title of a Kurt Vonnegut book about a certain type of family dance, one in which the parent forgets that his first duty to his son is to instill a sense of love and caring that he needs to be a good father, husband, neighbor and citizen of his nation and of the world.

    With such a sense of love for all humanity, children become adults who are prepared to think for themselves about the difference between right and wrong and to conduct their lives accordingly.


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