Two unspoken rules governed life in our family when I was young.
- Don’t upset your mother.
- Don’t be like your father.
Negative norms have an important place. They stop small children from putting their hands on hot stoves or running into traffic. They can be life-saving for those with celiac disease. They can remind people of the boundaries of relationships.
The greatest power of negative norms though comes in partnership with a positive direction.
“Don’t eat bread” carries more power when paired with a vision of six-pack abs and physical excellence (or a calm gastro-intestional tract). “Don’t wear too much animal print” makes sense if the desire is for simplicity and elegance. Or, if one is striving for the James Bond look, avoid too many accessories. “Don’t use/abuse drugs” accelerates when matched with a vision of an abundant life full of joy and loving relationships. And, of course, the Ten Commandments (which I take to be more than Ten Suggestions You Might Consider Should Your Schedule Allow), are best understood by those striving to live a life permeated by the sacred.
Negatives can provide temporary braking power but it takes a compelling vision to move forward.
Don’t upset Mom or don’t be like your father could easily lead to a life of uncertainty and powerlessness without more compelling images of how to be with women or what it means to be a man.
The question of where to discover alternate models is part of a larger question. From where do visions of “a good man” or a good person worth striving to become originate?
The easy response is media and advertising. And the observation carries truth. Walker-Smith says we’ve gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970’s to as many as 5,000 a day today. Surely those carry some impact in defining the ideal body, loving relationships, toys worth accumulating and the ideal family.
Such images can easily become the default setting for a life well lived. But what if we want to reset the system?
In my own life when I have wanted or needed to choose something other than the default pathway a key relationship was often the deciding factor. When some part of my being shouted “You need to find a different way” I was most influenced by someone who drew close. Perhaps the negative acted like a booster on a rocket but the deeper power came when part of my being said, “I want to be like that.”
I like the way Frank can be self-aware but not self-obsessed.
I like the type of questions Terry and Ian ask. I’d like to be able to do that.
I like the kind of husband I see in Brad.
I’d like to be as open and generous with my time and talent as Gaye.
I’d like to be as affirming as Jim.
I’d like to be able to speak like Bill and write like Stephen.
My list is long.
I find it interesting that now that the Vancouver Canucks are in re-build mode they keep key veterans who can show “the kids” what it is like to be a Vancouver Canuck and professional NHL player.The emphasis is not so much upon skill or game smarts as upon character, habit and the commitment to serve team and community.
Relationships form us at the deepest level and they can power change.
The connection with key people has always been important but is increasingly so in these times.
One of the characteristics of our post-modern context is that we are overwhelmed with choice and information while experiencing little authority. As we search for the way through complex ethical, political, social and personal challenges we need guides, perhaps called mentors, who do not prescribe but through their living show the good life in all its dimensions: intimacy, parenting, work ethic, goal setting, awareness of the sacred and leadership.
I have been fortunate to have some exceptional people come into my life. If I am due any credit it is that 50% of the time I have recognized the light and tried to stumble in the right direction.
Some of the time I have not been so intentional. It has been one of the surprises of my later life to realize the many ways in which I am like my Dad – and I have decided that many of those are good even if they did upset my mother.