Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “How Do I Explain to My Evangelical Relatives Why I Avoid Family Functions?”
I grew up in a strict evangelical home and participated in our church as a child without fully understanding its principles. As an adult, I don’t subscribe to any religion. My immediate family, however, continues to be deeply religious and very much adheres to what I now believe are extreme views. They are, of course, free to worship as they please. I, however, take issue with the hypocrisy in their own lives. For example, they are strongly anti-choice, yet one had an abortion during a complicated pregnancy. They are “pro-family,” yet gave up an adopted child that became “too difficult.” They boycotted a parental wedding because the bride and groom were each previously married; participating would have “blessed the sin.” There is also a personal aspect for me in that they openly oppose L.G.B.T. rights, support politicians and groups that are extremely anti-gay, attend schools that require opposition to gay civil liberties in their codes of conduct and belong to anti-gay churches. I’m openly gay. I have been told that I am not welcome in certain family members’ homes because of my “lifestyle choice.”
While all of this is certainly confounding and hurtful, I’ve come to terms with it and have limited nearly all of my interaction with my family, living a happy, successful life with friends I consider my chosen family. My relatives know why I no longer speak to them or attend functions, but they think this is entirely my fault.
In the very near future, however, I will have to participate in milestone events like a funeral or two (inevitable) and a wedding (likely invitation). I will undoubtedly be confronted about my absence over the years, by those who fully know the reasons for it and by those who should. I realize there would be more appropriate occasions to offer an honest reply, but I don’t feel comfortable avoiding a direct answer or shouldering the blame. I’m thinking of saying something along the lines of “I’ve always felt it best to put as much distance between myself and those whose decisions have hurt me and my friends.” I’m struggling, however, because while I feel this is enough of an answer to provoke some thought, it doesn’t suggest that I was forced into this situation. Does that answer suffice, or should I offer to go into further detail? Name Withheld
My response: After all that background, your question was should you go into more detail. Will giving more detail help you achieve your goals? How well do you know your goals?
As I understand, your goal is to feel understood. I don’t see you trying to change everyone, to make them agree with you, to expose what you see as their hypocrisy, or even for them to support you. It sounds like you want to keep living your happy, successful life. You sound like you’re missing the feeling of their understanding you.
If you’re content with your voice being heard, you could write an open letter to whomever you want to hear you or maybe on some web page that you could send them links to. Then you can know, at least, that people who are willing to listen to you will have heard your voice.
I would stop there. For them to understand, accept, or support you seems outside your control. Can you make them do those things? If your happiness depends on people who disagree with you listening to you or giving you feedback you want, you’re giving away control of what’s most important to you—how you feel—to people who may want you to feel miserable.
The challenge here, as I see it, is not ethics. No one can avoid others disagreeing with us on some issues. It’s your ability to handle your emotions. Can you learn for your happiness not to depend on people outside your control?
The New York Times response:
As a rule — this is a matter more of etiquette than of ethics — it’s discourteous to refuse to continue a conversation you have started. You can’t hint at bad behavior and then refuse a polite inquiry about what you’re referring to. At the same time, it would be disrespectful to refuse to answer a question about why you had been absent from so many family occasions and dishonest, of course, to lie. You can certainly say something of the sort you have planned, but you can’t duck out of the conversation that may ensue.
I could stop there, but your account of your family situation invites a response. It’s sad when these sort of disagreements break up a family and natural, when hostility is directed at you, to be both resentful and highly critical. Yet your family’s inconstancy in matters of sexual ethics may not be as unforgivable as you obviously feel it is. We all regularly fall short of our own standards. That’s distinct from true hypocrisy, where you judge others publicly by certain standards and pretend to live by them yourself, while actually ignoring them when it suits you. For all you say, people of your family may well admit, in their own social circle, that they have sinned, because sinfulness is the normal condition of everyone, according to the traditions to which they belong. After all, you’re not around to see how they handle the issue.
The part of their behavior that’s most morally worrisome, as you recount it, isn’t their hypocrisy, it’s their heartlessness. Boycotting a parent’s wedding sounds unkind. It’s hard to tell, on the basis of what you’ve said, whether giving up their adopted child was also unkind, but it must surely have been difficult for the child. Finally, many people accept, indeed cherish, family members who are gay, even if they think homosexual acts are wrong. That’s the response of a loving family, evangelical or not. After all, Christ, whom they seek to follow, hung out with tax collectors (who were even more unpopular then than now), and, when asked if it was permissible to stone a woman “taken in adultery,” told the Pharisees that whoever among them was without sin should “cast the first stone.” That didn’t require him to approve of taxation or infidelity.
The heart of the matter is that you can maintain relationships with those who conscientiously disagree with you, even if they are living in ways you disapprove of. That would be my message to them. But also to you.
Last weekend I was at a big dog park near downtown St. Paul. As I was leaving with my dog, I heard an agitated woman ahead of me tell her daughter: “He has to realize he can’t pull this stuff anymore. Let’s go!” I assumed they were talking about a misbehaving dog, but they had a dog with them. And when the daughter (maybe 12) complained that “someone might take him away if he says he can’t find his mom,” I realized they were talking about a child.
Against the daughter’s protests, they got in their car and drove off, the mother assuring her daughter that she was “not going to leave him in a dog park.” Curious, I stayed in my car and sure enough, eventually a boy, maybe 10, emerged from the gate looking very confused. He looked around but saw no mother, no sister, no car. I felt for the boy, but I also didn’t want to ruin the mother’s plan, which I assumed involved driving out of sight and then returning, just to send a message.
I got out of my car, asked the boy if he was looking for his mother and sister (he nodded) and simply assured him that they were coming back. I thought about telling him more, but that seemed like an overstep. He went back into the park. I went back to my car and drove off. And sure enough, I passed the mother’s car about 200 yards away from the park.
I posted this dilemma on Facebook and got responses ranging from “that’s child abuse, you should have called the police” to “there’s nothing wrong with leaving a child in a park for five minutes, we protect our kids too much and need to calm down.” A few people also pointed out that merely by approaching the boy and trying to help him, I could be perceived as a sex offender (even though I was never closer than 10 feet).
I wonder about the appropriateness of the mother’s actions, as well as my own. This felt like a lose-lose situation. I’m not the type to get involved in these kinds of incidents, but my instinct was that I needed to intervene just enough to remove the child’s biggest potential anxiety: that his family had abandoned him.
What do you think? Marc Conklin
My response: You know from posting what you call a dilemma that people see this situation differently. If there were a universal standard everyone agreed on, you would have looked it up and had your answer. There isn’t, so you wrote.
As long as there are no absolute standards here, your experience may be different, but I’ve found that getting between parents and their children, telling people how to raise their children, or interfering with how they raise them seems about as close to a sure thing about provoking argument and rage that the parent will feel justified in as any. Most third-party observers would side with the parent if you pushed back. Do you enjoy miring yourself in hostility based on you eavesdropping? If you felt the parent behaved illegally you could call the police or protective services, but you didn’t imply you felt the parent behaved illegally. You asked about its appropriateness, which is yet more a matter of opinion than legality.
What’s wrong with anxiety, anyway? I doubt you believe that this parent was the first to try this tactic. Of those who did, many of their children likely became happy adults who love their parents, including for that tactic. We don’t like feeling anxious, but we learn from it too. How sure are you that you know better than this parent?
The New York Times response:
Let me get one issue out of the way: Things have gotten out of hand if anyone who talks to a child left alone in a park by his parents risks being perceived as a sex offender. Children are sometimes abused by their parents. If we can’t inquire a little about what’s going on, we’re stuck with only two options: calling in the police in a situation that may, in fact, be just fine, or doing nothing. That doesn’t seem like a good outcome. We have common responsibilities for the well-being of children in our community. Because a distressed and abandoned child might be open to approach by a pedophile, your sticking around was an act of protection. We shouldn’t let paranoia get the better of prudence.
The truth is, we don’t know very much about this boy’s relationship with his family, except that it was going badly on the day you met. But leaving a 10-year-old to think that he might have been abandoned sounds cruel. You, very thoughtfully, went out of your way to reduce a child’s distress, while not undermining the authority of his parent. I hope I would have done what you did. Given the current climate, though, I suppose I might have alerted a police officer instead.