It’s going to be Thanksgiving here in the USA and I’m spending some time with my family. Which can be trying sometimes. Let me see if I can tell you a way I’ve found useful to deal with some of the difficult family stuff we all go through.
I’m an agnostic when it comes to reincarnation. I wrote a lot about that subject in my book Don’t Be a Jerk, so I won’t rehash that here. The short version is that I wouldn’t say I believe in reincarnation, but I am inclined to think that something kinda like reincarnation happens.
Be that as it may, I have found that the Buddhist ideas surrounding the belief in reincarnation have been extremely helpful to me in practical ways.
One of the useful Buddhist ideas around reincarnation is that we choose our families. It goes like this. Supposedly there’s a state between the end of one lifetime and the beginning of the next lifetime where we hang around in what the Buddhists call the “Womb Storehouse World.” While we are in this world, the karma we’ve accumulated in previous lifetimes propels us in the direction of the folks who will be our parents in the next life.
We are drawn to these parents because we have some affinity with them. We share karma. Somehow we are like them in a very deep way. And they are like us. The families we ended up with in this lifetime, the Buddhists say, have been traveling with us from lifetime to lifetime for centuries, maybe even hundreds of centuries.
Now, I don’t know if all of that’s true. So I’m not here to tell you that you ought to believe it. But, personally, I have found that it’s been very useful to pretend that this stuff about us choosing our families is true. Here’s why.
Before I got exposed to this idea, I figured that the family I ended up with was just a matter of random chance. I wasn’t a religious person. And, even if I was, the version of Christianity I grew up around didn’t address this stuff. So I probably would’ve felt pretty much the same about how I ended up with my family even if I’d been raised Christian.
If the family I ended up with was just due to random gene shuffling or some arbitrary decision by God, then whatever problems I might have with them… well, that was just random too.
When I was younger I felt very much at odds with my parents. I never hated them or anything like that. But I felt like I was so different from them that I could barely relate to their values. How on Earth did I end up with these people?
Nowadays I don’t feel like that. Like I said, I’m agnostic about the reincarnation stuff. But when I pretend that I believe I chose my family, I think I deserved the family I got. In fact, I wanted that family. I needed that family. They were the family I chose. And they were the family that chose me.
I’ve had the usual difficulties with my family, nothing really spectacular. Well, once there was something that got really bad and I’m still working through that one. Anyhow, I know a lot of folks who’ve had some really hard times with their families. Way worse than anything I’ve ever faced.
If that’s what you’re going through, it could be very difficult to even pretend to accept the Buddhist ideas about how we choose our families. But one way to look at it if you’re having terrible difficulties with your family is that the difficulties you’re facing may have been difficulties you chose to face. Maybe you set yourself a challenge. Maybe you even set yourself a very big, extremely tough challenge. Maybe you felt like you needed a challenge that would test you in ways that would seem insurmountable.
Even in a case like that, I think it would be better to feel like you have some agency in the situation. If you believed it was all just random happenstance, how could you help but feel victimized by forces beyond your control? That sounds like an awful way to live.
Whenever I’ve felt like I was a victim or random chance, it’s made everything ten times worse than it already was. But when I start looking at bad situations while pretending that I chose them for myself, it’s made everything about those situations a whole lot better. The sense of helplessness goes away. I feel like there’s something I can do about this.
I don’t know if it will help you to pretend to believe this stuff about choosing your family. But it might be worth giving it a try to see how it feels.
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