They f**k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.
Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.
– Philip Larkin (truncated)
Larkin’s poem, particularly the last stanza, was spoken by Count Olaf, the main villain in A Series of Unfortunate Event as he lay dying a slow death, having just performed what might perhaps be his only good deed in life.
A murderer, treacherous and conniving, Olaf’s demise as he quoted Larkin, was a sober reminder that people are often forced to behave conspiratorially not because they choose to but because they have to. Olaf then, perhaps, might once have been a good person, if his childhood went better for him.
It’s a great refresher of what we already know about our behaviour and moral values: social norms, beliefs and our upbringing cauterise our understanding of the world, and nowhere can deeper roots be found than that of our family – those we share our life and obligations with.
We know that our parents, like the friends around us, influence us greatly, but we are mostly unaware of how powerfully they shape our unconscious self. How we are loved and nurtured determine our self-confidence and ability to set meaningful goals. It also determines who will love and how we will go about loving someone.
After all, as a baby, our first nervous foray into the wilderness of life must depend entirely on our parents. We are completely helpless and possess no concept of what it means to live. Just as we gradually inherit a native language through mimicry, we also internalise our parents’ love toward each other and their moment to moment behaviour becomes models of emulation.
In families of repeated verbal (or physical) abuse, where fights and bouts of screaming are the norm, a child can grow up with low self-esteem – or to compensate – a fiery temper. Our parents’ tenderness for each other (or lack of) also affects how we think love ought to be. If you have never been able to recognise authentic love, how then can one be expected to ever find it?
Our parents are the flag bearers. And unfortunately, as Larkin succinctly puts it, they often go about it badly. Most parents happily transplant their religious beliefs, supernatural thinking and traditional rituals to their child, teaching them as truths. And if done rigidly from young, can make it almost impossible to escape from.
In competitive Asian families, these parents sometimes over-compensate for their failures and frequently expect their child to make up for their deficiencies. They either impose lofty expectations or offer little encouragement, if at all. Sometimes, the family is so devoid of warmth that a child develops a second personality, or looks elsewhere for the attention needed. Neither is healthy.
And it is especially hard to go against our parents. We are more inclined to take up their beliefs, imbibe their values and agree with them because we cannot risk becoming outcasts. It takes remarkable awareness and resilience to firmly position yourself away from what you may perceive as an incorrect belief or way of thinking.
Unfortunately, if research is any indication, our parents’ influence on our personalities and conceptions of the world are largely cast in stone, even if you are aware of it. Just as you cannot explain why you have a craving for pizza in the morning, what or who we unconsciously prefer, avoid and understand is beyond mortal ken to change. Our parents have left us lasting changes indeed.
The importance of our parents in our lives, despite Larkin’s pessimism, is of course, not so easily discounted. At the very least, we are given a place to call home and most parents, do try very hard for their children. But just like doing many good deeds doesn’t negate a bad mistake, Larkin’s poem remains a truthful, albeit disturbing generalisation.
So have you thought (HYTA) about your family’s influence on your life?