“They fuck 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.”
So says renowned English poet Philip Larkin in his poem “This Be The Verse.” When my high school English teacher told us she wanted to read us a line from her favorite poem, we all merely giggled at the fact that this prim and proper woman had swore in front of her class. But that line has stuck with me. The extent to which our lives are molded by our parents, both overtly and imperceptibly, cannot be underestimated.
I love playing devil’s advocate. Exploring the other side of every coin tossed my way is a habit left over from an adolescence spent fiercely opposing any view my parents presented, not because their views were objectionable — quite the contrary — but just for the hell of it. Once we hit puberty, we often approach the hitherto accepted values of our parents with suspicion or outright aversion. Back in those days, when it felt as though rocks were growing from your face and your wayward teeth were being herded together by a painful steel apparatus — when bad music, bad hair days and even worse outfits were cool, whatever your parents thought was cool suddenly became uncategorically uncool.
My parents, for example, thought Jesus was pretty cool. They’re Irish Catholic — they’re not fanatical, but they insisted on the idea that their children should have faith to turn to as well. Naturally, I didn’t have much say in my own baptism, and I made my communion and my confirmation with all the other kids in my class because everyone else was doing it. My parents also insisted I attend Sunday mass every week for virtually my entire life. When I was a toddler, they simply carried me there. As a child, I went willingly and curiously.
“Mum, why is that man wearing a miniskirt?” I once asked my mother in the middle of the Eucharist — the most important part of Mass, I’d been told. The man I was referring to was Jesus Christ, hanging from a huge crucifix over the altar. “That’s a loincloth!” my mother whispered.
Never too jaded to explain even the simplest of things about the faith into which I was born, my parents taught me when to stand, sit and kneel. They warned me not to drink the blood of Christ because I might get drunk and encouraged me to always sing along to church hymns even when no one else was singing.
But when I hit puberty, I stopped being indifferent to the faith I was supposed to call my own and became averse. I deeply resented being forced to spend half an hour a week standing, sitting and kneeling at the whim of an altar boy’s bell and lining up to eat a mass-produced wafer that everyone claimed was the Body of Christ. I sulked, pouted and sighed my way through Sunday after Sunday. I wasn’t a Catholic, and nobody could make me be one. And so I cast around for something else to be — another mold that fit better. One sulky teenage day, I googled the word “agnosticism” and decided I had a chronic case of it.
When something is forced upon us, we’re blinded to its value, and classically, we reject it. I’ve blamed my parents for years for dragging any inclination toward religious faith I may have had out of me by actually dragging me to church.
From the books we were compelled to read in school to the countless brussels sprouts and other undelicious vegetables we were forced to consume, the interplay between compulsion and rebellion is the dance of our teenage years. I have a friend whose parents were so insistent that she study medicine in college that she chose engineering instead, only to realize halfway through her first year that she wanted to be a doctor after all. At 16, I rejected faith altogether simply because it was chosen for me by my parents — as a way of exerting a measure of control over my own life.
Now, I still cannot reconcile my inherited Catholic faith within the context of my (relatively) independent life. But the wisdom of 21 brings a new appreciation for the many hours I saw as wasted kneeling at a church pew. If you didn’t drag me to church, I might go willingly, I’d always tell my parents.
But they knew I wouldn’t, and deep down, so did I. I know if I have children, I’ll never force them to go to church, but I’d like to think I would make faith a viable option in their lives — there to be taken or left, discarded and returned to. My parents wanted their kids to have something in their lives outside the mundane, something to fall back on when times were hard. But faith is something that has to be found rather than forced.
I still challenge everything. I still don’t know if I believe in God. But when the 4.0 earthquake hit last month — embarrassingly terrifying for those of us who don’t usually live in earthquake zones — I found myself praying for the first time in years, and I understood why my parents placed faith on the table in the first place.