March 21, 2013

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree has already earned acclaim.  A 700+ page tome of meticulous research, analysis, and odyssey, Solomon explores relatedness in families where there is an obvious difference:  the child falls “far from the tree”, in other words.  The Pacific Heart Book Club will be reading this book, as its inaugural selection.  We will be discussing it in person in Sangha Francisco, my new discussion group, and I will blog about it monthly as well.

The trailer for the book is at

Here are some initial thoughts, before I’ve even cracked the book.  From the sounds of it, Solomon has chronicled the necessity and difficulty of loving children who have needs that are out of the ordinary, or who come from encounters such as rape.  I would imagine that the work is in maintaining connection and patience in trying situations, working through frustrations such as those presented by a society that’s not always sensitive to your child’s needs, and working with one’s own possible disappointments.  From my own experience, I think most parents take to their “different” children with a lot of acceptance, love, duty, and compassion.  Having a child with a difference can open one up to a whole different view of the world.  I think that parents, spouses, and other caregivers can tell us a lot about the sacrifice and commitment that’s necessary in raising another human being.

Another story that Solomon probably doesn’t touch on is the ways that children provide love to their “different” parents.  It’s really wonderful when children express acceptance, love, and actual caregiving for their parents.  That’s worthy of another book, and comes with its own challenges.  The context is that many children often feel misgivings about the ways their parents have not provided for them – and there are often major shortcomings.  I’ve seen some children, now grown, really be compassionate towards their parents, with often mixed results.  I have to believe this is a very compelling act of love as well, and one that is a real choice.

The Lovingkindness Sutra taught by the Buddha teaches to “cultivate an infinite good will towards the whole world.”  Interestingly, the most personal example the sutra uses is of a mother.  “Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her child, her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things.”  Some people who have not had such unconditional love from their mother may have problems with this line.  Connecting to that possibility of loving acceptance is important, though – being able to give oneself lovingkindness and extend it to others is crucial not only for one’s own mental health but also the cohesiveness of society.  Solomon’s book is an important contribution to the exploration and magnification of love, the most powerful motive, therapeutic and redemptive force throughout human history.

I think the implications are clear for society in general.  If loving across differences is possible – and even essential – within families, it is just as vital in society more broadly.  Can we create a truly “beloved community” as articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  If love and our own human needs for relatedness don’t pull us together, will aversion and indifference pull us apart?  These do seem the only options.  The good news is that love, compassion and wisdom can be cultivated.  Moreover, they are linked to one’s own personal happiness.  The people who are able to activate the parts of their brains linked to empathy and compassion are also measurably happier as well.  So loving is truly enlightened self-interest.

Young people form community readily in college.  But as we move into nuclear families, career and personal concerns, I think we lose something.  We have to actively create community, whereas once it came almost spontaneously and invisibly, constructed by the crucible of school.  Facebook and the like, in the end, only point out the need for connection, and provide a bit of it.  Spiritual and community groups are another option.  But my sense is that there is still something missing.  Perhaps life in America has an inevitable and culturally specific quality of isolation that must be transformed to solitude.  Or perhaps we really are living unnatural lives that our social brains were never built to handle, with resulting problems of anxiety, depression, self-centeredness, socio-economic disparities implicated in a broad range of health problems, etc.

My question to you all at this point is:  what is missing?  How have you found it or constructed it in your life?  Tune in next month (the week of April 14th) for a discussion of the first few chapters (200 pages or so) of the book.

© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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