This is part of a series of posts exploring the impact that our relationship with our family has on how we define success.

How you build and maintain family relationships translates into your work relationships as a leader and employee.

No two children are ever born into the same family. -Leo Rosten

Hurt people, hurt people.

After his death, my generation and the next generation hurt. We were all in need of family support; we like to say that family is a way of holding hands forever. Or, as in Aristotle’s 2400-year-old words, “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of man’s everyday wants.”

Our oldest daughter Amanda was back from Thailand, still shaken from missing the funeral, feeling separate from the family due to her unavoidable 10,000-mile absence. She was excited to connect with everyone at a retreat that summer of 2007. We trekked to Maine, to a lakefront compound owned by my brother Jim’s father-in-law. We planned it to be an annual event; it remains our only one to date.

Hurt people, hurt people.  Tweet This Quote

Other than my father’s funeral, had we ever all assembled? We were missing one (Amanda) that day due to geography, but everyone else was there. At all the weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other life events, there were always at least a few people missing due to something. Even at this retreat one of the ten grandchildren was absent. She had a swim event—one of several for this 11-year old—that I guess her immediate family felt was more important.

But 16 of 17 made it. Marilyn didn’t come. She didn’t travel any more and hasn’t travelled since. In any case, she is of another generation — the generation Dad used to say was run by “Mommy the Queen and Daddy the Dictator.” We, and our boomer marriages, are decidedly different.

Mark, Jim and John—his three sons were there with their wives, sister Janice and nine of our ten children. Impressive for the Albions! And guess what? We had a good time. We weren’t sure what to do. We had never thought about how to act as a family. But as Dad had just died that May, he gave us something to talk about that summer. The shared pain forced us to recognize our common heritage; in at least this one way, we were one.

This we know—all things are connected
like the blood which unites one family.
– Chief Seattle  Tweet This Quote

For many family members, especially the cousins who lived in the North (my two children and Jim’s four) versus those in Florida (John’s three children and Janice’s one, Max), the retreat was an icebreaker. We each gravitated to the cousin(s) that most interested us. For example, the oldest cousin, my 20-year old Amanda, spent a lot of time with Jim’s youngest, 3-year old Matthew. She adores young children; he loved the attention!

Conversations tended to be light and non-controversial; we even found that we had several different senses of humor that didn’t mix. Our political leanings didn’t mix, either. Communication was often not clear, even when what was discussed wasn’t substantive. The dance of talking and listening had not been established.

There were, however, fun intergenerational outings on the lake, laced with random conversations throughout the day—even among siblings who rarely spoke to each other. Sister Janice and my wife Joy had a good laugh when John’s oldest, Jake, needed to call his mom who was in town for supplies. Cell phones didn’t work at the woodsy compound, so he had to use a rotary phone. Having never seen one, Jake had no clue how to dial it. One of the best laughs of the retreat.

Jake is also one of the most thoughtful of the ten cousins. Even at 16, he had a wisdom about him, a sensitivity about people, and powerful listening skills that I found enjoyable and educational. One afternoon, Jake and I took out a canoe to explore the lake and each other’s thoughts on Dad’s death and the family.

The great advantage of living in a large family
is that early lesson of life’s essential unfairness.
– Nancy Mitford

Jake wanted to know more about my relationship with Dad. Why didn’t I visit more often? He had heard many different things from various members of the family, all jockeying for position with Dad. Jake instinctively knew that much of the posturing was tied to money, and that his grandfather used it as a way of manipulating family members. He wanted to hear directly from his Uncle Mark.

He was also keenly aware of how differently my sister’s only child, Max, was treated. He mentioned the December holidays at Dad’s home where Jake and his siblings would get a few presents, but Max would get several and most were very expensive. Jake wasn’t complaining, simply wondering, asking—interested in what I thought about all these inequities that went on under Dad’s roof.

I was cautious on what and how I replied. Jake’s probing came from curiosity, not judgment. That’s what is often so beautiful in the young, and what I enjoyed so much at the retreat: unvarnished intergenerational questioning and curiosity, without a hint of judgment or an opinion on the subject already set.

The more I wondered when was I talking about my father, or when was I looking inward at myself.  Tweet This Quote

Jake knew little of what Uncle Mark from Boston thought of what happened each Sunday amongst the Florida part of the family and the weekly visits to Dad and Marilyn’s home. Even when no one really wanted to drive over, when their lives of swimming, school, Hebrew school and friends were overly busy, everyone visited. They felt they had to. At times, family members resented it. So what had been going on with my relationship with the family and Dad?

I wish that I had brilliant, magical responses to Jake’s honest, heartfelt questions, but I didn’t. I too harbored a lot of anger and negative feelings I didn’t want him to see. Even when I had problems with my parents, I never let it affect their relationships with the grandchildren.

I talked of Dad’s past. Of how he had been shaped, not knowing much yet as I wouldn’t find that box in the attic for another month. Of why he might act as he had, and that he too struggled with his own insecurities, just like we did. But the more I responded to Jake’s questions, the more I had questions myself. The more I wondered when was I talking about my father, or when was I looking inward at myself. Jake was motivating me toward what I needed to do next.

It was time to go back down to Florida, to see what more I could find out about his past—if for no other reason than to be a better uncle for Jake. After all, while I cared about my relationship with my father, he was dead. Jake was alive.

It was time to go forward from this retreat to help the living. I wanted to stir up what still lived inside me. I thirsted to know more about myself as I learned more about my father. I hungered to heal my heart. After all, don’t hurt people, hurt people?

The family is the country of the heart. -Giuseppe Mazzini  Tweet This Quote

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Mark Albion

Author Mark Albion

Mark Albion left his business school professorship to answer his life question: "How can I be a Marxist and still own my own Jacuzzi?" He is now a serial entrepreneur, faculty founder of Net Impact, and author of a series of books exploring meaningful careers, impact entrepreneurship, and success.

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