Solving the “Asian Parent Problem”
“And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” — Matthew 23:9
Over the last few years God has been putting me through a graduate course in dealing with my father issues. I still haven’t graduated, but at least I know what my thesis is. 🙂
I never really wanted to be a leader. I just wanted to find a leader I could trust, who cared about the things I cared about, so I could define my mission as a sub-mission of theirs. Unfortunately, things never quite worked out that way.
This is not to denigrate the honorable men (no women, but that’s another story) I have served under in the context of work, ministry and family. I have been extraordinary privileged to have been by led and mentored by a succession of extraordinary men of deep integrity, from my own earthly father to Steve Jobs. People who were sincerely committed to the mission, practiced what they preached, and never abused their authority.
For all their strengths, those leaders all their blind spots. Areas where their behavior didn’t align with the values they genuinely believed in and communicated. Attitudes they were oblivious to that clearly hurt both individuals and the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.
Which is what I am here calling the Asian Parent Problem, when as a child/follower you don’t feel you are enabled to flourish – yet you do not want to rebel.
At first I thought the problem was mere ignorance, which I thought I could resolve by helpfully pointing out their oversights. As you can guess, that rarely went over well. What was more surprising was that didn’t deny, refute, or attack my complaint. It was more like they couldn’t even hear it.
Next I thought it was simply my technique. Maybe if I the messenger was smoother and less confrontational, the message would be easier to accept. But when I tried to be gentle, the conversation kept slipping away, and somehow I could never help them see what I was seeing (without going back on attack).
After that I tried silence. Maybe they were right, and these issues weren’t that important. Or I was right, and I just had to wait them out. Maybe if I left them alone, they would leave me alone, and I could live out my values in my own private bubble.
This led to what we could call the Asian Child Solution:
- Show elders full respect and compliance in public
- Live my private life in alignment with my values, even if that means doing things that would horrify them
- Ignore everything that does not neatly fit into exactly one of those spheres
And it worked. Sort of. Up to a point; after which it failed catastrophically.
Even before that, there were obvious downsides:
- Lots of time and energy went into maintaining the façade
- I became what I now recognize as passive-aggressive, due to buried resentment
- Deception (especially self-deception) became a skill I would unconsciously use in other contexts
- It freezes the relationship (and often our emotions) at a point in time, allowing neither growth nor intimacy
Perhaps the greatest danger, though, was the underlying premise of self-righteousness.
While I initially justified my lack of accountability by the fact they “just didn’t understand,” it also made it easy to indulge in things even I knew were wrong. More than that, I ending up setting myself up as a sort of reverse-authoritarian parent, deciding what was right and wrong for them to know — without their awareness or consent.
So what’s the alternative? I can’t claim to have all the answers, as I am still very much in the midst of that journey myself. However, I’ve been through enough complete cycles to identify a few practices that can make a dramatic difference.
1. Lean in to God’s Sovereingty.
I know it is a cliche, but it is still foundational. For example:
- Can we honor the unjust rulers He has placed over us, and pray for them?
- Are we confident God will reform or remove them at the proper time of His choosing; and that until then, He calls us to submit?
- Do we believe our ultimate flourishing and joy is more dependent on our own holiness than on those who control our circumstances?
- Are we willing to let go of any desire God doesn’t provide a legitimate way to fulfill right now?
- Ultimately, can we rejoice in the trial and praise God rather than giving way to frustration, resentment, and bitterness?
I don’t pretend this is easy, or that I always answer (or even ask) those questions honestly. But I have noticed the better I get at this, the easier everything else becomes.
2. Ask God to judge you
(and I bet you thought my first point was harsh. 🙂
But I am dead serious. When you are in a context where your leaders seemingly refuse to accept what is true and right, the one outside authority we can always appeal to is God. He is more than happy to judge between us. But He won’t judge my opponents until after He judges me.
Which always gives me pause. Am I really that sure I am in the right that I am willing to put it to the ultimate test?
Frankly, I’m never am. But when I’ve refused to take the easy way out, I become so desperate for God to do something — anything! — that I am willing to invite His judgement, just to get it over with.
I am still recovering from the last time I asked God to do this, almost two years ago. And you couldn’t pay me to go through it again! But neither could you pay me to undo that request.
God did an amazing deep cleaning in my heart and soul, which (though excruciating) was itself worth the price of admission. But beyond that, God worked in my career, church, and family to surface and address issues beyond my wildest imaginings.
And though I am ashamed to admit it (and may need to repent of in the future) it really was delightful to see the way God ultimately perfectly disciplined those whom I felt had wronged me. 🙂
3. Cultivate empathy for your leaders
This is still an ongoing struggle for me. But I learned the importance of this from a coworker who was deeply frustrated with my inability to give her a “roadmap.” She kept asking for it using the same phrases for months, but nothing I did seemed to satisfy her.
Then finally one day, in a heated conversation with a third party, she finally provided a critical detail about what she wanted. I asked a couple clarifying questions, banged it out over a weekend, and she was thrilled!
It made me curious about why she had such a hard time articulating her need in a way I could understand. I finally realized that she had been desperate for this roadmap even before I was hired. I suspect she was used to functioning with one, and felt insecure because the existing leadership wasn’t giving her what she needed.
She had high hopes I was going to fix the problem, which were dashed when I didn’t seem to understand — and in her eyes, care. She became so focused on what she needed from me, she viewed me entirely in terms of my ability — or lack thereof — to address it. And thus was never able to gain the emotional distance necessary to look at things from my point of view, and give me what I needed from from her.
That made the whole experience a huge blessing, as it helped me realize I did the exact same thing to my own bosses, pastors and parents. When they gave me what I needed to succeed at the mission they gave, we got along great. But if I was not getting what I needed — and they rebuffed my attempts to remedy the situation — I would go into crisis mode. I’d start obsessing over what I needed from them, and totally lose sight of what they needed from me.
Or how my own insecurity, rather than just their flawed behavior, was also responsible for how badly I was feeling.
The best way out I’ve found is striving to remember that God is my boss, and this context is just my assignment from Him. If I can succeed, great. If not, I need to turn it over to Him (see point 1). And if it feels intolerable, I need to admit that the primary problem is my lack of faith, and ask Him to cleanse me (see point 2).
Only then can I step back and consider the pressures my leaders are facing, what journey God may be taking them on (even if they don’t know Him), and how I can act to further God’s purposes in the situation (even if I fail at my purpose or theirs).
I don’t know if this is a complete solution, but I do know I am experiencing much greater peace and joy amidst organizational dysfunction than I have in the past. I covet your prayers and welcome your insights as I continue growing in my ability to handle vertical conflict with gentleness and grace.