“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is an aphorism often quoted to praise the accomplishments of a child whose exemplary behavior or achievements mirror the accomplishments of the parent. In Rachel Dretzin’s documentary, Far From the Tree, inspired by Andrew Solomon’s best-selling book, she profiles several families in which the children do not at all mirror the situation of their parents.
The first subject is a man who disappointed his parents when he came out as gay. His mother’s initial response: “Now I will never have any grandchildren.”
The second subject is Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome. Here the mother clearly loves him, but she recognizes the reality that intellectually he will always have severe limitations. Jason is obsessed with the character of Elsa in the movie Frozen. He even wants to travel to Norway in spite of his knowledge that Elsa does not really exist.
The third case involves an autistic teenager, who can only speak with the aid of a computer. The mother wonders whether she did anything during her pregnancy that brought about this disability.
Fourth is the story of Loini, who is a dwarf. She laments the fact that she cannot drive a car because her family cannot afford to buy a specially equipped car that would enable her to drive. Her life takes on excitement when she attends a Little People of America convention where she meets other people her size and comes out of her emotional shell.
Fifth is the case of 16-year old Trevor, who, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly slit the throat of an 8-year old boy and was given a life sentence in prison. Here we see normal parents raising their son in a conventional, loving way yet the son commits a horrific crime. The psychotherapist tells them their son is “broken,” and the parents can do nothing about it.
In each narrative, parents are compelled to deal with the reality that the expectations they had for their children will never be fulfilled. The question then becomes how should a parent relate to that child. The film suggests that in the face of situations that cannot be easily remedied, parents need to be accepting, tolerant, and loving.
That response to a painful reality is echoed in Judaic sources. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) speaks of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and notes that, in the midst of this catastrophe, God does not totally abandon the Jewish people. Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, a Jewish educator, writes: “God loves His children even in the midst of unbearable destruction. It is this knowledge that God will never forsake us that gives us the strength to endure all the trials and tribulations of life. God has unconditional love for his children.”
The model for how a parent should treat a child that does not meet his expectations is God Himself. Rabbi Safran observes: “God has shows us the way to respond to a child that does not fulfill our hopes and dreams. It is love and acceptance.” Even when a child falls very far from the parental tree, you must still love him, just as God loves us, no matter what our state of being.
In Far From the Tree, there are children who ideologically are distant from their parents, there are children who physically are very different from their parents, and there are children who are intellectually different from their parents. But in all these cases, there still exists the enduring bond of a parent to a child, which transcends the moment, which overcomes the present crisis and enables parents to continue to love and cherish their children in spite of any unpleasant and challenging reality. Parental love may not solve the problem, but it enables the relationship to continue and, from the aspect of eternity, good things may still come.