Here’s an idea I had today while thinking of what happened last night.

If you’ve been a motor vehicle operator for a little while, you may know that the most important thing you can do for your car is to change the oil regularly. Every 3000 miles or so, depending on manufacturer’s recommendations, your level of sales resistance, and your paying attention to the little sticker in the windshield. If you’ve never run a car out of oil, you may not know: Why is this important?

All machines, engines especially, depend on lubrication to function. There are lots of moving parts – all necessary to the mission. There are pistons, which carry the energy of violent and precisely timed explosions to the crankshaft; there are valves and rockers and lifter arms that control the flow of air, fuel, and exhaust. There is the crankshaft itself which transfers energy to the transmission and ultimately to the wheels. All of these need oil – clean oil – to keep working properly.

If you haven’t, you should change the oil in your car yourself at least once. It’s pretty straightforward and inexpensive. There are many tutorials available, so I won’t go into the mechanics for your car. The principle is universal: Drain and discard the old oil and old filter, and replace with new oil and filter. With a little practice, it really only takes 10-20 minutes – but it saves the life of your car.

Oil is so important to machines that in the early years of the industrial age, every machine had an oiler. Locomotives, car factories, power plants, sawmills – one or many people were employed to make sure the machines got their oil. It’s far cheaper to pay someone to squirt oil into a port than to pay for a breakdown – lost production could be far more disastrous than even replacing the machine.

Why is the oil so important?

Friction. That’s the purest answer. Friction happens when materials interact: Wheels on the road, feet on carpet, wings through air. Friction is a fact of life, and it’s a good thing – without it, we couldn’t accomplish much in the physical world. No walking, swimming, writing, sensation of motion or touch – in fact, it ‘s hard to imagine a frictionless life. Friction behaves somewhat predictably, depending on the speed, force, and roughness of the materials in contact. In the case of metal parts of an engine, even though the parts are machined smooth they touch all around and move very fast. This friction would cause enough heat and expansion to make everything seize in a hot second if not for the lubricating, cooling properties of oil. The oil flows between moving parts, providing a cushion of slippery softness that lets the work get done.

Oil breaks down over time and with use. It loses viscosity (becomes weak and runny), and impurities enter the system. A bit of dirt here, a shaving of metal from a rough start one cold morning. These things will scratch the moving parts, get stuck, or create leaks – any of which reduce the power and smoothness of the machine. This natural breakdown is expected; it’s why regular oil changes are recommended. From the lawn mower to the Rolls Royce, every engine needs its oil changed to keep working at its best.

Some people are content to not have things ‘at their best’ – I’ve forgotten an oil change and no apparent damage was done. Apparent is the key word though: Damage is always done by running past the oil’s useful life. Always. It may not be apparent, and it may be insignificant to the overall function – but it’s damage, and it’s cumulative.

In a family, there are many moving parts and differing roles. This is the engine. The roles change over time as people mature and grow, but they never stop moving. There is a baseline you expect of activity and power – going to work, going to school, paying bills, making dinner, enjoying dinner, having some time together, some time alone, a few nice things, taking a vacation, doing dishes and laundry, having a place to sleep and breakfast with coffee in the morning. Your to-do list really makes up your life – and it applies to everyone. I’ve heard it said and it’s turned out true for me: Look at a person’s calendar and checkbook, and you’ll know what’s important to them. All these important and mundane things are carried out in close proximity and timing with family.

Naturally, where there are moving parts in close proximity, there will be friction.

We shouldn’t expect more out of unpredictable and sometimes irrational humans than we do of predictable and stable machines, should we?

Families need oiling and regular oil changes as well.

What’s the oil in this scenario? Communication is the oil. The barest of necessities would be, ‘I need you to be here at this time’ or ‘Dinner is at 6PM’ or ‘Please take out the trash.’ Saying what is needed and wanted is NECESSARY to function. Many families I’ve witnessed have trouble with this. Any communication can be oil – ‘how was your day’ or ‘what do you think of this’ or a shared laugh – a shared sorrow – all of it works to smooth the workings of normal life.

Irritants creep in from all over, and do the same work as they do in a machine. They do damage. Sarcastic comments, rolled eyes, hurtful remarks, promises unkept, rules broken. Sometimes a family member will hoist the middle finger and say ‘Screw you!’ aloud, but often the damage is more subtle.

For me it’s table manners. For some reason, people talking with a full mouth really irritates me. Also dirty dishes: If they can’t be loaded in the dishwasher, then they should at least be rinsed and stacked so as to make half the sink usable and an easy chore for the next dishwasher loader. For others it could be money management, grades, or relationship choices,

Yes, these are first-world problems. But the offenses cause world-war problems!

It doesn’t matter who you are or what your status, there are things that bring you joy and things that irritate you. Those close to you know both, and they have the privilege of being able to push either button.

These irritants are minor and insignificant when measured alone. However, this scratch plus that dent plus that bad cylinder, and you have a problem. They add up. The little things matter.

How to deal with them? Communicate. Have a meeting of the minds. Formal or casual doesn’t matter. Get the facts and the opinions of the facts out in the open.

What if you still disagree? Valid question, one that needs to be addressed. Who is in what role? What’s the work to be done? Are you in a primary or supporting role? The mission determines the answer to this question. If you’re in the business of producing a college graduate, it may or may not be a different answer than one who’s in the business of avoiding jail time.

OK, we’ve addressed the oil. It’s all fresh and new, we’re communicating in strange new ways. What’s left?

Glad you asked, there’s a device called an oil filter that removes most of the gunk so the work can get done between oil changes.

What do we do with that, and how does it relate to the family allegory?

After a certain amount of use, the oil filter is ineffective. It’s clogged and full, unable to fulfill its role anymore. This is when you remove it, discard it, and replace it with a new one.

This is forgiveness. The filter collects and stores irritants and damaging elements. You take those and throw them away. You could count and catalog all the things that could have caused real damage, but instead you change out the filter and CHOOSE to move on without those elements – counting them as if they’d never occurred. That is forgiveness: Acknowledging a debt but choosing not to collect on it. Every so often you need to reconcile. Either collect payment on these accumulated debts or forgive them.

Since they never will be all and fully paid, some or all of these irritants must be forgiven in order to keep the machine in working order.

Forgiveness is necessary to keep your family machine in working order. It’s part of the oil change. And if you change your oil 3-4 times per year, like I do, then your family deserves at least as much attention.

This is a work intended to be published while sober. I published it anyway. Subject to correction disclaimer hereby attached.