There is this running theme in my life of which, until recently, I’ve been only peripherally aware. It can be labeled, simply, family. Like the pattern on a grandmother’s tablecloth,it has colored much of my experience and worldview, though I’ve never closely observed it. Think for a minute about family, and this may come to mind:
“Family and friends.”
“Big on family.”
“Family man (or woman).”
“In the family way.”
What do all these phrases conjure?
Perhaps it is my own growing family, or perhaps the dynamics of an ever-growing extended family, but this past year or two have prompted in me a reexamination, or perhaps a new discovery, of the word, “family.” I happen to be one of those people whose family plays a large role in her life and whose holidays consist of large, chaotic gatherings that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
But not everyone is like this: while some people love their families, others dread having to spend holidays with theirs, or at least merely tolerate it. Still others never grew up living with, and sharing genes with, the same people year after year, and don’t consider themselves to have a family. But for those of us lucky enough (lucky in my opinion, anyway) to have had that experience, there is something undeniably strong about the bond that unites us. Is it because the members of our family have seen us in every state and mood?
Is it because we’ve shared the mundane, from sharing toothpaste to figuring out who does the dishes?
Is it because, no matter what is going on in our life, and no matter what belief we hold, what life we may have committed to, or what phase we may find ourselves passing through, we always have to interact with these people, either daily or at holidays?
It is, perhaps, all of the above. The doubly strong combination of longevity and proximity make family relationships among the deepest many of us experience in life.
And yet, we have no relationships in our lives over which we exert as little choice as we do over who is a member of our family. After all, who would willingly admit a blood relation to that wacky uncle, or that sibling or cousin or grandparent with the really extreme ideas?
Because our family keeps us close to people we might otherwise never have connected with, we hear and see their perspectives on life and its circumstances. Those perspectives may be different from the ones that most of our friends–the people we choose to associate with–hold. That bankruptcy, terminal illness, divorce, job loss, failure, or crisis of faith…you understand them differently when you hear about them from someone inside the situation. Being a part of a family is like having front row tickets to the world’s most dramatic stories: jealousy, love, devastation, triumph, and joy. And, just like from the fictional plays where these dynamics are played out, we obtain wisdom from these new dimensions. Family relationships are rich in part because they give us understanding.
There is another aspect to the foreordained nature of family relationships. With some members of our family, we may be close enough to know about their circumstances but not influence them. With others, we may be close enough to know and to be asked for advice–or to give it anyway. There is a correlation between how close we are to someone and how much we want their decisions to match what we would choose, were we in their shoes. And this is where the heart of the experience lies. We care very much about this person, and we want her to make the “right” decisions in life. Obviously, the advice we give is brilliant and sage and should be followed immediately. Oh, the shock and frustration when it is not heeded! What happens when the ones we love choose to take a different path, one that moves them away from us, either literally or figuratively? I’m not there yet, but I’m sure parents reach this stage, and rather reluctantly. There is a delicate balance between loving a family member and giving him enough space to make his own decisions. Mature is the person who can allow a loved one the space she needs but still work to keep their relationship open, loving, and even close.
Working towards this kind of harmony is a challenge. Understanding a perspective that may not be comfortable to understand is a challenge. And though I cannot claim to have mastered these challenges, I have learned enough in my adult life to know that in the striving, there is a richness and a life that I would not trade for anything.