|By A.D. Freudenheim||
19 January 2003
It should go without saying that the word "family" means different things to different people, even if the core definition remains constant - because what changes is a matter of belief, rather than of fact or definition. For some, the word implies a level of emotional connection between and among individuals that extends beyond the bonds of any genetic or marital relationships. Many parents assume that their children will look at life the same way, vote the same way, or follow the same occupational paths. It can connote a deep level of friendship to say that someone is "like family", and it can also invoke in people a sense that within and among family members the traditional boundaries of interpersonal relationships do not exist (or do not matter). Historically, the conveyance of a family's "shared goals and values" has been critically important as a means of transmitting wealth or power from one generation to the next. And still others believe that families remain the building blocks of tribes, even as many of us live in societies where tribes exist only in the most metaphorical sense. (American Jews, for instance, may refer to someone as an "M-O-T" - a "Member of the Tribe" - even as they might acknowledge, in another context, that they have nothing in common with that person socially, politically, or even religiously.)
Of course, the history of the world is also littered with examples of the breakdown of families on a large scale. From the Greek tragedies of Sophocles to the dramas of Shakespeare, from the bizarre twists in the modern English monarchical family to the twisted devotion of Saddam Hussein's sons: there are probably as many instances where the belief in the importance of family has (or will) lead to people making the wrong decisions as the right ones, and where shared values might prove to be elusive at best and deadly at worst. In contemporary America, the rhetoric of family is deployed and abused by people across the political spectrum, and each spokesperson for "family values" thinks that their definition is the correct one - forgetting all too often that it may be the right definition only for themselves. (So goes politics.)
Although I consider myself to have a strong sense of family, it is a very personal and emotional definition, and an understanding that I acknowledge as such. For example, as the son and grandson of refugees from Hitler's Germany, I cherish the knowledge of my family's continued life, knowing that the alternative was all too real, and that my own existence is predicated not just on the usual fate of genetic reproduction but on choices my grandparents made that kept them alive while others died. But while there are some relatives whom I might describe as friends, there are others with whom I have little connection, because the only bond we share is one of DNA; and while this may be enough substance for them, without some better emotional or intellectual relationship I have concluded that it is not enough for me.
I also place great importance and esteem on the values my parents tried to teach me, such as to think critically but with an open mind, to respect others without losing respect for myself, and to view life as a treasure and attempt to enjoy it no matter what the circumstances. However, my acceptance of and belief in these values ultimately only sunk in when I had the freedom to adopt them on my own - and when I became comfortable with discarding others in the process. Likewise my commitment to Judaism only truly came when I was able to evaluate religion on my own terms, instead of on someone else's, and decide that Judaism had something valuable to offer for my life.
What torments me is sifting through the debris of other people's assumptions and trying to find a new path underneath it all; just trying to talk about the idea of family with others (family members or not) can get tricky and turn into a conversational quagmire deeper than most other issues. I try not to lose sight of the fact that others may see family in different terms than I do, even as others might be less willing to acknowledge or accept these differences themselves. I know that sometimes the very idea of a family unit must evolve more from compromise than any single belief, but this is not a very commonly-held view, to put it mildly, particularly since the term compromise carries with it a level of acceptance that not everyone can reach.
In writing this piece, I know that any reader might walk away thinking I have over-intellectualized the subject; isn't family, after all, something emotional and, therefore, exceedingly intangible? Well, yes. But at the same time, the history of human civilization is one of bringing our intellectual abilities to bear on our intangible and emotional problems. In this case, I think there are at least as many solutions to the problem of family as there are family members in the world - and the sheer volume of answers can either make it very difficult or very easy to find the solution that is right for any given person.
The world is a lonely place, and there is no question that family can make it less so. However, this relief from loneliness only works if we want it to - and probably works best when we are able to establish an independent identity and our familial relationships by choice, rather than by being emotional hostages.
Heritage® Dictionary of the English
Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.