It’s in the Genes?

Yesterday (18 November 2010), I recieved a letter that informed me that my grandmother had died.  This came as no surprise, as she was eighty-six years old and had been in bad health for some time.  The person writing said that she knew that we had been close and so felt sorry for me.

The problem is that my correspondant was misinformed.  My grandmother and I had not been close.  Far from it.  My biological family is the stereotype of the perfect family for a creative person.  In other words, they made a world of criticism and pain for everyone involved.  My grandmother made it clear to me how much of a disappointment I was to her, especially in comparison with her other grandson.

Several years ago, I made the decision to have nothing more to do with my biological family.  I did this because I was tired of living under the expectation that I would be someone who I am not.  This raises the question of how we ought to define family and what obligations we have to our relations.

I can’t speak to other regions of the country, but here in the South, there is strong cultural pressure to hold a special regard for those who share enough genes with us.  (No redneck jokes, please!)  Biologically, this does make a kind of sense.  Bertrand Russell once said that he would sacrifice himself to save a specific number of relatives, since taken together, they had every gene that he had.  There is a biological imperative to preserve our genes into the next generation.  This is the drive that creates the desire to reproduce, but it also means that we feel the need to take care of our own.  Mosquitoes have a different approach–namely, large numbers of offspring to allow a few to survive–but such approaches create no need for tool use and communication.

But with well over six billion of us on the planet, human beings are at no risk of going extinct due to dangerously low numbers.  (Wikipedia lists us as a “least concern” species!)  The genetic obligation for each person to reproduce is low.  Someone else will pass on the genes that I have.  What other obligations are there to those who are related to us?

There is an appropriate feeling of gratitude for the life and support that our parents give us.  How far does that go?  My father wanted me to be a nursing home administrator, and my whole family wanted me to believe in and participate in the cult of Seventh-day Adventism.

Am I obliged to force myself into the mold that my family created for me?  What about my obligation to be myself?  Throughout human history, the balance has been toward the former.  In Chinese culture, for example, the duty of the individual is to one’s ancestors.  The American experiment, on the other hand, has been a study in what individualism can produce.  We do not have to do the same job as our parents; we don’t have to live in their communities, nor must we worship their gods.  Some social critics worry about the decline of the family, but that “decline” has given us greater freedom.  At the same time, if I take care of you, you have some obligation to return the favor.  With our aging population, many adults are having to give their parents the same kind of care that they received when they were children.

With all of this in mind, here’s my proposal for the modern family:  Parents are obliged to create an environment and to provide supports that allow children to succeed.  Children must use this to make something meaningful of themselves.

That’s it.  The emotional connections that we typically associate with family are not obligatory.  Those will arise out of the personalities of the individuals involved.  Some persons simply cannot get along with each other, and I see nothing wrong with two persons who are biologically related deciding that they prefer not to spend time together.  It is the duty of members of a family not to be unnecessarily unpleasant to each other, especially during the time that children have to live with their parents.

Have I reached an answer?  Probably not, since I am trying to put into rational terms something that is tangled in emotions and drives.  I’ll be interested to see what responses my readers have.  Please forgive my wanderings in personal affairs.  These articles typically are written for general application, and talking about my own experiences is meant only as a starting point.  I’m not looking for pity or sympathy, since sympathy (same feeling) can only come from those who have had poor relationships with their families and isn’t really the point here.  I do want to see a discussion of the nature of family and our duties to it.  I haven’t written anything in this article about our families of choice–marriages, friendships, and the like–and that is likely a topic for another article.

The subject is now open for discussion.


6 thoughts on “It’s in the Genes?

  1. nrhatch

    This is my favorite post that I have read from you yet.

    We are socially conditioned to care for and take care of our families with admonitions like, Blood is Thicker than Water. We are brainwashed into believing that family should, of moral necessity, be the #1 priority for our limited time on the planet.

    Why? Because if families take care of family members . . . it relieves society of the need to look out for the seniors in our midst.

    When parents bring children into the world, they have a moral responsibility to care for those children until they are of an age they can care for themselves. And that’s all.

    Of course, the social conditioning we receive says otherwise. That conditioning is not problematic when we actually enjoy being around members of our biological families. We spend time together, not because it is the “right thing to do,” but because it feels good. It makes us happy.

    That conditioning is problematic when we allow society to substitute its collective judgment for our own.

    When someone, anyone, does NOT make us happy . . .
    When someone, anyone, makes us miserable . . . .
    When someone, anyone, suggests that we must sacrifice our happiness and abide by their rules . . .

    It is our right to turn our backs on them and live our OWN lives, finding people who accept us for who we are and encourage us to be who we want to be.

    That letter you received authored by someone who “said that she knew that [you] had been close and so felt sorry for [you]” is replete with evidence of social conditioning.

    She didn’t know you or your relationship with your grandmother. She assumed that you had been close solely because of your related genes. And her sadness for you probably has less to do with “your loss” (which is no loss at all) and more to do with the feelings of loss that she has felt with the departure of loved ones.

    Hear that . . .

    clap . . . Clap . . . CLap . . . CLAp . . . CLAP . . . {{wild applause}}

    That’s me applauding the HERO in you that knows you are not here to be, do or say what THEY want you to do. You are here to follow your heart, wherever it leads . . . even if that means leaving family members behind.

  2. Pingback: Are You The HERO Of YOUR Life? « Spirit Lights The Way

  3. Barbara Gunn

    Hi Greg! I followed Nancy’s suggestion and tuned in to your blog.

    A lot of what you wrote hit home for me. My “children” are 49-43-31. It makes an interesting assortment of ideas and experiences. It was not until my only daughter (31) decided not to speak to me the day before her birthday that I finally realized I really do not need them anymore. I am finally free to live my own life and I am finding that I like it that way!

    Thanks for your honest post!

  4. Patty

    Thought provoking article. My family taught me that looking after kin is extremely important and there are several members of my family for whom I’d take a bullet. There are even more that I would throw in front of the speeding projectile, but instead I just ignore them.

    It took me a long time to realize that sharing DNA doesn’t equate to sharing the same values. I’m much closer to many of my friends that I’ve ever been with my siblings and one of my closest friends is my cousin.

    When my dad’s health declined, I returned to the South to assist my parents with their farm. I didn’t have to come back, and it wasn’t family obligation that brought me home, but a deep and honest respect for my parents. A respect that they earned by being generous, kind, supportive, accepting and loving. No matter what I wanted to do in life, they stood beside me encouraging me and often times cleaning up the mess I made with my life.

    I am lucky.

    More often than not, people spend their lives trying to please their parents or live up to expectations of family members. Some people never learn to live their own lives. They fret over acceptance by their family, which, in my opinion, if you don’t have it by the time you’re six, it ain’t going to happen.

    In a world of over 6 billion people, I think there’s room for individualism. The need to preserve a family’s DNA is ridiculous and carrying on the family name is easy enough. All that takes is $20 and a form from the county office and you can become Princess Consuela Banana Hammock.

    I’ve redefined my family. I don’t have biological sisters, but several of my friends are. I consider a former co-worker my grandmother and several of my friends’ children are my nieces and nephews. These folks are family because we share the same core values.

    heck with those folks in my family that are total toads. I’ve disinherited them.

  5. Ray Ingram

    Regardless of your feeling or lack of it for you Grandmother, Greg, I do offer condolences if just for form. You are correct in your comments. For many, but not all. I am pretty dedicated to my family and am loyal to their bloodlines and strength. Mine are not perfect , but I was Southern raised that family was , if not everything, certainly a lot. Part of this comes frpom my age which is far in excess of yours and I was raised in the “;old traditons” that was usually indicated by some relative advising us to remember who we are..
    I have known a number of your age group and some older , who have you same feeling, and often it comes from the parents trying to work their will on their offspring. It is a sad action that usually backfires. I tried to avoid it with my kids, and that backfired just as much as if I had tried to dictate…Oh, well…


  6. playerpianosara

    This is something I’ve thought a lot about. I have a hard time understanding the way people, and people in my own extended family, will forgive each other even for what I would consider unforgivable things – merely for the sake of being in the same gene pool.

    Some members of my family are religious (of the evangelical Christian variety) and also believe that your family is always there for you, no matter what. I disagree. If any of them acted toward me the way they act to each other, I would have no problem never seeing them again.

    Because there are so many people in the world there is no reason to surround yourself with people who make you unhappy or outright harm you.


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