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.