This time of year – even moreso than Thanksgiving – has people talking about and thinking about “family”. In my experience (both personally and talking to others), family isn’t just a Rockwell-esque source of comfort and joy. Instead, families of origin are a primary cause of most of the social ills that affect both individuals and our society.
It started to become really apparent when I talked about S’s mental illness to my co-workers and friends. Suddenly, they were admitting when siblings, cousins, or even thier own children had done horrible things… or the horrible things their parents had done to them. Yet, without my saying something first, they’d kept these things secret and safe for years. There are a lot more screwed up families out there than you’d think by casual observation; I’d dare say that dysfunctional is the norm in our society.
But you can’t just eliminate families and raise people on farms. Families are not just damaging, they’re also tremendously important – that’s how you get socialized originally, they provide the interactions that bring about consciousness, and so on.
Part of the problem is that – both societally and as individuals – we rarely deal with those relationships for what they are. It’s the same problem with philosophical zombies and religion; the relationships become institutions and rituals instead of dynamic changing processes. The concept of “blood is thicker than water” is a perfect example. That guidance would lead you to support a crack-addicted sister (and lead both of you to eventual ruin) instead of aiding your best friend. If infants were switched at birth, and the parents didn’t find out until years later, why does it matter? How many people (or at least, movie plotlines) involve a child wanting to win their parent’s attention or affection? How many adoptive mothers are more of a mom than the biological mother? (Jim Hines wrote Gift of the Kites, a good (blub warning) bit of fiction over on Clarkesworld that I happened to read right after writing the draft of this, and addresses the whole thing really well)
There’s a societal desire there to have an archetypical relationship or to have archetypes as relatives instead of real people. And when our expectations don’t meet reality, we’re disappointed.
But none of us are archetypes. None of our relationships are perfect.
But we can start making them better by assessing them objectively, and re-evaluating them constantly. We can ditch the ideological definitions of family and start dealing with reality on the ground. Maybe there are people in your “family” you aren’t related to – and maybe there are people in your biological “family” that haven’t treated you like kin in decades.
Maybe we just need to fly some kites.