Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Family (Thoughts at Christmas)

In the end, the most important things in life are always personal, intimate, immediate. Though rulers may make fateful decisions involving the fates of millions, though corporation chiefs and bank bosses may play with the hard-earned pennies of us all, gambling the loss of our futures against their short-term selfish gains, the results of all this remain generally matters for news headlines – until we concretely, in our own lives, experience their consequences. While it may be wonderfully noble and represent an elevated level of moral development to engage ourselves for general principles and the rights and causes of those far away from us, usually our energy, attention and motivation are most readily and frequently activated by issues and events which impinge on us personally.

It has become an almost unquestioned mantra that modern developments in society have accelerated the breaking down of long-established, traditional forms of living; that one of the prices our swarming, highly technological, complex contemporary society demands of us is our abandonment of “natural” structures in favour of constantly changing “artificial” modes of existence. Traditional ways of living, based on the family and small communities, it is argued, are being undermined at all sorts of levels; from globalisation, urbanisation, reliance on technology, the internet and – of course (at least according to the conservative, frequently religious, right) – a concerted attack by the ideology of godless, secular, liberal thinking on the holiest of all holies; “family values.”

While (as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know) I would certainly regard myself as someone who is very critical of many of the trends – including the fundamental ones – which determine the shape of our contemporary societies and the direction they are taking, and while I see numerous sources of (to use an old sixties buzz-word) deep alienation in the way many of us choose or are forced to live our lives, I still wonder, at a more fundamental level, whether the basic structures in which we live are not much more resilient than many of the critics of modern life would have us believe.

Historical anthropology tells us that, for the greatest part of its history, humanity lived at the hunter-gatherer level, in so-called band societies, small kin groups of no more than thirty to fifty individuals. Only with the discovery of the first agricultural techniques (the Neolithic Revolution) around 10,000 years ago, was it possible for humans to gather into larger groups (frequently, though not always, settled). With these larger groups, other, larger, societal organisations appeared; villages, tribes, towns and nations. But all of these other groups were based on the original unit, the closely related kinship band – in its simplest form, the (extended) family group.

Today we tend to see the family in its very stripped-down, minimal nuclear form; father, mother and children, living together as a discrete unit. But, although this form has been common since the first larger groups of humans settled in one place, for most of human history the larger extended family was more the norm. In the end, I believe, it doesn’t really matter; the shapes families (groups of humans with close genetic relationships between their members) take are fluid and adaptable. Their basic coeval purpose is to deal with a problem evolution presented to big-brained, intelligent, versatile humans – their children take longer to learn, mature and become independent than any other animal, so an environment has to exist within which this can successfully take place. While in extreme circumstances this task can be managed by one adult, it is much easier and more successful when the job of rearing is shared by a coherent group.

Families, then, are fundamentally there for children – and this is what makes them so important for all of us, no matter how much society has changed or is changing. Family – in whatever form – is the place where we have all spent our most formative years, where we learned language, mobility, basic social competences, how to relate to others and our very identity.

Families evolve and change over the course of their existence. Originating from other families in a kind of organic development, they grow and take shape, becoming bigger, then smaller, their centres of gravity changing as new generations grow into adulthood and form budding new units, which become families in their own right, in new identities with other families and groups. They are wonderfully flexible things, continuingly changing, adapting, morphing – dynamic connections of people; constantly being shaped and amended by their own members according to the complex relationships of those within them and their reactions to all sorts of events and influences, both from within and without.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy’s famous opening sentence from Anna Karenina expresses a truth, but it is too simple. For nearly every normal family is both a place of happiness and unhappiness simultaneously – how could it be otherwise, since they are the setting in which most of us live most of our lives? Certainly, as the fundamental units of our existence, and the places, above all, in which children grow up, seriously dysfunctional families are places of horror and nightmare – and many of those forced to spend their childhood in such environments are among the most wounded (and often violent) people in our societies. But – at a more normal level – tension, conflict and unhappiness are unavoidable parts of life and it is utopian to believe that families can be somehow magically excluded from this reality.

Consider, for example, the process of growing up and maturing. From our teenage years into early adulthood, a large part of our development has to do with our personal growth into independence, with testing and defining ourselves in contrast to others close to us, above all, those who were largely unquestioned role models and authorities during our childhood. This very necessary part of becoming an adult is inevitably accompanied by conflict and stress and, even if you have never had teenage children, all you need to do to realise the truth of this is to remember your own teenage years. In fact, one of the major function of families for those approaching adulthood is to betimes become tight, constraining, frustrating; in this way young people can develop their own personalities and obtain extra motivation to leave the familiar safeness of the family structure, explore their independence and, ultimately (most of them), enter into new relationships and unions which will form the kernels of new families. And the beauty of all this is that families are not exclusive; you can form a new one, enter into a familial relationship with the family of a partner without ever having to really leave your own original one.

I had reason to think about all this recently, when my original family came together from three different countries to be together during my brother’s last illness, to be there for him and for each other, before, during and after his death. Though we children are all middle-aged now and have new families and networks of loving relationships of our own, it was a time for us to come together, to find comfort and strength in each other, to throw ourselves onto the firm support of our shared relationships, experiences, history. One other positive aspect of this difficult experience was the solidarity and companionship we experienced from other, related families – cousins and their families in turn, all stemming from the original families of my parents. It was a wonderful realisation for me – that, when push comes to shove, family is there and it works, on that most important, personal, immediate, intimate level of living I referred to at the beginning of this essay.

And, with Christmas almost here, I find myself thinking about the unit at the core of that story; a father (even if the fatherhood is somewhat unclear in the account) and mother together, the mother giving birth, the beginning of a new family, the beginning of a story. Families are places of shared experiences, giving rise to shared stories, narratives which are an essential part of our identity. In the recent coming together of my family, our finding ourselves all together (even with the aching wound caused by the occasion for it all, the death of my brother) for the first extended period in years, we spent a lot of time remembering and retelling the stories of all those years we spent together. Many of the stories we told had to do with my brother, and in the telling we discovered some relief from the grief we were all suffering – even finding ourselves laughing at some of the memories, the common narratives of our own family history. At the same time, this sharing of memories and stories was a reaffirmation of our own identity, both individually and collectively; comfort gained from grounding ourselves once more in that original, secure, familiar familial reality.

I do not see family values as being under threat; they are too strong, deep and fundamental for that and such slogans and fears are no more than chimeras of the religious, so-called Christian right. There is no prescribed form for families, they can be nuclear, extended, single-parent, gay, patchwork, any form really, as long as they can be places of security for people and generations to be together to cherish, accept, annoy and love each other – to live together and out of that living create their own stories and traditions. Like Christmas – that time of families coming together in the midst of winter – so often called the family feast.

So, gentle reader, enjoy this Christmas – and celebrate your family, whatever form it may take.

 Some traditional Christmas music, in a somewhat different form

Pictures retrieved from


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