On Family

Americans have a strange concept of family. Compared to people from other cultures (and I speak most generally here and throughout this musing, realizing that there are exceptions to every statement of this nature), we are among the loudest at proclaiming the importance of the family and its place in the foundation of our country, while at the same time being among the worst— if not the worst— at actually maintaining even the smallest family units. America is, instead, a land of fragmentation through mental and physical separation, divorce, and outright alienation. I will be accused, I am sure, of having a narrow and/or skewed view of the matter, and no end of Freudian analysis could be done to explain exactly why. My own family provides much grist for the psychoanalytical mill, even in concise, incomplete list form: biological father, adopted father, stepfather, mother, stepmother, sister of confused sexuality, other sisters and a brother who live not ten miles from me but whom I haven't seen in eight or nine years, family in prison, family formerly in jail and prison, family suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction and compulsive overeating, family practically, and in fact, homeless...

My own approach to family has been one of studied alienation. The old Confucian curse asks that you be blessed with all that you wish for, and I often feel I have been similarly "blessed" with all the family one could hope for. Don't get me wrong, I love nearly all of them to the varying degree that familial love manifests itself. I just don't want to be involved with some of them because I don't think I could retain my sanity while doing so. The rest, who I do wish I could spend more time with, are either too far away or victims of my rather insane schedule.

The fact is, when I view my family as a whole I see a large group of intelligent and good-hearted people who, for various reasons that are usually quite beyond their control, are nowhere near where they want to be, and who have turned to a variety of self-destructive behaviors as compensation. If there is anything in my life that I can say I really want, it would be, for just one moment, to feel that I had even come close to living up to my potential. I have chosen writing and philosophy, and if that demands that I work constantly for all or most of my waking hours outside of my job, at the expense of relationships both familial and social— and don't think for a second that I have replaced family with a wealth of friends— then so be it. I don't feel that I am "too good" for my family, though I have weathered the accusation before. The truth is the opposite: I care too much, and it tears me up to see how unhappy most of them are. And I am determined to avoid their fate.

It says something about me that I love and feel closer to my stepfather than I ever did my adopted father, and that I have not seen my biological father since I was three or four years old, despite the fact that I have his address and phone number and he lives in the same small town as I do! It says something else that the two members of my family who are the most "together"— i.e., the most thoughtful, the strongest and, some would say strangely, the most self-actualized— are serving a long prison sentence for murder and a victim of severe multiple sclerosis, respectively (believe me when I say that I can feel Ruthie's blue pencil already striking out the word "victim," because only her physical body is anything of the type, otherwise she is the strongest person I know!). It says something else again that my closest sibling, my oldest sister, the one whom I felt closest to until I left home, has not written or called me in years (though to be fair, I haven't contacted her either, feeling that she did not want to hear anything I had to say). It says something completely different, and contrary, that I feel the intensity of my care and passion are a large part of what keeps me away from my family and the few friends who have stuck with me this far, and that despite all of this, being a good father, being close to my own children, and being a good friend are still the most important things to me (the strange symbiosis of self and others dictates that by being those things all else is possible, and all the other things I want are necessary if I am to be them)...

All of these things are insistently telling me a story whose outlines I am just beginning to apprehend in a language I am just learning how to speak, a language for which the only Rosetta stone is myself and my understanding of just what a family is.


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