Friday, June 10, 2011

Family Ties

I had a long conversation with someone last night regarding the role of family in one's life. This is something I feel rather strongly about considering my own family background and my experiences reading up on child psychology as well as my personal experiences with my friends' families.

My grandmother on my dad's side had six children, most of whom chose to stay in Michigan after graduating from college. This was the conservative Protestant side of the family, so all of my five uncles and aunts followed the traditional "get married, have 2-3 kids and have big family gatherings on Christmas and Easter" pattern. My brother and I became very close to our cousins on that side and quickly realized the advantages to having a large supportive family. My mom's side was very different. She was the youngest of three kids, her parents were divorced as was her brother. As a result, we rarely saw the whole family together and I often heard about all the problems they had. My brother and I also learned what can happen when our family members screw us over.

Being a rather maternal person by nature, I still hold the importance of family up as one of my most treasured values. Still, I have seen so many people get screwed over because of family drama. I mean, everyone has family drama to some degree. Whenever you have a large group of people together who don't necessarily agree on everything, there are bound to be some conflicts. However, I keep noticing patterns of behavior that almost inevitably lead to trouble, yet somehow people never notice them. Perhaps I can provide a short list:

Lack of Acceptance

I have an uncle who literally will not talk to me because, of all things, I like to study Russia. He's definitely one of those guys who thinks that the Cold War is still going on. I can understand people being products of their time, but what I don't understand is the need to alienate people because you disagree with them. I see this with children as well. Parents will throw children out of their houses for something a frivolous as questioning their religious beliefs. Our family members, children included, do not belong to us. They are individuals in their own right. Sometimes, the people we love and live with are going to have ideas pr practices different from our own. Cutting ourselves off from them is detrimental to both people. The person we cut off is left without a relationship that may help them later on and we left arrogant, ignorant and set in our ways. Family is something that can be our safety net when things go wrong and can share in our joy when things go right. Tearing a family apart over petty disagreements is senseless.

People Don't Understand the Concept of Love

One of my criticisms of Christianity as it's practiced today, especially among fundamentalists, is the fact that it has twisted the perfectly noble and essential notion of love into something destructive. There is this idea that God loves us all... and yet He requires worship. It is said that God love His creation unconditionally... yet He allows the torturous domain of hell to exist to punish the unfaithful. In reality, unconditional love demands neither worship, nor retribution. Unconditional love involves putting the needs of another person above ones own. It's the kind of relationship we expect to have with our mothers. This kind of love is beneficial because it often becomes a source of support and comfort when all else fails. Unconditional love also involves accepting a person despite their quirks and flaws. Yet so many people turn their relationships into power struggles. We quibble with our spouses for not doing X and Y according to our expectations. We insist on using corporal punishment on our kids, assuming that, if we don't instill them with fear early on, they'll rise up and rebel against us in the end. When we have these attitudes, we are not in loving relationships, we're mentally and emotionally masturbating. If we focus so intently on how our partners fall short of our expectations, we forget that helping each other not fall short is why you're in the relationship. We also forget the fact that WE may fall short of THIER expectations. If we insist on being at war with our children and seeing them as rivals, we are shirking our duties as parents in that we need to give to them, not the other way around. Which leads me to my third point...

We Tend to See Parenthood as an Act of Charity

When we decide to have children, we are either knowingly or unknowingly accepting a job. This is one of the hardest and most important jobs we will ever do, but it is a job nonetheless. We are entrusted, either by choice or by chance, with a small, innocent human being. Once we accept parenthood, we must do everything in our power to help that human being become a productive member of society. Yes, we MUST do this, it is not some sort of optional, charitable sacrifice. Biology, society and, quite frankly, the law, require us to care for our children. Our children do not owe us for this. Asking a child to bear some sort of debt to you for raising them is like expecting your employer to pay you extra just for showing up on time every morning. It is arrogant and selfish. Even if we did have some sort of choice as to whether or not to raise our children, there would be no way our child ever COULD repay such a debt. All such a burden on a child does is trap them in an emotional sinkhole of feeling unworthy of their parents' love. When those parents die, those children will forever feel as if they weren't able to repay their parents well enough. Parental love should be unconditional. It has nothing to do with worthiness, nor should it. If a child grows up successfully, they should consider their successes payment enough for their parents. It is a sign that those parents did their duty in teaching the child how to make good choices. The parents should be satisfied with this and be able to let the child go. Obviously, these things are easier said than done. We need to start by realizing that our children are individuals. They are not our enemies, nor our crosses to bear. They are not burdens and they are not vessels for which to inject our values. We have a responsibility to them as the wiser, more mature ones. Those who need their kids to validate them probably are not ready to have kids. Full stop.

We Don't Laugh or Forgive Often Enough

Everyone screws up. Absolutely everyone. When living with family members, we are going to be involved in or witness a lot of screw ups. One thing I learned in Russia was that a sense of humor often helps lighten the mood when something goes wrong and makes us realize that whatever happened isn't the end of the world. Yet all too often, we take ourselves too seriously and become offended when we're on the victim end of the screw up. Sometimes, we choose to hold grudges that last for years. My grandma and grandpa on my mom's side got a divorce after my grandpa's issues with his mother overwhelmed him and caused him to make some stupid decisions. To this day, my grandma cannot forgive him. She lives her life in the hole she dug by living in the past and not letting go. It's a very lonely and unhappy situation for her. Forgiveness is hard, but it pays off in the end. But you knew that, right?

We Freak Out About the Wrong Damn Things

I cannot say this enough. We are so spoiled in this country that we have the luxury of worrying about things that really do not matter. I repeat the point I made in my post about gay marriage. Why on earth should we care who is marrying whom when there are so many worse things?? In the course of the conversation I had last night, my friend stated that, if there was a huge destructive pandemic that forced the world into a legitimate state of emergency, everyone would have to be a conservative because we wouldn't have the money for government programs or abortion on demand. I was floored. If there was a world-wide emergency, I would hope that no one would CARE either way about any of these things. They are so incredibly petty in the big scheme of things and yet we let them dominate our minds to the point where we ostracize people who don't share our views on them. This tears apart not only our friendships, but our families. I have relatives that I know nothing about because two generations back, a protestant married a catholic and both families shunned the couple. To an objective, rationally thinking person, this is utterly ridiculous. Both people were Christians! They followed the same religion! Yet a petty little difference of denomination caused a feud. A happy family life was denied these people simply because their family members couldn't get past their prejudices. My mom has a tendency to literally cry over spilled milk. All my grandma has to do is knock something over and my mom will start yelling. Is this reaction really necessary? Of course not. But we tend to not question our thoughts and beliefs. We tend to just let our emotions run wild. We all too often to this to the detriment of ourselves and others.

What is my point? My point is that families are not perfect and never will be. Still, by putting in a little effort and critical thinking, we can enjoy beneficial relationships with our relatives, close and far. Of course, creating such relationships involves giving of ourselves without the expectation of payment. This is difficult, but usually worth it.

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