One does not need to be a coach, counselor or therapist to recognize the essential nature that family plays in the formation and progress of the evolving concept of self. For many, if not most, people in this culture, these holiday times of the year in particular bring to the forefront of consciousness the undeniable ambivalences that are included in and part and parcel of belonging, or not belonging, to a family.
We want to be happy with our families; we want our families to be happy with us. Or perhaps we wish to forget and escape our families and we want to be happy in our “new” families of choice or of evolution… or we want to be satisfied without family whatsoever. The potential for, and the occurrence of, real feelings of joy and/or abandonment can exist side by side, in varying degrees of comfort in individuals, in families and, really, in larger human communities as a whole.
In fact, our great gift and miracle of individuation requires that each of us occupy a different point along this continuum. Perhaps this is a major way indivuation is visited upon us, the members of a species that depends, in many very essential ways, upon the individuation of its members for its long term survival. Our families, good, bad and everything in between, are indispensable to the species’ requirements for its continued and evolving life on the planet. The reason you hate your father then, say, is, in this way, irreplaceable to how you contribute to the community and evolution of humanity.
So, our peace inside or outside of our family roles, or our lack of that peace and everything in between (in any number of infinite combinations) is irrevocably attached to our contributions to humanity’s survival. It could be said that to go through life without considering this basic fact, or to choose to remain in denial of it, is a major reason that powerful world figures can turn destructive in horrendous and deeply malfeasant ways… it is how they threaten our survival on the planet. Conscious or unconscious choice to remain ignorant of how we fit in, and with, is ultimately fatal on every level imaginable.
In this culture, as informed and defined as it is by western, post-pantheist, Judeo-Christian traditions, habits, and norms, we come into and leave these major solstice holiday seasons reaffirmed and re-informed in our various levels of ambivalence, however readjusted or re-confirmed, or dashed and transformed, and then we take them into the next year. We, perhaps literally and almost certainly symbolically, go back to the place where we were born, or we powerfully reject that place (or both). Once more we recognize or regret (or again, both) who we are, who we have been, and who we wish to be or become, or what we wish to shed about all of it.
That this annual revisit to the place of “home”… that inner and outer location of the central themes in our relationship to our craving for a balance of essential autonomy and intimacy… happens during the dimmest part of the year, at least in the northern hemisphere, almost necessarily connotes that it lives in a kind of a semi-conscious place of change between real and dream time. A time of difficult weather outside. A time, in evolutionary terms, that urges us to sleep more. A time of reflection, or perhaps a time of powerful avoidance. A time of escape to a place of reality and/or where we project our hopes, wants, loss, pre-verbal loves and wounds and rage.
This is, for all intents and purposes, the time of year when we are, if you’ll excuse the allusion to primitive Christianism, born again; when our concept of self can be reaffirmed, rejoiced in and welcomed again, or rejected, beaten up, transformed and evolved… or all of the above and everything in between in any number of mutations and combinations.
Where does each of us set our “meter” along the continuum between one endpoint of joy, unquestionable acceptance and belonging and, at the other endpoint, feelings of abandonment and loss or even success as we disconnect ourselves from attachment and damaging negative family patterns? How do we accomplish this re-calibration? Can we avoid the worst of the pain? Can we be loved, be lovable, while we question or challenge or change our roles?
If we are all gears in the machine of our family, how do we polish and repair our individual gear without crashing the whole machine? Is it possible to make important changes in our position in the overall workings without being blamed or accused of being the reason the machine sputters and clanks and terrifyingly threatens to self-destruct?
And why is it that some of us seem, even if we have long ago excised our individual gear from the malfunction of the workings of our particular family, to only be able to fit into other groupings in a way similar to the way we fit into our original family? Where we recognized the machine had terrible problems in the first place? Or why does our family-of-origin machine insist on trying to fit us into the same spot where we once unhappily turned, no matter how our teeth, fittings, rate of rotation and torque, have been readjusted, refitted, deepened and sharpened? How did that damn machine keep turning even while I thought I was NOT there? Can’t they see I’ve changed?
These are all questions to start change with or to recognize it from… but so many of them are asked out of places of pain and grief. How do we FIX that? And there are so many questions, aren’t there?
For those of us lucky enough to come out of, or to have created, families in which the comfort level with how the gears turn is high and generally conscious, and any maintenance is treated as the necessary work of love and belonging to an essentially meaningful structure of life, perhaps these questions feel less devastating at their core. We have built our families around the idea and practice that the questions must be asked for us and our family group to successfully manage the way forward… even if the answers are not easily forthcoming and are loaded with the kinds of sometimes painful ambivalences that are undeniable and ever present in our need to live in intimacy with others and at the same time stay in authentic autonomy.
For those of us who have some inner sight, but come from families in which family machine maintenance is fraught with fears from unconsciously grown and cultivated structures, the monsters of the darkness of what has been forgotten in shame and prejudice, denied or powerfully misplaced, these questions are at the core of our life’s greatest heartbreaks, suffering, neuroses and even the propensity for serious mental illness.
Belonging is not a choice. Intimate belonging is a core need. It is, at the very least, a foundation block or keystone of self concept and identity, and at the most, it is nothing less than what we live for.
For an extreme example, and at the heart of the United States’ present government’s currently officially condoned practice of torture, is the methodical, practiced, way in which the tortured person is stripped of belonging. Out of that violently induced terror of complete isolation from others lays the strength of torture as well as its great weakness and failure: a person stripped and terrorized out of every icon of belonging will admit to almost anything in order to be allowed to return to “the family”. In reverse, at the heart of the most successful, truly democratic, structures of government, in countries with the highest rates of quality-of-life satisfaction on the planet, is a demonstrated effort towards the ideal of equality, the idea that all belong… equally. That every voice is essential to the collective voice. That every one deserves to belong and is welcomed, in spite or because of, the crucial nature of how they are different. That each member’s basic needs should be equally addressed and filled and that each person deserves that measure of inclusion, simply because they are alive.
To require that one “earn” the ability to have needs addressed that are basic to life, beyond merely being present and alive as a living being, is in itself exclusionary, unequal. It necessitates that one member or subgroup of the “family” have ultimate control over the definition of what any other member must do, be, or contribute in order to be included and granted the rewards of belonging… that one gear or a few gears in charge of those defining characteristics are somehow more important, more equal, to the machine’s function… in spite of the fact that those who are determined to be less equal must, of course, remain in place for the machine to continue running, regardless of how much or little of value they are considered to contribute, or how ignorant the other ‘gears’ may choose to remain about the inherent and essential nature of that contribution.
These dynamics play out from top to bottom, in micro and macro systems of group and family functioning. They are, as well, inter-related and indivisible from one another all along the entire length of the continuum. To insist that a cultural acceptance of, say, spousal subservience from women in families, is not in many and varied ways reflected devastatingly in the larger social systems of reward, affirmation and inclusion may be powerfully demonstrated as a source of some of the greatest levels of societal unrest and subjugation, even if it is denied to be a major impediment to an evolving democratization in any society. Thomas Jefferson, and his peers who made family out of African slaves and then at the same time denied their legitimacy and claimed them less human, may be reasonably said to be largely responsible for the painful legacy of the failures of their own experiment in democracy and its repeated quagmires of failures, scandals as well as for the stubborn virulent vitality of one sector of “the family's” repeated and sometimes successful attempts to repeal basic political structures they inherited that evolved to protect true expressions of Jeffersonian spirit and its natural inclination to reach and sustain an apogee of social structures built on the idea of in-born equality.
In my work with families it was always interesting to me how a large proportion of people greeted me, almost literally at their doors, with the statement “We have a dysfunctional family”. It was so common, as a matter of fact, that I grew to expect it and soon included in most introductory visits a statement that went something like “I don’t believe in dysfunctional families. While I believe in individual and truly dysfunctional acts, I believe that the overall patterns and processes that create feelings of dysfunction in family members can and do contain the tools, scales and indicators that a family and the individuals in it use to survive… in the world and with one another”. (Well, perhaps I was a bit less wordy than that… but you get the idea.) “So lets talk about how your family functions, not how it fails to function…”
Of course, the families I worked with for many years were in the midst of a system crisis that was represented by one of the members’ dying and death: another catalyst to individual and family re-recognition of interactional patterns even more powerful than the annual family-based holiday. The anticipation and actual death of a family member necessarily requires that family members be confronted with how the gears of the machine of their family turn. This is an uneasy proposition at best, and potentially terrifying, depending on the nature of the role and calibration of the wheel that is soon to be absent, at least in the physical realm.
Beyond the almost immediate deflation of anxiety my statement about dysfunction created, and the way that it often successfully set the stage for authentic and useful interaction and problem-solving in family groups that were already shocked and reeling from the anticipation of, and/or coping with, great losses, it was, I believe, an honest and invaluable reflection of what is true about how families work as opposed to how they do not work.
If we were able to work toward the discovery of, and ultimately use, how the family works, as opposed to reinforcing the already self-flagellating attitudes with which the pop psych culture has saddled us regarding family function, we would be well on the way toward building a way to cope successfully with what feels like, and may very well be, an event or process that is life-threatening to the inner and/or outer structures that the family and each of its members have inherited and/or painstakingly constructed and maintained for generations; for good or bad or both. This might even be a tool or set of tools the family can rely on for the future, in other family challenges, losses, transformations and recalibrations.
We needn’t tear down a fine old department store in order to replace it with what may essentially be a pole barn. We can preserve what has potential and what works and find ways to revise function and form and go into the future. We can preserve the weight bearing walls and central gears, the fine irreplaceable stories in the woodwork and sound moving materials of love, desire and the essential need to be attached; the history of victories and familial heroism and unity in times of need, and the irreplaceable artistry in the fixtures and craft.
We can maintain what is familiar and important to our understandings of where we have been in order to go into a future that does not deny its pains and struggles and errors, but celebrates them side by side with successes and brilliance and the sources and journey of our right to love and be loved, what we need to save and what we need to revise, what we need to honor and let go of; the physical rendering of the miracles of individuation, our hopes for ourselves and those who will be born from and after us in the coming generations… our contributions to the greater family in our community, our country, our planet and our little place in a universe that is, on the whole, a puzzle made up of an infinite number of essential pieces… of which we are all at the same time the most important one.