A New Definition of Family

If you wish to align yourself with a mindset that no one will dispute and most will acclaim, proclaim yourself a paragon of “family values.” Earn a reputation as a “family man.” Put “family” before self. Found a right-wing Christian political bribery machine and call it “Focus on the Family.” Do whatever it is you want to do with your life, but remind everyone that whatever it is you do with your life it’s all about the family.

Repeat the word. Family. Say it clearly and often. Family.

Is there anything better? Is there any concept more sacrosanct? Ah, how we love our children and how we love our parents. They’re more important than anyone or anything in the universe.

Family: the folks we can trust and love, celebrate and forgive, rescue and remember, support and adore and abide. Family is the greatest.

Except when it’s not. Like during the end-of-the-year holidays, when many of us spend extended periods of time with family, because that’s what one does during the holidays: spend time with family. During these bouts of intense commingling, many of us are reminded (as we are annually) that certain members of our family are boring, or mean, or passive-aggressive, or brazenly unintelligent, or whatever. They’re the kind of people we assiduously avoid in our usual interactions yet seek out during “special” times of year. After all, they’re family!

Imagine a three-day weekend you’re compelled to spend with a group of 30 people. Imagine that these folks are all related to you through marriage or childbirth, and, therefore, are not people you chose to be part of your life but people who were chosen for you. Let’s say you like some of these people. They share your sense of justice, they read literary novels, they think jazz is cool – they’re hip. But let’s say they represent a small minority of the 30, most of whom love country music, strongly dislike reading anything not written by Stephanie Meyer, and are deeply invested in the idea that banks should regulate themselves and poor people should just work harder.

What if you could replace those 24 or so people with whom you share a mutual incomprehension with 24 or so people you admire and respect, and who actually appreciate you and your ideas? What if you called the people with whom you share a genuine connection — a bond of mind, soul, or body – what if you called them your family? Now that would be a holiday congregation worth enduring the TSA for.

We’ll sacrifice much of our life for family and call it parenthood. We’ll find extraordinary reserves of generosity for those who fit under the family umbrella. For them we’ll do whatever it takes. Maybe our narrow definition of family is what excuses our inward-looking greed and callousness toward the travails of those who aren’t members of our family. Maybe our narrow definition of family is what has gotten us in trouble as a species, creating false divisions where there ought to be eternal harmony.

We need to broaden our terms and let more souls into our exclusive club.

Our society places tremendous importance on blood relations (even when there is none, as with legal marriage.) Why? Aren’t we all brothers and sisters, children of the same exploding star? If you were able to trace your genealogy back far enough, you’d discover that you really truly are a relative of every single person on the planet. Your family is much larger than you previously believed. Adam was your Daddy. And that guy you despise? Adam was his Daddy, too.

An obsession with the old-fashioned definition of family isn’t harmless. It’s at the root of some major harm. Family, the nuclear family, is what begot clans, which begot tribes, which begot kingdoms, which begot nation states, which begot an interminable slaughterfest based on the erroneous assumption that our enemies are The Other, when, in fact, they’re an alternative version of us. It’s so much easier to kill someone when she’s not related to you.

Hello, brother. Hello, sister. Welcome to my family. It’s big, and mostly happy.

3 comments to A New Definition of Family

  • Chris Zambon

    Yes! We went to a small gathering of our musical family this week. All had different thoughts and ideas and there was arguing too, but the bond was there, the family. We are starting the new year with family as a priority.

  • Greenjazz

    I like having different “family” categories – musical, mom’s side, dad’s side. I am planning to explore more of a broader “family” term this year which will include those who interest me and inspire me. Thanks!

  • Mel

    very well put Michael, I get it. I just hope majority of the readers will ‘get it’ but based on the first comment , it will be an uphill battle….

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