Thursday, March 17, 2016

We Are All Family

When I was growing up, I thought that other people had unusual families. I would see people who didn’t get together very often, didn’t have each other’s backs, or didn’t do so many of the things that I took for granted, and just assume that there was something missing from their lives. I still believe they are missing something, but I have learned as I got older that it was my family who were unusual. Those with the missing pieces are apparently far more common. Mind you, I’ll take my unusual family over the more common sort in this comparison any day of the week, but you can’t correct a problem without addressing it as it is. My family is weird, but I don’t believe they should be, not because they shouldn’t be how they are, but because how they are shouldn’t be weird.

My grandmother passed away with no will. My grandfather had passed many years earlier, and their home was now empty, with a lifetime of accumulation to assess and no clear direction for how to go about doing so. The local members of my family came together, cleaned up the home one last time, and proceeded to share out the property with each other based on who needed or had special interest in what. There were no fights or arguments that I recall, just family helping family and taking care of what needed to be done. “You guys have a new baby coming, so you need this bed.” “You have a special memory with this table, so you should take it.” That sort of thing was how it all went, and then final arrangements were made for the house, and we all helped each other to move on.

At around the same time, I knew someone else whose grandmother passed away. In that case, the grandmother had also been guardian of minor children because their mother had passed away a few years earlier and their father was unavailable in another country. An uncle “inherited” the situation (I never did learn if that was a legal inheritance or just someone “stepping in and taking charge” as these things sometimes happen), and things went downhill from there. The person I knew, who was legally an adult by a matter of days, was put out on the street and the minor children were put into an orphanage. The very idea blew my mind. I couldn’t even wrap my head around the idea of turning away family like that.

That second example is probably quite a bit more extreme than most people will ever encounter, but it illustrates the idea I’m trying to get across. There is a popular children’s movie that says, “Family means nobody gets left behind,” but there are far too many families in modern society who don’t actually live that way. They leave people behind on a regular basis, and think nothing of it. They don’t answer for it when called out on this behavior, because they don’t get called out on this behavior. Too many of the people around them believe and behave in the exact same way.

If we won’t even take care of our family, though, what chance do we have for taking care of anything else? Family is right there. It’s up close, immediate, and personal. You can’t ignore it without doing so on purpose. Taking care of family is how we learn to take care of anything else.

Think about it. Like most things in life, we learn in stages, and the stages grow as we grow. The infant wants everything, and has no concept of there being anything other than me, what I want, what removes what I want, and what provides what I want. It’s a simple equation of for me or against me, with no shades of grey. As you get older, you learn about sharing. You learn how to make distinctions between what’s mine, what might be mine with the right conditions, and what is not mine. As you take it a step further, mine evolves into ours, and possibilities open up like a flower in bloom.

In the same way, the first person you learn to look after is yourself. You’re not very efficient about it, but you are very direct. You scream, you cry, you throw your bottle on the floor. One way or another, you make certain that attention is focused on getting what you need. You get older, maybe you have a little brother, and you learn about taking care of someone close to you. Watching out for each other, you can watch together. You begin the valuable process of learning that there are legitimate needs outside of yourself, and you learn how to apply that knowledge to people around you. As you get older still, that circle gets larger, and you learn about more complex social interactions, about larger groups of people working together and helping each other, but it all began with what you learned as a family. Without that beginning step, the bigger picture is so much more difficult to see.

If family means that nobody gets left behind, aren’t we all family? Contrary to popular expressions, after all, it’s not a rat race. You can’t actually get ahead by leaving others behind, not in the long run anyway. No one is an island, and no one can do it all alone. The more we all work together, the further forward we can go, so it behooves each of us if all of us are going forward together.

Am I my brother’s keeper? No, but I can be my brother’s friend, my brother’s helper, and, quite simply, my brother’s brother. I love my family, even when we don’t always agree. Sometimes we don’t even get along. Everyone goes through those times, especially when you’re fighting your way up and out of the teenage years - Those can be horrible! - but family is family, and family means nobody gets left behind. When push comes to shove, you’re there, even if you’re grumbling through gritted teeth while you’re there. I learned that from my family, and, through my family, I learned how to apply the idea to the world at large. We don’t have to always agree or get along, but we are all family. When push comes to shove, we need to remember that, and help each other to move forward.

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