The Essence Of Family

Three siblings find three very different families for themselves,
but there is unity in their diversity

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 11
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Families come in all shapes and sizes. What do they have in common? Vicki Robin – a member of the U.V. ("Ultimate Vehicle") Family, guest editor of Issue #10 on relationships – explores this question with respect to the very different family paths she and her two siblings have taken.

The U.V. Family is also the force behind the New Road Map Foundation, which markets Joe Dominguez’ cassette course "Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence" and uses the proceeds to support a variety of sustainability-minded projects. Contact them at 5557 38th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98105.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the breakdown of the family unit. More and more people are identifying themselves as adult children of dysfunctional families. It’s the disease of the 80s. Yet I see breakdown as an opportunity for breakthrough. Once the pieces from the old patterns are broken apart, there’s a chance to rearrange them – and possibly for the better.

My own disjointed family is a case in point. My brother, sister and I have each found a different solution to the fact that we spent most of our lives without parents. Our mother and father (not "Mom" and "Dad"), both busy and emotionally remote professionals, died years ago. So my brother married into a family. My sister joined a family. And I have created one.

When my brother John got married 15 years ago, he not only wedded a wife but a large, tight clan. In various combinations they do holidays, weekends and vacations together. He’s become a real family man in the traditional sense, from being a home handyman to a civic-minded citizen to an active temple member – the whole nine yards. He belongs. And he loves it. While families like these are less plentiful these days, for those who want them, they do exist.

My sister stumbled into her family – literally. When she’d fallen down drunk that one time too many, she heeded a friend’s pleas and went to Alcoholics Anonymous. There, for the first time in her life, she found kinship. She found people who understood her because they’d been there themselves, who accepted her unconditionally and who loyally supported her on her road to recovery. I had the privilege of attending her 2nd anniversary of belonging to AA. From the podium in front of a hundred people, she told the truth about her family life (which was also my family life), the psychic toll it had taken on her and the painful journey into selfhood she’d undertaken thanks to AA. Support groups these days are indeed families for many, many people recovering from all manner of spiritual, psychological and physical afflictions.

What I’ve done is evolve a family. Twenty years ago three other people and I banded together to seek an alternative to the old road map of competition and separation. We have grown to a local family of 11 and an extended family of several dozen. While there are no membership applications for this "chosen" family, and we have no need to expand, we are making the foundation of our family so sound and so universal that anyone could feel at home. Indeed, we are striving to live as members in good standing of that ultimate family – humanity.

These are three very different forms of the same idea. What then is the essence of "family"?

Family is unconditional acceptance. In the natural (biological) family, your membership starts with your first howl, automatically. There’s nothing you have to do first. You’re family "just ‘cuz." The same is perfectly true of the human family: membership is mandatory. It’s a given. Even hermits are part of Us.

Family is unity in diversity. Or sometimes unity in spite of diversity. Somehow, family unites the salesman and the seeker and the sage and the sot and binds them for life. Somehow each such motley crew must find at least a hillock of common ground where they can meet. For Christmas this year, after a friendly debate between the environmentalists and the traditionalists over "to tree or not to tree," we decided to suspend all customs and have each person express the spirit of Christmas in whatever way was meaningful to them. We ended up with readings, chanting, fewer gifts, more symbolic offerings to one another, a small tree that supported a worthy cause, a caroling trip around the neighborhood, two turkeys (that we agreed on) and a long reflection at the end of the day on what it all meant. We were amazed to discover that each one of us had experienced the perfect Christmas. While each one had a different connotation for the word – from deeply mystical to profoundly mundane – the day worked for all of us. Unity is sometimes enhanced by diversity.

Ideally, family is that place where we can be at home. We can loosen our tie, kick off our shoes and relax. "Out there" is the struggle for position and power and money. "Out there" is the world of hypocrisy. But this doesn’t mean that within the family we forego good behavior. In fact, family is where we learn good behavior; courtesy is particularly important in confined spaces. And this is equally true of the human family, at home on our shared planet. It’s just Us, so we can breathe easy. At the same time, it’s all Us, here together on planet Earth, and we need to be aware of how we impact one another.

Family is lifelong connectedness and accountability. For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, family is the place where we are always connected. And because of that, family is where we are always accountable. While we may hope that forgiveness will soften the pain, family is where we must live with our own and each other’s mistakes. Bad marriages, failed businesses, careless destruction of property or life – all these are family matters. In family we can’t escape these things by moving away or declaring bankruptcy. We live till we die in the beds we make every day. So family is where we learn to be responsible, to put away our toys, clean up our messes, curb our violence and express our love. Family is where we learn the lessons of karma.

Finally, family is empowerment. It is not only a place to go home to, it’s a place to come from, out into the world. From our first day of school to our first job to our many productive roles in the community and the world, family is that group that says "go for it, you can do it!" Family is where we are believed in, nurtured, scolded, prodded – all towards making us the best possible people we can be. It’s the job of the family to turn out contributing human beings.

Acceptance, belonging, connectedness, unity in diversity, responsibility, at-homeness, and empowerment – these are the essence of family. My sister, brother and I have each fashioned our own versions of that, none of which reflect the family we were raised in. And we as a human family are charged with expanding to encompass these very same essences. Perhaps, then, the reported breakdown of the nuclear family is really a golden opportunity to see beyond the form of blood relations to this essence of "familyness."

Beyond the "crisis in the family" and the plague of "dysfunctional families," there is also emerging a sweet discovery of what family is all about. As much as we may wish it were different, it’s now up to us as individuals to evolve/create the family we’ve always wanted. And ultimately, it will be as the human family that we will realize our shared dream of peace on earth.

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