Intriguing that the word “family” comes from the Latin word familia referring to “a household of slaves or servants.” It is a decidedly NOT sentimental way to think of your relatives. But, oddly enough, it’s the perfect metaphor.
Whether we are born into family bonds or we choose them, the heartbeat of healthy family is the constancy and faithfulness in said bonds. These are bonds of obligation and duty. These bonds are observed in times of warm communion and in times of conflict or estrangement. While family bonds often contain sentiment and deep affection, the bonds of family are, finally, independent of particular feelings in any given moment. And while the bonds of healthy family consistently yield happiness, these same bonds are observed nonetheless when happiness is absent.
So, in a sense, you could say a family bond enslaves us in service to that bond. Imagine: if you were not related to your family as family, would you have Thanksgiving dinner with those people on purpose? That rhetorical question reveals the crux of family bond. It’s not like friendship. We celebrate holidays and birthdays with these people because they are family. We are tied to them. Enslaved, as it were.
Still don’t like the metaphor? If you are a parent, think about your expectations of your children regarding family events. When your 11 year-old complains that he’d rather stay home and play video games than go to the assisted care facility to visit grandpa, you tell him he’s going anyway. You “enslave” him to his duty to be present and observant of family ties because that is what family does. He’s your grandpa. You’re going.
Even if, tragically, we find it necessary to sever a family relationship, we find it’s not all that easy to “un-enslave” ourselves. Certainly we can stop calling, stop visiting, etc., yet years later we still feel the psychological weight of the bond. It’s one thing to decide never to speak to your brother again; it’s another thing to stop being a sibling.
So, in healthy family we are tied. Obliged. In healthy family, love is a bond, not necessarily a sentiment. When family ‘works,’ it is the petri dish in which children learn fundamental attributes of human character: loyalty, fidelity, service, sacrifice, interdependence, charity, duty, work, respect.
Healthy families observe traditions. In my family, for example, it would be unusual for you to sleep late on your birthday. Because we start a birthday morning by playing the song Birthday by The Beatles. Really, really loud. The Birthday celebrant comes groping out of the bedroom annoyed, irritated … and loved.
In healthy families, people tease. They do caricatures of one another. They satirized themselves and each other. They play practical jokes. I’m convinced these practices help us not to take ourselves too seriously. They turn irritating foibles and idiosyncrasies into playfulness, warmth, and humility. They ‘vent’ energies that might otherwise lead to resentment or conflict. Oh sure, now and again someone missteps. Teasing crosses the fine line from playfulness to hurt feelings. But, in healthy families that’s easily mended. A few brief words of accountability, reaffirmed boundaries, and things are back to normal.
In healthy families, people interrupt a lot. You might think of this as a bad thing, but it’s not. It’s more a sign of the welcome, ease, and freedom everyone has to be themselves. If the interrupting gets out of hand, it’s easy enough to say, “Let me finish ….,” and people adjust their enthusiasm in service to respectful listening.
In healthy families, respect is the most important rule. Common courtesy. Observance of privacy. Regard for personal property and personal space. Anger is welcome and expected, but never derision, humiliation, or profaning. When respect fails, healthy families practice a consistent accountability in service to relationships being mended. Or, as I always said to my children, “First you gotta fix the relationship.”
The nuclear family. The extended family. The traditional family. The family-of-origin. The single-parent family. The family-of-choice. In our modern day, there are many constellations of family. And, while blood is generally thicker than water, most people eventually “enslave” themselves to family bonds that have nothing to do with blood, and everything to do with joy, respect, and constancy in each other’s lives.
My youngest son, Joseph, was 8 when he was playing with a new buddy, an only child. They were mediating a conflict over a video game. “Jonah, I don’t think you understand about brothers,” Joseph says, shaking his head. “Sometimes I like my brothers, and sometimes I don’t, but they are still my brothers.”
Ah, family. Joseph gets it.
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)