Merriam-Webster lists eight distinct definitions for “family”, and five of the eight relate specifically to people. It’s not a simple concept in denotative terms, but there’s a recognizable connotation in each. Whether we’re talking about “a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head” (definition 1) or “a unit of a crime syndicate (as the Mafia) operating within a geographical area” (definition 2), there’s always something shared between members of a family.
For me, family is something a little tricky.
Normally, people think of families as people bound by blood. Well, to a degree. Technically, we’re all related by blood if you look far enough, but we like to consider blood family to be those nearest our branches of the broader family tree of humanity. Blood, they say, is thicker than water.
Blood alone rarely defines the modern family.
Historically, most families of blood were well-defined by clear lines. Today, divorce, remarriage, and absentee parents frequently leave lineage ambiguous. I have to stop and think to count my siblings, mentally listing parents’ past marriages and so on. I think the count is between six and eight, but it would depend on how you’re defining them. I only share blood with four of them.
Historically, most families of blood remained in geographic proximity. Today, we disperse all over the world. One pair of my siblings live within an hour of each other, but the rest of us are dispersed all over the United States (though most of us are scattered in the south).
Historically, most families of blood kept in contact regularly. They lived lives together. Today, we often interact only briefly through social media. I have three siblings that I haven’t spoken to in over ten years, and not due to any anger or rift. We just live different lives.
Blood alone rarely defines the modern family.
Mostly, today’s “family” is recognizable by a shared bond that extends beyond blood itself. To be clear, this is nothing new. We see the Bible constantly depicting families that are bigger than blood. The very institution of marriage is designed to create family bonds stronger than blood. And adoption is a process through which one binds to another as if there were blood. But there are other bonds that bind people together into what we today call family.
I love my family, but I’m not close to them.
In terms of intimacy, though, these sorts of bonds are not much more than small talk about the weather. They’re environmental or secondhand. They’re nostalgia. Despite so many of this family (including the “blood” family) knowing me for so many years, not one of them knows me better than any Facebook friend.
These bonds are remarkably strong despite that. I feel an obligation to help this family anytime I can. Yet despite the undeniable loyalty I feel, there’s very little substance to what is shared.
Some bonds, they say, are thicker than blood. If so, I don’t find them here. I love my family, but I’m not close to them.
A Longing to Share
As you can tell, I am not terribly close to my extended family. My parents are distant and generally disconnected from their own families. That’s part of the problem.
But part of it is due to the schisms I’ve experienced and witnessed in the past. Blood has stolen from me. Blood has sexually assaulted me. Blood has manipulated me. Blood has kidnapped me. Blood has betrayed me. Blood has raped me. Blood has deceived me.
A family is supposed to be a place of comfort, a solace you seek when facing the trials of life. For me, the traditional family is a pool of shattered glass I must swim through to remain afloat rather than sinking to the depths of bitterness, unforgiveness, and rage.
Yet there is still a longing inside me to have something more than I have. I want to share with someone. I long for intimacy, to be completely known and vulnerable, and still loved and accepted. I want someone who can hug me and let me be me. For this sort of trust, intimacy, and safety, I find blood, or even near-blood extended family, useless.
I lack anything resembling such things within my traditional family. I know I’m hardly the only person in such a position.
What I’m really looking for is someone who can live a life proximal to my own, in complete vulnerability to one another, in platonic bond. I believe this is simply because of the utter lack in my own family.
To a degree, I find such things in my relationship with God. But God does not console me with the physical touch I crave. And as a finite mind, I can only know Him so well. So far in life, I’ve proven incapable of being the sort of super-spiritual juggernaut that can live solely on the warmth of His love. Can I be that honest?
To a degree, I find such things in my marriage. But my relationship with Clara is complicated by everything that produces our marriage (sexuality, history, and my responsibilities to her). I’d not hesitate to call her my best friend, but we’ve never done platonic well.
To a degree, I could find such things in my relationship with my children. But that’s not healthy for a number of reasons. Maybe when they’re grown, I’ll find that kind of intimacy there. But I can’t every need so much as a hug from my children.
To a degree, I find such things scattered among my “spiritual family” from the church. Yet like my traditional family, very few of them have more than a cursory understanding of me. Those few around whom I’ve opened up have only seen glimpses related to particular issues for accountability or the like. None of it is intimate, though, and it always includes some degree of judgment (in large part because they don’t always agree with my theology or ideals). In a spiritual sense, these are my brothers and sisters, but these terms are more an acknowledgment of our shared Father than a depiction of an authentic relationship.
I long for more.
Thankfully, God knew about my needs. He’s good like that.
…there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
– Proverbs 18:24
I have, on rare occasion, encountered individuals who have allowed me to be open and real and returned the favor, only to find enough commonality for us to safely share at a deeper level, and to trust to dive even deeper.
These people have gained insights into who I am and remained condemnation-free.
These people have helped lift me from the low places and ground me in the high places.
These people have opened themselves to me in vulnerability and entrusted me with parts of themselves almost no one ever sees.
I’m comfortable sharing every aspect of my life with them.
These people are my family. Far more so, at least, than any other blood or bond outside my home.
Unfortunately, some live too far away to share much. But for the rare individuals whose lives are proximal to my own, there’s a level of intimacy I treasure.
I’m energized, satisfied, and fulfilled by any chance to truly share my life with them. It’s something like what I imagine between David and Jonathan, Anne Shirley and Diana Berry, or Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy.
Often they rub me the wrong way. Often we don’t see eye to eye. And often I’m reminded that for all our commonality, we can differ in pivotal ways. But there remains a trusting authenticity that that leaves me comfortable sharing every aspect of my life with them. In fact, it feels unnatural when I hold something back. If I lived in a commune with these people, I wouldn’t complain.
When someone wonders if I have brothers or sisters, I know what they’re asking; I tell them of my siblings. When I wonder if I have brothers or sisters, it is this small group of my closest friends that comes to mind.
This is one area where Clara and I differ. And this can create challenges.
Her family is no closer to perfect than my own, but she’s so close to them. I’m continually amazed at how she can develop and maintain these relationships with her extended family. She gets emotionally recharged by spending time with many of them, and she still enjoys what she does share with the rest. Her relationship with her family, despite the usual familial obstacles, flourishes.
When she sees my lack of depth in my family relationships, it baffles her. Sometimes, I get the feeling it even offends her a little. Objectively, she gets it, but it doesn’t make sense to her intuitively. And she doesn’t have doubts that family bonds outside the family are necessary, valid, or possible (though to be fair, much of her reservation is informed by my past poor choices).
My desire to find such trusting intimacy has led me to pursue it in unhealthy ways. I’ve had conversations that became inappropriate for the relationship. I’ve shared hugs that made people feel uncomfortable (or worse). I’ve even confused this sort of desire for other desires, leading into an affair.
Clara’s hesitation is not unjustified. I’ve come to recognize the wisdom in her restraint the hard way. But I believe the problems I’ve created are more an indictment of my carelessness than an indictment of intimacy.
She and I are at least in agreement with one thing. Our kids will never have to wonder. We’re certainly not producing a perfect childhood for them, but they’ll grow up with a family that is always close, always authentic, and always accepting. Our home will be a safe space for them.
Our kids will never have to look for family. It’ll be right here.
Everyone needs family. Everyone needs a safe place. We should all be that safe place for someone.
Originally posted 2017-04-24 08:00:00.