Years ago when I was going through a bad time, my father said something simple that has stayed with me: “Don’t forget. We’re all in this together.” It was a simple statement about the power of family and the longing we all have to feel that connection of family.
Beyond having a built-in support system for troubled times, family gives us also a sense of belonging and connection. It can give us a sense of home. Not just physical home but emotional and spiritual home.
The connections of family also give us the sense of connection that comes with our history. The stories that our grandparents tell are also our stories. But that comment points us in another direction. I never knew my grandmothers and both my grandfathers were dead by the time I was 7. So I did not have that particular sense of connection that crosses generations.
Too many wounded ones have had a negative even traumatic family experience. Instead of sharing, stories, and laughter, their memories of family are of drunkenness or violence or neglect. Like Newt at the end of Lonesome Dove, when asked about family, some will say “I have no family”.
And yet the longing remains. Some of us seek out family connections in other ways. We may make connections that fill some of our needs for family. I was able to meet some of my longing for a grandparent through a much loved aunt and uncle. Others have at least partially met the need for a loving parent through a grandparent, other relative, even a teacher or coach. Those raised as an only child meet their longing for a sibling through friendships or relationships with extended family members.
Others find their longing for family met in part through membership. Some years ago I met with a veteran who was very happy to learn I too am a veteran. I clarified for him that I am not a combat veteran. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re a brother.”
Some of those memberships, though, can be harmful. Some try to find family through gangs. Others may be pulled into cults where the promise of family is the lure. Indeed one cult is known as the Children of God but also as The Family. Still others may find themselves staying in harmful relationships with the hope that eventually healing will happen and a sense of family will be established.
We can nurture and enrich that sense of family by first of all staying in touch. When I moved away from home, I called my parents every other week. Now, with four children living far away, I can’t wait to touch base with them each week and so wish I’d been more attentive to my own parents.
We can try to honestly heal any wounds or resentments that may put a breach between family members. I was a not an easy person to have as a brother and so have tried to heal my relationship with my own brother enough so that I can be there for him during this current time of illness.
We can reach out to others to meet some familial needs. I definitely have a sense of a grandparent’s love when I think of my aunt’s peanut butter cookies or my uncle’s wonderful stories of life as a fireman.
Finally take the time to do a little ancestry research. I remember being at a museum for emigrants in Ireland and seeing a replica of one of the ships that carried emigrants to America. My ancestors would have travelled on such ships. I was deeply moved as I reflected on the suffering they went through on those ships, the uncertainty that awaited them, and the struggles to make a new life for themselves and their families., struggles which, just two generations later, would benefit me. If you have older family members, take the time to listen to their stories and even to record those stories. After all, their story is your story.
The sense of the power of story, connection, and family was captured beautifully by Alex Haley’s Roots as well as by the subsequent two television specials dramatizing that story. This excerpt reflects the end of his journey when he located the African village from which his ancestor Kunta Kinte was from. There are two parts of this excerpt that especially move me. At one point, a villager speaks to Alex Haley (played by the great actor James Earl Jones) and says (through a translator): “We are you and you are us.” Later Haley has an encounter with another African man. The emotion felt when Haley realizes he has found family is powerful.
Reflection: Take some time to reflect on your own sense of family in positive and negative ways. How does this affect your sense of who you are?