Family and the Nation

I have 4 brothers and 1 sister. As long as I can remember people have found it interesting that the 6 of us are all so different. I was always puzzled by the surprise of others. Why would anyone expect us to be the same?

No two of us have the same hair color. We have always had divergent interests. Our musical tastes had very little overlap growing up –
resulting in a household cacophony – metallica, billy joel, the indigo girls, my youngest brother practicing the piano, my mother’s “easy listening” and, if my dad was home and so inclined, Apocalypse Now on television with such volume that the house actually shook with the sound of the helicopters in the film. There was little point in complaining about the noise or arguing that we should all listen to the same music. We were 8 people in a 4 bedroom house with 1 (and sometimes 2) televisions, musical instruments, a stereo and many “boom boxes.” Instead we learned to balance our control over public space – taking turns with the stereo, for example. We also learned how to create private space in order to nurture our individual desires and interests. When he was young one of my brothers took over the shed and equipped it as a play space where he created imaginary stories and acted them out. I often commandeered the upstairs bathroom. The premise of my ownership of the space was bathing but really I wanted a quiet space to read uninterrupted. My older brother ran a phone line and set up the old commodore 64 so he could get online in the (unfinished) basement. Within the confines of our crowded home we all had our personal retreats but we also knew how to live together.

While folks remarked at how different we all were, I found that the thing I noticed about other families was the extent to which people did not get along. At our house we had our disagreements, to put it mildly. I can recall all kinds of screaming matches and even knock down and drag out fights among the 6 of us (although never all at once). For me those things were water under the bridge – the inevitable and occasional result of ongoing social relations among independent individuals. Understanding my siblings as complex people with whom I sometimes argued and other times enjoyed myself, there was no point in holding grudges. My sibs and I weren’t best friends either. Just as we had separate interests and tastes at home, out in the world we had our own friends and activities – with very limited overlap. Despite these facts, it never would have occurred to me to say, as many people do, “my siblings and I don’t get along” or “We aren’t friends” or “I don’t really like him/her” or “We don’t talk.” I felt close to my family. In many ways we were different but we shared so much, too – experiences, traditions, everyday practices that characterized our particular household. For me, the comfort of family meant the certainty of co-presence and the particular mutual acceptance it requires and shared history that it creates. Mostly It just felt nice to be together living our own lives under the same roof. That was what I missed most when I moved out on my own, the comfort of the presence of others and feeling deeply accepted in that effortless kind of way.

Something else that characterized our family for as long as I can remember is the tradition of active debate and discussion that accompanied the crush of diverse ideas, interests and goals we all had. We didn’t spend our dinners chatting about the weather or how people did on their math test that day. Instead we shared ideas, new things we had learned, practical and philosophical questions and controversies we had encountered. Which Star Wars movies was the best? Is Marxism really evil or was it just that the USSR had repressive leadership? Why does Ozzy kill animals and does buying his albums condone the behavior? Sometimes we stumbled upon debates accidentally and at other times we chose them. I would be dishonest not to include the fact that these discussions sometimes led to heated tempers and even instances in which people stormed away in anger because their views were not adequately heard or validated. All the same, we always recovered and such discussions were a family staple.

I remember the first time that it was not OK to have the discussion. I am not even sure what the topic was but I suspect it had something to do with religion. At some point in the conversation one of the growing number of fiancees, fiances and in-laws that the 6 of us were accumulating left the room. The brother attached to her said, “I think we should stop talking now. Some people are not comfortable with this kind of conversation.” Over the next few years similar experiences and the growing discomfort among some of us with the diversity of perspectives in the group led to the demise of our long-time practice of family debate. An eery emptiness has replaced the open, if sometimes difficult, negotiation of goals, philosophies and ideas. The upshot is that my siblings (and father) and I continue to see and engage the world differently but within the public space of our family those differences stopped being acceptable to acknowledge, to test against the ideas of others, and to negotiate in the interests of forming compromise. Nowadays those differences are taken as a sign of trouble – a threat to others, evidence that someone has become “lost,”, etc. Instead of comfort and acceptance in the presence of my family I have to come to feel silenced and judged – as if I am in the presence of people who choose to see in my words and my life choices all the ways in which I have not done what they would have me do instead of seeing all the ways that I continue to become who I will be and pursue my own goals.

I’m sharing all of this because in my way of looking at it (and I’m sure my siblings could share a different view on everything I’ve written here) the way my family has fallen into pieces is not so different from the social devolution of this nation. In both cases I miss a time when we placed our emphasis on sharing the same roof instead of ruling the roost, when we had morally-nuanced views that allowed us to understand each other as complex people capable of the best and the worst, and when the application of god, political philosophy and moral action to real life situations were topics of heated discussion instead of nonnegotiable justifications, sound bites used to rally support, or code words indicating the boundaries of social belonging.

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