“As a Family”

A family is a place for fighting, even if no one is fighting at the moment.

Yet like so many other families these days, mine is–at least in principle–denied this natural indulgence, as it has been scattered over different countries and continents for the better part of my life. This has meant that my family had to rely on short holidays and the long summer months to gather together under one roof — “to be together as a family,” and these gatherings ought, therefore, to run as smoothly as possible. (An impossibility if there ever was one, but an ideal we jointly aspire to.)

Our arrangement, like that of many other families no doubt, also means that inter-family alliances, animosities and dependencies shift with the passing of the seasons depending on where each one of us is: at times, I regularly found myself closer to my mother, later on to my father, here and there to a sibling, and so on and the same with the others; like clockwork, each year passed against the background of these inter-familial manoeuvrings, relying on the coming together and the coming apart of its components to persist.

Predictability in these shifting appearances notwithstanding, whenever we were all assembled, each time would be entirely different from the last; the younger siblings would always have grown up dramatically, the parents would have aged gradually; my brother married and had a child; even the home itself underwent changes: extra rooms, a larger garden, more or fewer pets. In a word, as with all iteration, difference goaded the cycle.

It was this difference that provided the friction against which I ultimately did my most earnest growing up, that is, with regard to my capacity to be a part of the family (contrary to common opinion, not everyone is born with this capacity), and to finally contribute to the ideal of familial peace.

You see, I always came to these gatherings with a peculiar mix of emotion and anticipation, each time unique, each time constitutive of yet also predetermined by what would play out in the coming days and weeks. Reflecting on these annual alchemical transformations (in me and in relation to the rest) brings to light an important strand in my maturation, a maturation which, in this case, entailed a return (of sorts) to origin.

When I was young, it was always dread, annoyance and a keen desire to leave that characterised my attitude toward family. Various factors had come together to cause me simply to abhor being in their presence; as a result, I would find all manner of excuse to stay away, to remain glum and non-communicative, stubborn and rebellious. And my stubbornness only increased for a time, some summers I even refused to join them at all. At last the fever of my adolescence broke–at some summit, I know not which, but from it much yelling probably still echoes–and I began to approach family gatherings more willingly — with a willingness to be willing, in fact; and this turn came under two curiously mixed guises: on the one hand, that of the distant-yet-intrigued anthropologist; and, on the other, that of the guilty son.

(I think these came together as yet another peculiar mix of emotion and anticipation: my desire to please my parents was supported by the cold compromise of observation; no doubt, I had always observed, so the difference–the one that goaded this iteration–was my growing willingness to cooperate and please, repent and, well, to simply make my parents smile!)

At any rate, this all happened when I realised — and it was a realisation — that family is a place for fighting, a place of exposure and of over-exposure, and nothing besides; I realised that the love one has for and that one receives from their family is, for all its warmth and unconditionality, a largely annulling force (like the flash of a camera), one that you simply have to allow yourself to be cancelled by (hold still for) in order to take part in the advantages of having a family. Fighting is what comes when anyone fails to bend and kneel to this law.

To be part of a family, one cannot be there as themselves—lest they aim to be unfamiliar. It is for this reason that conversations do not actually occur amongst family members — despite the sharing of words; opinions are never appreciated — despite the excitement of expression. What one gets is the rattling off of formulaic phrases, very often the same ones, and a spreading intention (amongst functional families) not to disrupt the flow of these transmissions, a benign good will for common consent; to discuss an issue, therefore, is merely greet it and see it on its way — just as a family would greet a stranger drifting in a boat down the river their house was built on.

And it is not only about talk and personality. More often than not, the physical gathering together of a family’s members resembles the clacking of magnetised marbles: all manner of cause and mechanism pulls them together, but there is no reason for it, no good reason “to be together as a family.” What I mean is that the mutual love of a family is not something anyone needs to–or even wants to need to–justify; it merely exists, joining them together, as though each individual were a spherical mirror and as though reflection was in fact some substance, congealed and congealing, but dynamic and suitably flexible.

This is the sense of that odd word “living room.”

After all, the sign of a happy family is always mutual disregard and polite affection, the steady flow of nonsense and the eating of much food in between. I think this is what Tolstoy meant when he said that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

You see, families are alike in having shed each of its members’ differences, in having dulled their more sharply defined (sometimes even physical) aspects––which in many cases fails and this is when families fight and feud, slam doors and fall silent: the reflective substance grows dim and the spheres, each in a room, spin on themselves more slowly, each unhappy in its own way.

All this can be reframed in terms of embarrassment.

For the most part, people fall on either side of this question: do you feel embarrassed before members of your family, or do you not? For a very long (and perhaps a long time to come, though less dramatically as my efforts grow) my answer has been a resounding “Yes!”

The de-individualising flow of family life, however, serves to cancel this emotional response, and this is when families find their most natural state: full complacency. Bad habits and misinformation abound, everything is pardoned, nothing questioned. Don DeLillo captured this state of intellectual and habitual inertia when he wrote that “The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error.” His meaning here is that the developed family comes together most coherently as a semi-permeable bubble. The world impinges but leaves no mark untouched by the wilful distortion of a family’s inner dynamics.

To resist this intellectually deflationary pose is to be embarrassed by it, but it is also a sure way to instigate tension and frustration. If some worldly phenomenon makes its way to our doorstep and there is discord in how to handle its reception (often I was the source of this discord), the spheres send out signals of distress causing their mutual reflection to well up older such signals; the result is a heaving of great resentment, and the entire system of mutual definition teeters on the edge of oblivion, nearly everyone’s worth and value within that system is jeopardised — all while the thing to be thought about steps back and away from the foray.

All this can be avoided if embarrassment is quelled. This is because a family can reinterpret anything as anything and let it be on its way.

It is the sad truth that families, as a whole, cannot be educated, that they must simply remain a bastion of misinformation––but this is fine, and not only fine, but necessary.

You see, growing up, I failed to realise that family life is the background against which I ought to find my own ways to grow: it is not, and never can be, the target of improvement. Each member of a family is the same. Everyone is a whole person, individually separate. It is only within the confines of the family that boundaries are blurred and laziness abounds. And much as vacation is a yearning for what might be a final state, it really is a temporary reversion to an original state, one that you would do best to extract yourself from when the time is right, lest it devolve into the chaos of familiarity.

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