The Gratitude Challenge’s twenty-fifth topic is “Family”.
The term family is an interesting one. People might relate it with feelings of security, nostalgia, happy gatherings and reunions, traditions and a sense of belonging; or with stress, disappointment, or even abuse. Sometimes even both.
If the negative is predominant, people might be referring to their friends as their “chosen” family. This obviously extends the understanding of “family” beyond genetic connection. Especially if you never felt like belonging to your very own family, finding this essential feeling with others sounds like a reasonable choice.
It is great to find people where you feel loved and safe, if your family could not give you this. The question is just if friendly ties are really as durable as family ties. I would argue that by walking away and finding “another family” – while brave – will not free us from all negative impact we might have previously experienced.
I saw several times how people escaped discomfort or conflict by simply blocking their “friends” online and disappearing from one day to the other. While this raises questions about how maturely the “ghoster” is able to handle such situations in first place, I would also argue that they would not just as easily cut ties with their family, even if the relationship there might be more troublesome.
It goes even further; people might end their relationship with friends or partners if their family does not approve. The other way round is most likely much less common.
Growing up, our parents and direct family are the only reference points we have, no matter how toxic, it is our definition of “normal”. These very early learnings are difficult to unlearn. We might not even be aware of being under their influence, but even if we have such awareness, it is very difficult to abandon certain behaviors and beliefs.
If we are used to a rollercoaster of feelings, used to being on one’s guard as a situation could flip to conflict in any given moment, we carry these behaviors and thoughts over to our adult relationships. Even if a family does not provide any kind of security in the traditional sense, it can still provide the security of “the known” – we are used to it, we know how to survive in it. We might even get hooked on the adrenaline and get bored if a relationship is too calm.
I find humans so interesting: Many times, we would rather remain in an obviously unhealthy situation because at least we know how it is and the insecurity of change and not knowing how it would be is too scary.
So, we stay in situations that take a toll on our mental and physical health and find other ways to escape or to zone out when it’s getting too much.
Stephen West talks in Episode 177 of his podcast Philosophize this! about how people nowadays experience moments rather through their phone screens than being fully present:
If we step outside the perspective of the modern person for a second, why would the visual simplified commemoration of the moment ever be more important to you then the full experience of the moment in the present?
There are certainly many explanations for this but one of them is that you are a member of a cult of nostalgia. The focal point of your life is on commemorating the past as opposed to changing the present. Your memories are more important to you than your dreams.
In the most extreme cases, the collection of pictures on someone’s phone becomes not a collection of moments that were fully lived, but a collection of moments that they almost lived. That were tragically cut short by the fixation they had to commemorate it, because the picture of the moment is what legitimized it to them. You could say that the technology of the picture or video enables you to have a false sense of familiarity with the past events of your life. We focus on remembering things rather than doing things.Stephen West in his podcast “Philosophize this!“, episode 177, minute 25 onwards
While there is certainly a lot of truth to this, I think in some instances this approach actually helps us to cope with situations that in the moment were overwhelming – or would have been, if we had fully experienced them. But by zoning out – at least partly – and seeing things through our phone we gain distance. At the same time, coming back to a recording, we might gradually replace feelings of tension, pain, and sadness with a feeling of nostalgia, romanticizing the good old time. It might not be the healthiest way if coping with a difficult family situation, but it probably works quite well on some occasions.
I think “moments that were almost lived” can also be taken in more abstract terms, namely in finding mental and emotional distance. We might try to actively distance ourselves whenever we feel discomfort or triggered. We resort to shutting down feelings and becoming cold – because if we “don’t have” feelings, we also cannot get hurt. Of course, any emotional burden we might have remains untouched in such a scenario and will continue to pull us down in the future.
It sadly is also a self-reinforcing pattern because others won’t come too close if we ourselves are subconsciously remaining at a certain distance, not fully opening ourselves up – and then feeling more alone as a consequence.
This is not irreversible though. As we start to acknowledge and understand our wounds, we can start the process of healing. We can learn to dare opening ourselves up to others and that closeness is more than just the risk of getting hurt. And as we start transforming, also the experience of our relationships changing for the better can start a self-reinforcing – but this time a positive one.
Yujun Wang, one of my favorite Taiwanese artists, many times finds the right words in her songs – also for the situation at hand. In her song 假面游行 (jiâmiàn yóuxíng; mask parade) she bases her lyrics on a text by poet 吳俞萱 (Wú Yúxuan):
Translated to English, we get:
It wasn’t until they turned and walked away, that I finally quietly said: Forgive my never opening up, nor revealing myself in language. Just pretend that I’ve been sick all these years.
While we cannot change others, we can change the dynamic with others by changing ourselves. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to transform and to be the director of my own life. I’m also grateful for witnessing the self-reinforcing nature of positively changing relationships – including family – by changing myself, opening up to others and daring to decrease distance, to let guards down.