Vaughan Meneses reflects on what it means to be family in a climate where the word is bandied around to both describe our community and shut it out of mainstream society.
When I think of my family, I think of Carole King’s song “Tapestry”. “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue, an ever changing vision of the ever changing view. A wondrous woven magic of bits of blue and gold, a tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.”
Superficially it is easy to say that family is about the genetic connections we have with others and the people that are connected to them, but many of us consider people to be family without genetic entanglement or legal association. Often pets are family too and any attempts to genetically connect with them would be somewhat disturbing. The concepts of whanau and whakapapa can help expand our notions of family, as in Maori culture and society the essence of tangata whenua is that we are all connected with the land and with each other. I like that.
But should we care about family at all? Why should one set of people be more important to me than another? It seems we need ‘family’ to have a sense of place, to draw a sense of identity and to keep us safe. Is it not sad that we can’t get a sense of place by looking out the window, or develop an identity by being mindful of how we move in the world; and that we see danger at every corner and feel the need of protection? Do we need someone telling us what our family should look like or who should be in it? Should the ties that bind us be knotted by someone else? Do I need an old story book to tell me what a family should look like or do I need a government to define who the important people in my life are?
When I hear the phrase “family values” it usually comes from someone who has a sense of superiority or entitlement. The family I have is neither constructed by genetics nor choice; it is a gigantic accidental melange of character and diversity.
The values of my family are not shared by all its members, we don’t have the same goals, we don’t all think alike and we never all agree. We are always all right and we are always all wrong. My values tell me that as part of my family you will get the respect you earn and I expect the same in return. If you are sad I will try to cheer you up, if you are hurt I will try to fix you. If I am wrong I will say sorry. If I don’t like what you do I will tell you; if you are destroying things I value I will fight you. If what you do makes me happy, I will laugh. We can both be right at the same time; we can also both be wrong. Sometimes what I do is awesome and what you do sucks. Sometimes I fail spectacularly and you succeed beyond belief. If I can give you what you need, I will. But I apply these values to all of my relationships; I don’t change them for family.
As a society we have a propensity to arrange ourselves in military-styled hierarchical combat units and we call these units ‘families’. It is through the family that we develop tribal affiliations and fight for causes that we believe will elevate or maintain our positions. Indeed so much family activity is not about healthy relationships, nurturing environments or humanistic values. It is about a primal competition for resources, being better than others, hierarchy and survival of the fastest, fittest and most resourced. It is where we learn the notion of relative justice, where the seeds of unfairness are sown and the sense of entitlement developed.
The fabulist Aesop said “United we stand, divided we fall”. We do not learn the art of fighting in the military; we learn it from our notions of family. There is one simple inescapable fact: when we see a society divided, we end up with a war. So-called “family values” are not something to which we should aspire, to my mind they are by their very nature the fundamental flaw of humanity.
Do I believe that we will eschew these values and build a society where we ‘all just get along’? No, not for a minute. And therein lies the paradox, it is because we are human that we exhibit humanity. Family is both the foundation upon which we build our lives and the sand upon which we try to build our castles. The other tides of humanity take care of the rest.
Cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower are all part of the same family, perhaps it is time that we stopped behaving like vegetables and started sowing our garden in a different way, we may reap better rewards. Yet, I will still hold up my flag and wave it for rainbow families, not because I really believe that families are the way forward, but because I too am human and don’t want to be thought of as anything less.
| Vaughan Meneses